The movie, which was set in Madison, Pennsylvania in 1972, but filmed in Florida in 1990, follows the precocious hypochondriac Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) and her best friend Thomas J. Sennett (Macaulay Culkin) on a summer filled with milestones. Not only is the 11-year-old Vada quickly becoming a young woman, but her father finds new love with the make-up artist he hired at the funeral home (Jamie Lee Curtis) where he works. Vada must grapple with having a potential new step-mother, learning the facts of life, and developing a crush on her writing teacher, Mr. Bixler (Griffin Dunne). Then of course there’s the Big Thing—and if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading right this second. Gone? Good.
Vada also learns about death when Thomas J has an allergic reaction to bee stings. Turns out that even a girl who grew up in a funeral home, pranking boys with coffins, singing while her dad embalms bodies, isn’t prepared for her best friend’s death. Even a girl as well-acquainted with life’s tragedies as Vada can’t help but be stunned in the face of finding out that the small coffins in her dad’s shop really are for children and not for “very short people” as he claimed.
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In addition to being a sweet story of life’s big milestones, My Girl is also an introduction to some of life’s most painful events made palatable to young viewers. The film can serve as important gateway to a difficult topic, much like Bambi was for an earlier generation.
Here are a few to learn about life, death, and funerals from My Girl:
1. Death happens
The shocking death of the adorable, When asked about whether fans would be upset by his character’s death, the 11-year old Macaulay Culkin shrugged. "You live, you die," he told a reporter at McCalls. "This is what kids should learn. People die, including their heroes." It’s an important, if difficult lesson and if you’re looking for tips, this step-by-step guide to talking to kids about death from Parents magazine is helpful.
2. Talking to kids about death is important
The movie is undoubtedly heartbreaking, but it can help children understand the circle of life. To make sure that the film was appropriate for children, the studio screened the film for child psychologists, who deemed the film not only appropriate, but possibly helpful, too. The press kit for the movie included “six pages of testimonials” from child psychologists assuring parents it was appropriate for kids, and could even help families have important conversations about life and death. While the topic may be upsetting for you, most experts agree that children simply don’t have the same response as adults and instead take their cues
3. Kids should have a choice about whether to attend a funeral
In the film, Vada is not ready to say goodbye to Thomas J. and opted not to attend the funeral. However, because the ceremony was in her own home, when she was ready, she was able to say farewell on her own terms (and deliver one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the entire movie). While not every kid is emotionally able to handle a funeral, the experts seem to agree that giving them the option is important. As the grief experts at the Dougy Center note, “children who are not allowed to attend a funeral may feel they didn’t get their chance to say goodbye. On the other hand, children who were forced to attend a funeral may feel resentful. Children should not be criticized if they don’t want to attend the funeral. They may regret the decisions they make, but they won’t have the added issue of resentment for not being allowed to make their own choice.”
5. The pain does lessen with time
By the end of the film, Vada has endured the worse loss of her young life and come out on the other side to carry on. As she says in the poem she read to her writing workshop months after she lost her best friend, Thomas J will always live on in her heart—and that will have to be enough. For resources about childhood grief, the experts head to The Dougy Center where they have some tips.