But the stories we spin can help light the dark
By Justine Toh
When we think of how we’ll be remembered after death, it may seem that simple words and basic descriptions don’t do us justice.
But for parents with a terminal illness and those on their deathbed, plain language is sometimes best.
“Dad was an artist. He painted the world that he saw. People loved his drawings.”
How else do you tell your life story — or explain death — to a young child?
Alice Matthews knows something of the challenge of putting a life into a story.
Since 2017, the SBS and ABC journalist has volunteered as a biographer with the Sacred Heart Community Palliative Care Biography Service based at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.
The work involved sitting by the bedsides of the dying and, over a series of sessions, recording their stories.
For Alice, bearing witness to people’s lives, crying along with them, helping them grieve, reflect, and consider their legacy was an enormous privilege.
“We talk a lot in the service about holding space for someone,” she told RN’s Soul Search.
“There is an incredible spirituality in doing that, sitting with somebody, being with them and not really having to say or do anything except that.”
Death: the storybook version
Alice mostly saw elderly clients, part of a group often “shunted and pushed aside” by the wider world.
“What better way to return value to them than to sit and talk about their life and the value of their life which hadn’t disappeared,” she said.
Such clients often met their deaths with acceptance or comfort in their various religious and spiritual beliefs.
Others died “before their time”, as we would say.
If they had young children, Alice would put together a “storybook” version of their dying parent’s longer biography.
For one client, a dad with a young daughter, Alice worked with the family to come up with a child-friendly “circle of life” explanation of death.
“I remember sitting in the room with them as the wife read it to her husband. That was one of the moments where we all sat there in tears,” Alice said.
“I didn’t know how he would react. He wasn’t verbal at that point.
“We waited a moment and then saw that he’d typed: ‘That was beautiful.’
“That was one of those moments where you feel the entire weight of the heartbreak — but also the relief.”
Once upon a time
Another writer who understands this struggle to give language to death is author Chloe Hooper.
Chloe’s partner Don Watson, the historian, author, and speechwriter, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia in 2018. Things looked grim.
Then there was the uncertainty: how to explain his possible demise to their young sons — Tobias, then six, and Gabriel, three at the time.
Few age-appropriate titles on the shelf seemed right. So, Chloe embarked on a quest to find the perfect book.
“The right story can help us find a path through the forest. It can help us take our straw and weave it into gold,” she said.
“Quite quickly, I realised that storytelling and perhaps re-storying this situation would be a way to help us through.
“The electricity and potential of ‘Once upon a time’ might be a way for us to light the dark.”
Chloe’s search for the best words to explain death — recounted in her book Bedtime Story — turned up the innumerable ways in which adults have explained death to children.
Grief and enchantment
Along the way, she made a surprising discovery: beloved children’s authors had suffered significant bereavement in their lives.
Roald Dahl, for one, described himself as “limp with despair” as he began writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after losing his seven-year-old daughter.
Dahl wasn’t alone. The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, J R R Tolkien, Frances Hodgson Burnett, C S Lewis, J K Rowling — death had touched them all.
Writing couldn’t overcome death, but it seemed a comfort in the face of it.
“It made me realise that an ingredient of enchantment is grief,” Chloe told me, referring to the often magical settings of the stories penned by those writers.
What she was looking for — the perfect story to tell her children about death — “was embedded in all of the stories that surround us.”
Mythic narratives similarly stalked the border between life and death, Chloe noticed.
Descent and return narratives saw characters like the Greek hero Odysseus — and even religious figures like Jesus Christ — descend to the dead before returning to the land of the living.
These stories, and their authors, couldn’t help but stray into spiritual territory.
For Tolkien, fairy tales were ultimately about escaping death. C S Lewis, author of the Narnia series, found himself a Christian after becoming convinced that the story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection was what Tolkien called a “true myth”: the fairy tale that came true.
‘Everything will be alright’
Plenty of people — including Chloe Hooper — are agnostic about that.
But every parent knows it’s their job to protect their kids. According to the late sociologist and theologian Peter Berger, “to become a parent is to take on the role of world-builder and world-protector”.
For Berger, this makes parents practically godlike.
Parents represent “the underlying order of the universe that it makes sense to trust,” he writes in A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural.
Take the most basic parenting move: hushing a crying child in the dead of night. For Berger, when a mother rocks her bub, murmuring “Everything will be alright,” she relates to her child the way we imagine a god should relate to their creation.
Even the most ardent skeptic gets that a god’s job is to guarantee order and safety and beat back the encroaching darkness.
This casts new light on the stories we spin about death: from fairy tales to storybook versions of the “circle of life”.
What are these if not our attempts to love those we must eventually leave? Our efforts to weave out of the world’s sadness a life-giving spell?
Perhaps we’d rather not read the stories of our lives that get written on our deathbeds.
But even if such stories are prompted by the most decisive of endings, they pulse with love and concern for the living left behind.
Death doesn’t exactly get the last word because these stories are, in the end, about life.
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