A Hungarian Folktale, Retold By Gail Rosen. I have told this story in many settings. Its humor is delightful and the story allows thinking and conversation about death, in a way that feels safer for people than direct questions about their personal feelings and experiences.
But she was full of life, and never dreamt of dying. She was always busy, in her house, baking bread or sewing new curtains. Or in her garden, planting flowers or weeding the vegetables. Or in her yard, building a shed for the goats, or helping to birth a new baby lamb.
But Death comes to everyone in time. And so, one day, Death remembered the old woman. And he came and knocked on her cottage door. “Old Woman, I have come to fetch you.”
The old woman was kneading dough for bread. “Death? Oh, Death. I’m afraid I’m much too busy. I have to finish kneading this dough. Then I have to wait for it to rise. Then I have to knead it again and form it into loaves, then wait for it to rise again, and then bake it. . . If it must be, Death, could you come back tomorrow?”
“Very well” said Death. “I shall return for you tomorrow.” And with his bony finger, he chalked on her door, the word “Tomorrow” and he went away. The next day, Death returned. “Old Woman, I have come to fetch you.”
The old woman was tending her rose bushes.
“Oh. Death. Death, I’m afraid you’ve made a little mistake. You see, you said you’d come tomorrow. Tomorrow. See for yourself what you wrote on the door.”
And Death looked. And there on the door was the word “Tomorrow.”
“Very well, Old Woman,” said Death. “I shall come for you tomorrow.” And he went away. The next day, Death returned. “Old Woman, I have come to fetch you.”
The old woman was sewing a new party dress. “Death? Oh, Death, I’m afraid once again you are mistaken. You see, you said you would come tomorrow. Tomorrow, not today. See for yourself what you wrote on the door.”
And Death looked. And there on the door was the word “Tomorrow.” “Very well, Old Woman,” said Death. “I shall come for you tomorrow.” And he went away. Well this went on every day for a month and at the end of that time, Death was getting annoyed. “Old Woman, you have been cheating me. I shall come for you one last time.”
And with his sleeve, he erased the word on the door. Now the old woman wasn’t laughing any more. She was frightened. She tried and tried to think of a way to outwit death. She was up all night thinking. In the morning, she hadn’t thought of anything so she looked around her cottage for a place to hide. In the corner was a large barrel. It was filled with honey. She climbed inside it and crouched down low, with just her nose sticking out. But then she thought “Oh dear. Death is clever. He’s sure to find me here.”
So she climbed out of the barrel of honey. Across the room there was a large chest. She opened the chest and climbed inside. It was filled with goose feathers. But then she thought “Oh dear. Death is clever. He’s sure to find me here.”
And she climbed out of the chest. But just as she did, Death burst through the door. He looked around and he couldn’t see the old woman anywhere. In her place, he saw a strange creature. It was huge, covered with white feathers and something thick was dripping from it.
Death was so startled he cried out “Aaagh!”
And the thing screamed back “Aaaaaagh!” And Death was so frightened that he ran away. And he never returned.
Essay by Gail Rosen
When I have told this story in bereavement groups, I usually pair it with a personal story about my grandmother, her death, and my ongoing feeling of connection with her. It ends with “As long as I’m here, doing, and remembering – in some way, my grandmother outwitted death.”
Telling a story in a bereavement group setting helps relax everyone and bring them present to the group. It helps put people in “listening mode” and, I think, enables them to be better listeners to each other. Questions may be posed to the group that relate to the story, but often group members will take up the story and relate it to their lives and their losses without additional direction. The issues that arise in this particular story include: the denial or acceptance of death, how we retain our feeling of connection with people who have died, how memories can often surprise us by being stimulated by seemingly mundane objects or events, what comfort exists or does not exist in the act of remembering, and how we can find meaning in our grief through memory. People who have heard this story have sometimes been moved to tell or write down memories of their own connection with the person they are grieving.
There have also been people who have been angered by the story – they are not in a place where they wish to be comforted, but their need is to have the pain of their loss acknowledged; the person who died did not outwit death and memory is insufficient comfort. In this circumstance, too, the story has served the audience, by offering clarity about their feelings and allowing anger and grief to be expressed.
Here is a situation where it is clear that stories are not “prescriptive.” A particular story cannot, must not, be used to elicit or manipulate a specific response. But, the power of story to open the door to one’s own beliefs, insights and ability to heal is a gift to witness.
Beginning the conversation:
As I was writing this for posting, and asking for advice and input, Laura Simms wrote about a remarkable story from Africa. Here is the synopsis: There is an old woman who goes in search of death because she has lived so long and seen so many others die, that she wants to find out why death has not taken her. She tries climbing to the sky and falls and hurts herself, but does not die. She tries everything until she travels everywhere and no one knows where death lives. She finally came to a village where everyone said, “Stay here. Death is never far from us, but no one knows where death lives.” And she lived there and she died there and no one does know even now where death lives and when or how he is coming.
Laura says “a sister tale like that might be helpful to grieving people, since it gives the exact opposite idea as well.”
I know that many storytellers have told stories at memorial services and in other settings where people are grieving. What has your experience been with story in this arena? Do you use personal or traditional tales? Serious or humorous? Any stories you wish you hadn’t told in such a setting? What has the response been? Any unexpected responses?
* Someone showed me this story years ago, before I was fully aware of the importance of citing sources. It was in a collection of tales, and I believe it was labeled “Hungarian.” If anyone has more information on the source, I’d be grateful if you shared it with me. www.GailRosen.com