Our journey thus far:
A is for about
B is for beginnings
C is for character
And today, D is for death. This is not an exploration of the morbid or maudlin, but a look at how storytellers handle death in their stories.
Death is part of life, it's one of our very few certainties. It's also something few of us speak about easily, since it's emotionally fraught. As storytellers, we have a precious opportunity to help our audiences think about one of the more difficult things we experience, loss, in a safe environment, through the powerful medium of story.
Traditional material is rich with stories about death. King Arthur. Isis and Osiris. Gelert. Red Riding Hood (read older versions). The Three Little Pigs. Pandora's Box. On and on. These stories have helped us understand why we must die and some of the actions that can lead to our deaths. They show us the culturally defined difference between a good death and a bad death, never letting us forget that we must eventually die, as will the people we love.
Modern life is full of stories about death, too. Open any news site, read any newspaper, look at Facebook any day and you'll find a story about someone who died, how they lived their life and how they want to be remembered.
Telling these stories helps our audiences remember that death is part of human experience and that there are tools we can use to grieve, heal and accept it. They can also help us with our own struggles with death.
For example, when I was 26 I had cancer. I faced the very real possibility of my own death and had to help those around me find a way to process the idea of my loss. I found solace and comfort in the story of Gilgamesh, the ancient Sumerian myth in which Gilgamesh the king tries and fails to bring his best friend back from the dead. Eventually, I turned this most ancient of stories into a performance, bracketing the myth with a personal context. Telling it helped me heal and overcome the fear of my own death. It also helped those around me remember that we all die. I didn't tell it publicly until I was sure I could do so in a way that was safe for me and the audience.
As storytellers, we need to be sure that we can get out of the audience's way so they can do their own work as they listen. If we become too emotional, beyond the appropriate boundaries of the performance, it will jolt the audience from their own imagination and instead focus their attention on us and our needs. If we choose to tell a story about death, we need to be sure we are doing so in service to the story, the audience and the world, in addition to whatever personal drive we may have to tell it.
We need these stories because they move us to feel and then to act. They guide us through our own grief, reminding us that we are not alone. They show us paths to live the kinds of lives that will be remembered and sometimes, are maps to the kind of death that matters. They are road maps not to death, but to life.
(c)2013 Laura S. Packer