Disney has a lot of dead parents–as I’m sure you guys probably know–but most of their films don’t take time to deal with what the loss of a parent truly means to the protagonist. One of the few that does is The Lion King. While its portrayal isn’t perfection, Simba does go through the five main stages of grief after his father’s death. Today, I’m going to show the stages Simba cycles through while grieving his father, and how it affects him and his journey.
For clarification, the five stages of grief are:
Denial essentially means denying that the death has occurred, or imagining another (happier) alternative. Death can be a really hard reality for people to accept at first, and Simba is no exception to this. When he finds Mufasa’s body in the aftermath of the stampede, he’s in shock. His eyes widen. He walks around Mufasa, taking in his closed eyes and lack of movement. This is when denial – stage 1 – sets in. Maybe he’s sleeping, Simba thinks. His eyes are closed. He’s lying down. Therefore, sleep is a better (less depressing) alternative. “Dad?” he asks. “Dad, come on, you gotta get up.”
Despite his nudging and prodding, Mufasa doesn’t move, and when Simba runs to call for help – and gets no answer – his denial begins to fade. Maybe he’s not sleeping. Maybe his dad won’t wake up.
But even though he’s realized his dad is dead, Simba wants to stay in denial a little longer. It’s understandable: he’s alone, he’s scared. There’s no one here to help him. He crawls under his dad’s am and closes his eyes, pretending for a few minutes that everything is okay.
But it’s not.
Before we move onto stage 2, I want to talk about something important that shapes Simba’ perspective of his father’s death: guilt. Shortly after this horrible sad moment, Scar shows up and proceeds to blame Simba for Mufasa’s death. Which, okay, this is a horrible thing to do to a child. Simba’s shaken up, and traumatized, which isn’t surprising, considering he almost got run over in a stampede, and THEN found his father’s dead body. Now he has an adult figure he trusts – his UNCLE for that matter – telling him that the death is his fault:
“But the king is dead. If it weren’t for you, he’d still be alive.”
Just look at this face. This is a horrible face of sadness and realization and pain. This is the opposite of denial. Simba is in a super fragile state here, guys. His denial stage has just ended, and now he’s forced to run for his life out of fear and guilt. It’s no wonder then that Simba hides from his former life, and doesn’t confront it – or his grief – until Nala appears. Which leads us to stage two: anger.
When Nala confronts Simba about his absence, we get into everything Simba has been denying for a huge chunk of his existence. With no reminders of his past – and his “Hakuna Matata” mantra to fall back on (“there ain’t no worries for the rest of your days”) – Simba has pushed away any thoughts/feelings about his father. Now, Nala’s presence forces him to deal with the grief and anger he’s been holding inside: anger about losing his father, and more importantly, anger toward himself, and how he blames himself for this.
I found how The Lion King deals with anger to be really interesting, because a lot of Simba’s anger is internalized. It’s been held back, festering into self-loathing and resentment. We see signs of it earlier, when Nala first appears and Simba is denying his role as king. Here, it resurfaces as Nala urges him to come home.
“I can’t go back,” Simba insists, because going back means facing his grief, and his guilt and anger over his dad’s death. But it’s not until Nala brings up that this is his responsibility (thus, he can’t avoid it any longer) that he really gets mad and goes on the defensive:
Simba: “Well what about you, you left?”
Nala: “I left to find help! And I found you. Don’t you understand? You’re our only hope.”
Now, what’s really great about this one line is how much Simba’s expression/emotions fluxuate before he says it. He looks down (angry and resentful) he rolls his eyes (frustration), and then he firmly averts his gaze. Anger as a stage of grief is a lot about frustration. It brings up questions like: “Why did this happen to me?” “Who’s at fault?” “Why did this happen?” These are things Simba has been trying to avoid dealing with, and now Nala telling him that his home has gotten even worse makes him angry and forces him to deal with the consequences of his actions.
And when Nala tells him she’s disappointed, Simba scowls and tells him that “[she’s] starting to act like his father.” Now we get to the real reason Simba is mad at Nala. It’s not about her – it’s about Mufasa. Mufasa is dead; he isn’t here for Simba to be angry with. So instead, he takes his anger at his father out on Nala, who at moment reminds him of Mufasa, and is actually here for him to yell at.
This is especially clear later, after Simba runs away. “You said you’d always be there for me,” he yells at the sky. “But you’re not.” Simba is angry that his father left him. And in that moment, his anger fades and we deal with stages 3 and 4: bargaining and depression.
3-4. Bargaining & Depression
Here, bargaining and depression go hand in hand. Once Simba’s shouting ends, he looks down and says, “It’s me. It’s my fault.” That’s his angst talking. He’s mourning his father. Sullenness and sadness are big parts of the depression stage, and Simba displays these in full here.
Rafaki kind of interrupts the depression stage with all of his cryptic yammering, and his insinuation that Mufasa is alive gets Simba moving again, and distracts him from stage 4. When he ends up by the water and looks down, you can see the tentative hope – and fear – that his father will be there. But all he sees is his own grief reflected back at him. He’s slipping back in that depression until Rafiki reminds him: “he lives in you.” And thus, Simba finally sees his father again.
I think this is actually one of the most beautiful moments in the movie. Earlier in the movie, Mufasa tells us that great kings look down on them from the stars. Now, we see Mufasa (a great king) looking down on his son.
Mufasa tells Simba to remember who he is: “You are my son, and the one true king.” He also reminds Simba that he is more than he has become. Now, if you take this from what Rafiki said, Mufasa is a part of Simba, so in this way, Simba carries a part of his father with him. Thus, he can talk to Mufasa, and here, Mufasa can talk back. It’s similar to how people can talk to their loved ones after they die, even if they’re not physically here to talk back. Believing in an afterlife means believing that life lives on after death, and that’s kind of what Rafiki is getting at. It’s not the same as them being here physically though, thus Simba’s panic when Mufasa leaves.
Simba isn’t ready. He doesn’t want to lose his father again. Here bargaining comes in – he’s pleading with his father to stay. But Mufasa doesn’t stay. And now, Simba needs to go off and do what needs to be done. That action leads into acceptance.
I think there are two big moments of acceptance in The Lion King. One is when Simba realizes the truth: that Scar killed his father.
This allows Simba to let go of the anger and resentment he feels toward himself, and move on. A lot of what held Simba back from dealing well with his loss was the guilt he felt for his part in it. Until he let go of that, he couldn’t fully cope with. After he does – and after Scar isn’t terrorizing everyone – we get our second moment of acceptance at the end:
This is such a great scene. We get all this cool symbolism. There’s the rain extinguishing the fire and replenishing the land, which symbolizes rebirth. And there’s also Simba’s acceptance of his rightful place as king, and his father’s death. Acceptance is about embracing life, and the future, and moving on from the loss. Simba does exactly that when he climbs Pride Rock and gives that roar. “Remember,” we hear Mufasa say, but unlike before, he doesn’t appear. This goes with Rafiki’s statement that Mufasa lives in him. At the end, Simba accepts that his father will always be with him, both in spirit and in memory. We even get a glimpse of the future – and a refrain of “Circle of Life” – to show that life goes on. Thus, the cycle of grief is wrapped up nicely, and although Mufasa is gone, he will never be forgotten.
Do you think The Lion King tackled grief well? Let us know what you think in the comments!