Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Grief's Fractured Fairy Tales

Grief and fairy tales aren’t obvious dinner companions. Not the Disney versions, anyway.

When we’re grieving, we would dearly love for someone to ride in on a great white horse and rescue us. This seldom happens with grief, and if it does, it happens in an unexpected way. It's more like a wolf that wants to play fetch.

In real life, when someone we love dies, there is no “happy ever after” because our loved one is still dead and this is never going to change. Way down the road our life might end up being pretty good, and there might be goo-gobs of joy, but any life after death will always come with a side order of grief.

There are several reasons why we cling to the Hollywood versions of fairy tales:

1. We liked them when we were children, and they remind us of the innocence of then. They’re comforting, like our warm, fuzzy memories of childhood that leave out all the unpleasantness. We liked their message that no matter what happens, we can still get what we want. We didn’t understand then that dead meant forever.

2. We love the idea of noble quests, especially when normal people confront their fears, battle great odds, and succeed. They give us hope for dealing with life's struggles, even if this hope is often grounded more in wishful thinking than in something we can do. Also, the stories have adventures, the good and bad people are clearly identified, and there’s that damn happy ending.

3. We believe that if we follow the rules, then everything will eventually work out and we’ll be happy. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” Red was to obey her mother and stay on the path because of the supposed dangers of the forest and its savage animals. She didn’t and she got into trouble. That’s the lesson we’re supposed to learn from this fairy tale. Yes, life would be less stressful if everyone followed the rules, but it would also be less interesting because it would stifle individual creativity. Also, I find the wilderness and animals with attitude rather invigorating.

4. We want to believe that the universe is good, that people are good, and when something bad happens, it’s a mistake and a surge of good will soon come and restore balance. We want to think that everyone wants to be kind to other people. Yet there is evil, and cancer, and too many people we love still die.

The real fairy tales, the authentic ones, tell a far different story. They speak of the harshness of life and the darkness that flows through the world. They are complex, unresolved, and deal with the horrors of famine, plague and war. There is murder, blood and death.

Not long ago, Elaine Mansfield wrote Leaning Into Love, a moving book about dealing with her husband’s terminal illness and her struggle with grief. She is now working on a book that explores mythology, archetypes, and the original fairy tales. I am hoping that she wills peak bout their connections to grief. You can get an idea of what is coming by reading her weekly blog (ElaineMansfield.com).

People who are grieving know the darkness that lives in the real fairy tales. While we may hope that someone will magically appear, kiss our boo-boo and make it all better, deep down we know that this isn’t going to happen. No woodcutter is going to appear, no Frodo, superhero, girl with a wand, fairy godmother, or knight of the Round Table. There will be no Disney ending.

What we have is this. In the 18th century, during a dark time in Ireland, the blind Celtic harpist Turlough O’Carolan took it upon himself to compose joyful music to remind his beaten-down people to hang on, because one day the light would return.

What we have is this. We need to set aside wishful thinking and do something positive. We have to gird up our loins, gather our courage, and head into the Dark Forest of Formidable Grief, and challenge our fears, doubts, anger and despair.

As we make our way through the Massively Tangled Thickets, we run across someone who listens to our grief, and makes us feel accepted. Further on we find someone who is so compassionate that we feel our hearts lift, and someone else who is incredibly wise. We tuck her ideas into our pocket to guide us on the path ahead.

We meet more and more people and nothing magical happens, except that a community forms where we share what we have with each other. We make it through this day, and then the next.

As we journey along, we stop worrying about how slowly we’re moving over the Steep Mountain of Immense Despair because on most days the light seems a little brighter.

Later on we find someone with antlers on his head and bells around his ankles who weeps while dancing, and we realize that even after we have crossed the River of Inarticulate Sorrow and entered the Land of Unwanted New Beginnings, we will always remember our former lives and the hard journey through grief because now they are part of our story, the story that begins, “Once upon a time ….”


  1. Wonderfully insightful as usual. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Mark. You're right that grief is no Disney movie. I knew in a cerebral way that love would end in grief for someone, but nothing could have or should have dissuaded me. Love and grief are the dance partners. Many years ago I bought a copy of Grimm's Fairytales because Vic and I thought we'd read them to each other. We were shocked by how very grim they were. They reflected the difficulty of life. Somehow that balance got lost in the modern stories. Thanks so much for mentioning me, my book, and the book in progress where I'm digging into ancient myths and grief.

    1. Elaine, I love your brief essays about mythology and fairy tales, especially when you dwell on the Green Man. I am eager to read more.