by Christel Lukoff
Little did I know that for me this was going to be the beginning of a new professional path into hospice work and a passionate plunge into the role of a storyteller when during a walk on a sunny fall day about 8 years ago my close friend, Jade, who had just been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, told me: ” I don’t want to spend the whole day talking about cancer and let my illness crowd out everything else. I want to be reminded of my aliveness.” Well, I had just come back from one of my storytelling mornings at my children’s’ kindergarten class and felt quite alive with the laughter and energy of a bunch of 5 year olds… so I shared with her one of the kindergarten stories of bear catching the moon. This story opened a window to our own imagination and creativity and we started a creative endeavor of mutual storytelling where we would give each other 3 words and on the spot come up with a story incorporating them.
Months later, as Jade’s illness took its toll and she was recuperating from surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, she became more and more the listener and I became the teller. There were many times she asked me: “Can you tell me a story ?” and I did. It was at this point that I began to look for folktales that could speak to her situation of illness and death, healing and hope. Often, the images of the stories and the hypnotic tone of my voice were deeply comforting. Jade would close her eyes, simply drift in and out of the stories, find herself transported into the world of childhood, magic and wonder, and seemingly enter another state of consciousness. Sometimes, Jade commented on the images of the stories and identified with its characters: for instance the seal maiden who had to tear herself away from the topside world and her loved ones to return to her true origins at the bottom of the sea. It is in the world beneath where she finds healing and transformation. Some folktales engaged our minds: a story about a Nepalese woodcutter who after his death is presented with the choice to be reborn in any of a myriad of different forms, places and ages, started a dialogue about our own beliefs about what happens after death. Other stories, like the many trickster tales in which death gets trapped in a hollowed out tree trunk (Nepal), is stuck in a plumtree (France) or gets drunk and outsmarted by a Norwegian lad, made us laugh. These stories taught us about the healing power of humor and helped buffer against fears and worry. Finding a way to share not only tears of loss but also tears of laughter brought us closer together and diminished the separation between Jade being the patient and me being the caregiver. Whether the stories engaged our minds, touched our souls or evoked tears of loss and laughter, the collective wisdom of folktales from different cultures and times helped us find meaning and connect us to a sacred space away from the reality and sterility of the hospital room.\
For me as the teller, storytelling became a way to connect and be with my dying friend after all the caretaking had been addressed. It helped me channel my own fears and grief into a creative outlet which continues to this day, 7 years after my friend’s death, and keeps me forever connected to her. Since our initial walk, I have collected about 200 traditional folktales and myths that specifically address the themes of healing, death and grief. l was surprised to find how many folktales remind us of death’s presence in a matter of fact way: “And if they did not die, then they are still alive today” says the traditional ending of most German folktales. When personified in Western art and literature, death often appears as the Grim Reaper, a scary skeleton man reminiscent of the many Dances of Death images from the Middle Ages that served to shock people and remind them to repent their sins. In contrast to the Grim Reaper image, which seems deeply imprinted into our Western psyche, in many folktales, death appears as a beautiful and godlike young man (or woman in romantic languages), a benevolent caring elder, godparent or teacher and ally who accompanies us throughout our lives.
In the process of oral storytelling, the most idiosyncratic or personal aspects of a story are continuously being changed and edited, leaving us with the archetypal images and teachings that are still true for us today. The Brother Grimm version “Godfather Death “, a story that exists in many different cultures, is an example of a timeless teaching tale about death:
A father chooses death to become his son’s godparent n because death treats everyone the same, he takes the rich and he takes the pooralike.”As his godson grows up, Godfather Death promises to make out of his godson a great physician who knows that “there is a time to live and a time to die”. Death instructs the young physician that wherever he visits a patient “may it be in a great castle or in a liffle shack by the roadside”: “I will always be there”. Death continues: “When I am standing by the feet of the ill person, it is time foryou, the physician, to apply the healing herbs but when I am positioned by the head of the patient, it is your task to clearly and loudly announce that this person cannot be saved and will soon die. ”
It is at this point in time when hospice typically comes on board. The story goes on to reveal what happens when we try to trick death, -something modern medicine certainly attempts and often successfully achieves, but reminds us that ultimately “no one can cheat death and get away with it. ”
Stories are there to be told. Thus I have given storytelling presentations at various hospice organizations, workshops and conferences and continuously look for new stories and new audiences. And when, as one of the social workers for Hospice of Petaluma, l visit our hospice families, l often feel humbled and in awe of the great mysteries of life and death. l then remember the following teaching tale:
A Zen student approaches his master: “Master, what happens when we die?” The master answers: ” I don’t know. “But if you don’t know who would ? Aren’t you a master?” “Yes, ” the master replies, “I am a master, but not a dead one.”