In the UK, we are not taught how to deal with death very well at all. We're encouraged not to cry. Or when we lose a pet we might be told, "Don't cry, we'll get you a new one." We are encouraged to be strong – whatever that means, and we are often told to "keep busy and not think about it." In other words, we are taught to avoid grief. The truth is quite disturbing because if we bury these feelings, they absolutely will resurface in other ways. None of us want to feel sadness, but it is part of being human and we must learn to work through it, so that we can function properly. Hope is a very powerful way of helping us to embrace grief. It doesn’t deny us the sadness, but it can help us make sense of it.
The story, Water bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney* will no doubt resonate with a lot of people. It is a particularly helpful way of explaining death to a child, but I have used it on a couple of occasions to help adults process it too. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is a fable of water bugs transforming into dragonflies and is an excellent way to help people think about what might happen after someone dies. Some might label it as fanciful, but it isn’t. It is steeped in natural fact and if nature leans toward the philosophy of hope and new beginnings, then who are we to deny it?
The story suggests that death does not necessarily mark the end of a person’s story; that there is something about us that can continue to take on a new lease of life after we die. This concept can be immensely reassuring, and it is no new ideal – it has existed within most of the world’s religions for many thousands of years. As society is becoming increasingly secular, we must be careful not to lose it. It has existed for as long as it has, because it is clearly very important to our human psyche.
Grief can often make people feel hopeless. Some people may feel overwhelmed by the sense of their own mortality after someone they love dies; and for others, albeit a deeply sad occasion, death can be dealt with quite matter-of-factly. There is something deep within us that yearns for a better tomorrow and when we are reassured by the prospect of it, it can give us confidence and purpose – two essential ingredients needed to live a relatively healthy life.
We don’t have to be theists, to value the ideal. Whether you are a person of faith or not, hope is a very real and optimistic state of mind and amongst its opposites are dejection, hopelessness and despair – the stuff of gloom and despondency. The story of the Water bugs and dragonflies is the stuff of promise and ambition and provides a very real light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Waterbugs & Dragonflies
Author: Doris Stickney
Publisher: Continuum (September 2002)