September 6, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
“There is probably more folklore emanating from mortals’ response to dying and death than any other human experience.”
D. L. Ashliman is correct on this point. But when I went on an Internet hunt for folktales about grief – storyteller Katie Knutson and I are performing at a Lantern Lighting Ceremony at Lakewood Cemetery later this month – I found it difficult to separate the stories about grief from the stories with other themes. Themes like:
- Attempts to trick death (my favorite being Godfather Death, which I believe I may put a different spin on one day); or
- Why you shouldn’t kill old people (I am tired of the wooden bowl and half-a-blanket stories, so here is a different reason); or
- Widows in short-lived mourning, for whom there are a fascinating variety of outcomes.
A Lantern Lighting Ceremony is not really about grief.
Healing from grief is clearly one aspect of it, but the focus is on relationships and remembrance. It derives from a Japanese custom, Tōrō nagashi, that many people associate with expressions of communal grief over events like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact this is a longstanding ritual honoring ancestral spirits.
Katie will be doing the folktales anyway.
My portion is the material about plots and persons of historical interest – which is at least another post. All the same, the hunt itself was interesting, and I would like to do more posts related to myth, folk, and fairy tales. Particularly since a couple of lovely ladies I met on Twitter, Dee Dee Chainey and Willow C. Winsham, have started a sharing meme for folklore on Thursdays, and I’ve enjoyed hanging out there. Read about it here and here.
Traditional material is not the primary focus of my creative work, but it is an important underpinning. I hope to do a post worthy of #FolkloreThursday on a regular basis, even if it’s just a summary of the good stuff I find there.
Here, then, are five folktales about grief.
Let me make it clear from the beginning that I do not like them all. Nor do I believe they are all helpful. I do, however, find them interesting. Click the headers for links to the texts.
Not the Christian parable, but the Buddhist one. Though in some ways it seems harsh to Western ears, it is essentially a story about how we are all connected by death. If you want an idea of what I think is a harsh story about grief that I would never choose to tell, it is the next.
Grief counselor Megan Devine complains about this story, which “makes rounds through the grief world.” She dislikes the implication that “everyone grieves, therefore your grief is not special.” While I get that, what really bothers me is that the husband’s approach to preparing his wife for his revelation of their son’s death seems downright cruel. I realize that was not the point of the story in its cultural context, but I still dislike it. It interests me that two stories which such similar bones could affect me in such very different ways.
There are a number of variations of this story – my link is to the Grimm’s version – and it might feel sentimental to some. However, for some reason peculiar to myself, it reminds me of a very unsentimental passage in Annie Dillard’s The Living, in which one pioneer woman who has lost two children attempts to rouse another out of depression after a similar tragedy:
“Minta,” she said from the depths of her bonnet, “Hugh has not been going to school, and when he’s here you don’t see him, bless his heart, and with the help of God you must stir yourself. For you have a child still living.”
Doing something for the love of a child when you are too depressed for any other motivation to take hold – this is redemptive. This I understand.
Charlotte Blake Alston tells this Senegalese story, found in David Holt and Bill Mooney’s More Ready-to-Tell-Tales from Around the World, about a girl who survives the death of her entire village. I expected the tale to tell me more about grief and survivor guilt than it did; its focus is on valuing diversity. But Charlotte incorporates an understanding of loss into how community is created and how song becomes possible for all.
A Hindu tale, this story of a sister who lost her twin posits that night came into being to create a way to mark the passage of time, which allows us to heal from grief. I have to say that the mythology around Yama and Yami is very complex; nowhere could I find an image which illustrated the story. But I do find these images fascinating. Perhaps you will too.
If you have a folk or fairy tale that you think is helpful in dealing with grief please share it here. If you have told it in such a context, how did this go?