I’ve mentioned a few times now how stories and dreams are similar in nature. That stories are, on a simplified level, the communal expression and sharing of our collective subconscious and in the same way that dreams help us process the fears and worries of the day and also to consolidate and protect the joyous and happy memories of the day as individuals, so do stories help us as a community to do the same thing. If there is one theme most common to all stories and to many dreams/nightmares (to be fair, it might just be my nightmares) then it is the fact that the one constant and predictable thing in life is that it will inevitably be ended by death. Or to look at it another way, the one feeling we will all encounter along our journey is that of grief.
This is my mum at the top of the post. The Lady in the middle. The one with the smile. The massive smile. My mum was taken from us almost thirteen years ago by cancer. I miss her. I will always miss her. Her death devastated our family. It will always be a part of our family get togethers. She will always be a part of our family get togethers. I am not over her death, I don’t want to be over her death. Some days I miss her so much I just have to sit down with the weight of it. But those days are fewer now. It doesn’t mean I love her less. I means I’m getting better. I grieved, my family grieved, our friends grieved. I couldn’t have got through it without some very dear friends who surrounded me with love and comfort and joy and good memories of mum. And God was there through it all, his strong arm steadying me. And there were stories. Stories where I’d already learned it was okay to fall apart; stories that told me the strongest get to grieve, in fact they needed to grieve; stories which taught me how to grieve, that had gifted me with the tools I needed and still need.
I’ve been pondering both death and grief. It feels a little bit like death has been especially active recently; the numbers of people we “know and love” who are well known through the media that have died has, to some people, shown a shocking increase. It was pointed out to me today that the BBC website has exactly twice as many obituaries as the same time last year. (The numbers are going to increase – there are more people on the planet, there are more famous people, it isn’t going to get any better.) That’s a lot of people who have left us; a lot of famous people; a lot of people who have influenced our culture, our arts, our attitudes; a lot of people who we feel a personal connection to, were we might feel we’ve lost a friend. We haven’t lost a friend. This element of the recent losses, where the nature of our media has created a false sense of closeness, where we can feel a sense of entitlement that we own a part of those people, where this is a loss that affects us personally, this is the element that makes me most uncomfortable, which makes me squirm a little and challenges me when I catch myself displaying this kind of attitude. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be sad or mourn the loss of people who die “too soon” or get angry at the disease which took them (for so many it’s cancer). It’s right and proper to show some level of grief, but the extent to which that grief is shown in some cases has been potentially disproportionate to the level of relationship that we have with the deceased person.
But I wonder whether this phenomenon of unhealthily vicarious grief isn’t something we’ve encouraged through both our enlightenment habit of turning our backs on stories and through what types of stories we tell. More precisely, are we displaying this unhealthy behaviour because we’ve not been “dreaming” about death? Is it that we’ve not been facing the fear of death and the prospect of grief and what it looks like in our storytelling, so we are literally acting it out when these famous people we artificially attach ourselves to then die. Fortunately there are storytellers out there who still believe in the true spirit of story and believe in the need to explore and collectively “dream” about what death and grief mean to us; who still believe in the essential component in our emotional health that storytelling plays; who still believe that stories can help and guide us in our darkest moments when we need comfort and role models, when we need to see that even our heroes experience death and its consequences. (Yes the empathic nature of stories, with their “you are not alone” message is one of their most important functions – which is exactly why it is important for stories to include not just white, straight males. I may write more on this idea in another post.)
We can re-visit traditional fairytales where death is an expected norm, or return to the great myths where heroes such as Achilles and Orpheus are broken by grief or we can share in what some of our modern storytellers are doing by bringing death and grief back into our lives through their stories. And we must let them speak these truths into our lives. We must exercise our empathy in this or we will continue our unhealthy pre-occupation with ‘celebrity’ deaths and the appropriation of the real grief of others in order to learn how to deal with death.
A perfect starting point would be to watch Joss Whedon’s masterpiece, the episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer called “The Body”. And that’s where I’ll take us in the next post.