By John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
“Up,” the 2009 animated film from Walt Disney/Pixar studios, can be appreciated for many reasons, one being its portrayal of the realities of human grief. I recommend it, especially for those who have lost a family member to death.
As the movie opens we meet Carl Fredricksen, an adventurous boy who quickly becomes fast friends with Ellie, a young girl who shares his adventurous spirit. Childhood sweethearts, they eventually marry. Their dreams of having children together turn suddenly to sadness when they come face to face with the reality of infertility. They remain childless through many years of marriage, as they share another dream—to go and live near a beautiful waterfall in South America that is pictured in her scrapbook, kept since childhood.
Sharing the slogan that their “Adventure is out there,” the two live happily in an old house that they restore together. But their happiness together, and their dreams of the future, are interrupted when Ellie becomes ill and dies, leaving Carl alone, depressed, disillusioned, and embittered. His grief is compounded by the fact that the little house that had become their castle is soon surrounded by tall buildings and he is being pressured to sell the house to developers, abandon this place filled with so many memories of Ellie, and move into a retirement home.
This first part of the story is poignantly told in only a few minute’s time and viewers who have experienced loss through infertility, miscarriage or sudden separation from a partner of many years will identify with the grief that is authentically portrayed in this brief opening segment.
But what happens next invites us to reflect on how we handle grief stemming from the death of a loved one as days stretch into years. In Carl’s case he seems to feel that the only way he can honor and affirm the love he has lost, and to overcome his grief, is to take their house, filled with mementoes and memories of Ellie and take it out of the changing city and to the falls in South America.
How he arranges to do this is fun and quite fantastic, but this is an animated movie and therefore all things are possible! Carl attaches thousands of colored balloons to the chimney of the house, enough to lift it off of its foundation and up into the sky. Then he sets a course for South America. To his great surprise he discovers that he is not alone on this voyage. A somewhat annoying young boy scout named Russell whom he had earlier sent on a “snipe hunt” is found clinging to the front porch as the house rises up into the air.
Although Carl thinks he would rather be alone on his journey of grief and now hope he is gradually drawn out of his isolation because he is forced to build some kind of working relationship with his new travel partner.
By puncturing some of the balloons the two are able to land the house within sight of the waterfall in South America but still several miles away. And in their attempt to get to the waterfall by foot they run into many obstacles that are important to the whole story, but not directly relevant to the point I want to make here about grief.
The point I want to make about Carl’s grief is that he is helped to move through his grief by allowing himself to be drawn into a new future that doesn’t depend on Ellie’s being at his side. In fact at one point near the end of the movie he picks up her scrapbook and discovers added pictures in which Ellie has documented their most recent life together. On the last page he discovers a note from Ellie that says thanks for the adventure, Carl; now go and have a new one on your own!
Those who view the movie will discover all that is involved in Carl’s adventure that follows. But for the purposes of this article on grief, it is enough to say that Carl is able to get the house off the ground again and land it next to the waterfall by removing from the house much of the furniture and other memorabilia that represent his ties to Ellie, but are still weighing him down. And eventually he is able to let go of the house itself.
But the best part of Carl’s adventure is that he and Russell return home and Carl finds a new life as Russell’s surrogate grandparent. Message: there is life beyond grief! And, after we reach the bottom of our grief, and begin to let go of the regrets, resentments and sorrows that weigh us down, the only way, and the promised way, is always “UP”!