Stories Guide Us Through Loss

In remembrance of Ernest Lynn Pyland. 

My life, once turbulent in years long gone by, now tends toward harmony. I am not impulsive, and I prefer that drama stay in the theater. But then:

Three weeks ago I stepped down from a volunteer leadership position that meant a lot to me once I saw that my goals and the group’s were too divergent to be in alignment.

Last week I received news that my birth father had died. I had regained contact with him recently, only to learn about his funeral when I looked him up on Father’s Day.

This week I ended a relationship after realizing that my feelings about it had changed.

And the dislocations are not over.

It has become trendy to think of such painful losses as rites of passage, with the cliché about “crisis means opportunity” thrown in for edification. They can be. I am learning from all of these losses, but they don’t feel initiatory. They bring me sorrow, but not destabilization. They do not challenge my picture of myself or of my place in the world.

What helps locate me in times of mourning is not Thinking Positively or psychological advice, but fables, myths, and fairytales that do not end with a grand restoration.

The common but wrong idea that a “fairytale ending” is always a happy one began with moralizing revisionists like Bulfinch who tried to make it so. The original storytellers knew better. “A safe fairyland,” observed Tolkien in a letter, “is untrue to all worlds.” Especially in times of loss.

Lonely Sir Marhalt rides forth to seek a damsel, finds one, journeys with her, and, instead of marrying her, goes his own way, alone again but healed of his loneliness. Young King Arthur is taken from the company of his father, and not even Merlin can bring them back together. Innocent Narada goes to fetch water for Vishnu and returns after living out and then losing love, marriage, children, and family, knowing in his bones now that all can vanish in a moment. Au Co loves and loses the Dragon Prince. Sky Woman is ejected from her world and never returns.

The Yellow Emperor visits mountain and valley, desert and river in search of how to lead an enlightened kingdom. After many trials he finds what he seeks, but he returns having lost all interest in the empire.

Traditional tales can be heroic, romantic, even cosmic in their uplifting enthusiasm, but they also say: New paths open when what we loved and lost can no longer hold us.


Craig Chalquist is the Founding Editor of Immanence Journal

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