Pixar's 'Onward' Showed Me There Is No 'Right' Way To Grieve

The children's movie tells a terribly sad and wonderful tale, with lessons on loss that everyone can learn from.
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo: Alamy images

The year I turned 30, I visited my uncle and aunt in California, where I perused a book from their bookshelf filled with pictures of my father. Though I possessed a similar book back home, I’d never really looked at those photos. I’d glanced at each sepia-tinged picture a few times without really thinking about the reality behind the two-dimensional images.

But in California, I saw those pictures, and the man they featured, for the first time. Before my dad died by suicide, his life was multidimensional and full of colour.

One evening during that trip, on my relatives’ rooftop, my aunt and I watched the sun disappear behind the Pacific Ocean, drinking sake and talking about my father. Things I hadn’t before known about him came to light.

We talked about the admirable type of person he was throughout his life — kind, protective, compassionate — despite his proclivity for getting into trouble. He was protective of people and would never stand by while someone was being bullied or taken advantage of.

But he had a knack for getting caught doing things that he wasn’t supposed to. His marriage to my mother had been punctuated by failed attempts at rehab. Although I’d always known he’d struggled with addiction and died by suicide, the conversation with my aunt revealed more than I’d ever realised about the complexities of his addictions, the other factors leading up to his death, and the calculated and labor-intensive method of demise that ended his life.

Before this sake-filled evening, I’d always thought of him as a sort of caricature possessing only a few qualities: He’d been a wonderful father, “one of the funniest people you could meet,” who had died when I was only 2 years old.

That night, as my new perception of him weighed on my mind, I dreamed that I almost got to meet him. But this fantasy abruptly ended when I realised my projection of him wasn’t real, that actually meeting him as I was then — a 30-year-old woman with a child of my own — was impossible.

On the way home to Colorado with my husband and son, my emotions overwhelmed me, and I pretended to peer out into the desert’s depths as I wiped tears from my cheeks.

Once we arrived, I didn’t feel better. I found myself crying randomly, drinking exorbitant amounts of sake all throughout the day, obsessing over photographs of my father, and surprising relatives by calling them up to aggressively elicit memories involving him. I repeatedly asked family members for the VHS recording of his wedding to my mom and of my first birthday, during which he made multiple appearances. Learning the tape was lost made me throw my fragile cellphone in anger; I might never hear his voice or see him in motion again.

My ability to work, sleep and find joy suffered greatly, and I was debilitated by all-consuming emotions. I felt sad that he left me and deprived me of his presence. Angry that he seemingly chose to. I also felt unworthy. Why had I not been enough to make him want to stay? I had an enormous yearning to know him.

Most of all, I felt scared that the emotional episode overtaking my life would never end, especially after I remained stuck on a roller coaster of feelings two months later.

Guilt also plagued me. Why, 28 years after his passing, was I just feeling his loss? Did I have any right to feel the way I did, given that I possessed no memories of the man?

Sometime during this emotional episode, I saw the 2020 animated film “Onward.” The Pixar movie features a teenage elf, Ian Lightfoot, whose father died of illness before he was born. On his 16th birthday, Ian discovers he can resurrect his father for 24 hours using magic. Unfortunately, his execution of the spell is imperfect, and only part of his father — the half with the man’s legs — comes back.

Ian and his older brother, Barley, know they can reattempt the spell to bring their father back fully, but the second try requires them to find a hidden gem. So, they go onward, commencing a quest with their father’s lower half.

As I watched the movie, I longed for Ian to be successful and meet his dad face to face. After all, I’d been yearning for my own father’s impossible reappearance. But surely it would have been irresponsible for the film’s writers to bring back Ian’s dad in the flesh. Since “Onward” is a children’s movie, wouldn’t this level of wish fulfilment give bereaved young viewers unrealistic expectations about death?

A poster for Pixar's "Onward."
A poster for Pixar's "Onward."

Although our circumstances were different, I felt I was Ian Lightfoot. The movie began with him learning previously unknown information about his father, which triggered a flurry of emotions and a strong yearning to meet the man. But Ian, who possessed the magical abilities to bring back his parent, quested onward. Meanwhile, I still felt stuck.

I would wonder, in time, if that “stuck” feeling was grief.

My experience didn’t seem to track with mainstream ideas about grief. Whatever I was feeling couldn’t be divided into neat, sequential phases. There was no clear timeline for my episode.

I later learned that the public’s conception of grief, based on the “five stages” model, is widely criticised and lacks empirical support. Many experts say this theory does more harm than good by making people believe their grief is abnormal if it doesn’t follow the proposed sequence or timeline. This one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t account for the multitude of factors that can affect the grieving experience, like age, attachment style, relationship to the deceased, and circumstances of death.

Was I feeling grief? Did Ian, my newfound avatar, also experience a sort of grief during his quest?

At the end of “Onward,” Ian and Barley succeed in finding the gem they need for their spell, but a menacing dragon arrives on scene. Ian makes an impossible decision, fighting the creature so his brother can see their father in full before the magic wears off. Barley, who was too scared to say goodbye to their dad in his final days, needs closure more than Ian does.

With his decision to forgo the reunion, Ian now appears to accept that his father will never be a fully embodied person to him. The man will only ever be a pair of legs, a picture on his corkboard, a voice on a tape recording. But Ian makes peace with that knowledge — realising, for the first time, that Barley has served as his father figure all along.

After letting the movie stew in my mind, I came to a similar conclusion: My own dad won’t ever be a fully formed person to me. His image will forever be relegated to those sepia-coloured pictures, the stories I heard, and the VHS I may never find.

Like Ian, I have come to see my life through a new lens. My focus has shifted from wondering what my father’s presence could have meant for me to understanding what his presence did mean for others. I have begun to view my relatives’ strengths, struggles, flaws and paternal qualities through an entirely new framework.

“Onward” is such a terribly sad and wonderful movie, made more authentic by the director’s childhood loss of his own father. Perhaps that’s why Ian’s journey feels a bit like a grief quest: It’s messy and full of unexpected turns. After all, there is no “right” way to grieve. As Ian and Barley both say, “On a quest, the clear path is never the right one.” Ian’s quest was all about making meaning from his father’s death; the path he took led to clarity.

Understanding more about grief now, I finally feel my grief was justified. Its existence meant I needed to make peace with my father’s loss and discover new meaning.

Moving onward, I did just that.