By Christel Lukoff
In contemporary Western society, awareness of death is usually missing from our daily lives and consciousness. Folktales and myths from around the world remind us that death is as much a part of life as the night is part of the day. “And if they did not die, then they are still alive today” goes the traditional ending of most German folktales in a matter of fact way.
Stories about death and dying helped both myself and a close friend, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, find comfort and acceptance in the midst of crisis and fear. One day, my friend told me how she felt comforted by her belief that after her death she wouldn’t be bound to our earthly concepts of time, and what might seem to all others as another 40 years of life, might for her go by in no time at all. Then she asked me what I thought happened after death. I had not thought much about an afterlife, but the following story of The Mountains of Tibet came to my mind:
In a small village, high in the mountains of Tibet, there once lived a woodcutter. All his life he had longed to travel to faraway places to see the world. But he grew old without ever leaving his valley.
When he died, he found himself in a place that was both very dark and very bright. A voice appeared and offered him the choice to go to heaven or to live another life, in any form he wanted, anywhere in the galaxies. He looked around and saw all the many beautiful planets, countries and cultures, and all the different and wonderful creatures and people. Following his heart, he carefully decided to be reborn as a little girl who loved to fly kites and lived in a green valley, high in the mountains of Tibet, that whispered old familiar stories.
As the woodcutter in this story experienced death as a realm of great freedom and unlimited possibilities, my friend and I got carried away telling our own stories about life after death limited only by our imagination and creativity. From then on, storytelling became a creative endeavor that accompanied us throughout her illness and her dying process.
As my friend’s illness took its toll and she was recuperating from chemotherapy treatments, she often asked me to tell her a story. The following tale of Sealskin from Iceland became one of her favorites:
There was once a fisherman who lived alone in a cold and icy place by the sea. One evening, to his amazement, he heard merriment and dancing. As he drew his kayak closer, he saw a group of women of dazzling beauty splashing and laughing in the water with a joy that made his heart cry out with desire. He couldn’t help taking one of the sealskins he found on a nearby rock. When the beautiful women returned, they put on their garb, resumed their former shape and flung themselves into the sea, all except one, who was still searching for her skin. The man stepped forward: “Be my wife and after seven winters I will return your sealskin.” Reluctantly, she agreed. They lived together happily and had a little boy they named Ooruk. As the years passed by, the young woman’s skin began to wither, her eyesight grew bad and she needed a stick to help her walk.
One night, Ooruk woke up when he heard his mother pleading with his father to keep his promise and return her sealskin. His father refused and stormed out of the house. Later that night, Ooruk heard a deep voice calling his name. He climbed out of bed and, following the voice, ran down towards the ocean. Suddenly, he stumbled over something: it was his mother’s sealskin. He took it home to his mother as fast as he could but begged her not to put it on. His mother looked at him with great love and pain and stopped for a moment, but something was calling her that seemed to be older than time. She took Ooruk down to the beach, inhaled three deep breaths into him and together they swam to the bottom of the sea . They were greeted as family by all the creatures of the sea . As the days went by, the mother’s health was restored and she swam about as easily and gracefully as a young seal maiden. After seven days, the mother took Ooruk back to the upside world. With great love and sorrow, she dropped Ooruk off at the shore. “Don’t cry for me,” she said. “I will always be with you. When you touch my bone carvings and my arrows, I will fill your veins with a fire to dance your dances and tell your stories.” Then she tore herself away from her son and returned to the world beneath. And Ooruk, for it was not his time yet, stayed on. It was said that he became a mighty dancer and storyteller because he had visited the world beneath and he had had a mother who loved him very much.
Whereas Western art and literature often portray death as the Grim Reaper, the Sealskin story represents death as an ally and a guide who takes us back to our true origin. The story helped me and my friend connect to a sacred space away from the reality of the hospital room. It strengthened our hope to experience healing like the seal woman does when she returns to the world beneath, and to find ways to say good-bye and carry on through our loved ones when we die.
In my search for stories that seemed relevant to my friend’s experience, I looked for folktales that specifically address the themes of death and loss. I found many stories that brought lightness and laughter into our situation and helped us not to allow my friend’s illness crowd out everything else. Sharing stories and laughter brought us together when our roles as the patient and caregiver had unconsciously separated us.
The following story from Egypt evoked laughter from my friend and later with audiences of hospice caregivers:
When Goha was close to dying, he asked his wife to put on her prettiest dress and make herself look as beautiful as she could. Goha’s wife began to cry : “How can I do those things when you lie here dying?” But she did as her husband told her and returned in her most gorgeous attire: “Is it, my dear beloved husband, that you want to look at my beauty for one last time?” “No,” Goha replied: ” it was just that I was told ‘death chooses the best’. So I thought, when he sees you sitting here, he might take you instead of me.”
After my friend’s death, family and others close to her came together for a celebration of her life. The stories we told about her built bridges between her and us, opened us to our tears and laughter, and to each other. Since then stories about grief and loss have guided and helped me through my own process of mourning. I liken my journey through grief to that of Coyote in the Land of the Dead, a story told by the Yakima Indians:
When eagle woman died, Coyote and his friend, eagle man, decided to go to the land of the dead to bring eagle woman back to life. After crossing the river that divides the land of the living from the land of the dead, they were led to a lodge made of tightly woven rushes with a warm fire and a pile of animal hides inside. Coyote and eagle man noticed there were no windows or doors, and when they tried to scratch a hole into the wall, the walls of the lodge smoothed over immediately. Eagle man panicked, but Coyote began to sing. With a bone splinter that Coyote had saved from his last meal, he managed to scratch a hole into the wall through which they could see eagle woman and all the other dead ones dancing and singing joyfully. When the dead ones stopped, Coyote and eagle man climbed outside with a huge bag they had sown together from the animal hides. Carefully, they lifted the bodies of the dead into their bag and placed it into the canoe. As fast as they could, they paddled back towards the land of the living. When the first rays of sunlight appeared, the dead ones woke up. They started to wiggle around so much that finally the canoe capsized. With the squirming bag between his teeth, Coyote managed to struggle to shore. He welcomed the dead ones back to the land of the living and they thanked him for his effort. However, the dead ones explained that their time in the land of the living had come and gone and they wished to return to the land of the dead where they had found much happiness and wisdom. Eagle woman asked her husband not to cry for her but to look forward to a time when he too would join her in the land of the dead. And then the dead ones got back in the canoe and crossed the river back to the land of the dead. Coyote and eagle man watched them and then turned towards the land of the living.
When we have lost a loved one, like Coyote and eagle man, we often try to find ways to ‘retrieve’ them. After my friend’s death, I found myself searching for her among faces in the street and listened to her voice that remained on her answering machine. When we are in great pain and grief, we may try to contain our feelings and, like Coyote, sew ourselves a ‘bag’. But at times our ‘bag’ of grief can burst open and we find ourselves back in the ‘cold water’, struggling to make it to ‘shore’ and reconnect with life. For me, it has been a passion for stories that helped me reconnect with life. I now tell these stories to hospice staff and volunteers who work with the dying and bereaved. Through storytelling I stay connected with my friend and honor our commitment to find creative ways when dealing with death and grief.