The Woodcutter's Tale
Once upon a time, long, long ago in a faraway land, lived Hans, a woodcutter, and his wife Hilda. They had a 19-year-old daughter Matilda and a ten-year-old son Stefan.
It came to pass that the countryside was ravaged by sickness accompanied by high fever that caused many to perish. Stefan was stricken and shortly became very ill.
The woodcutter summoned the old midwife, a gray-haired woman who also served as a doctor. “Hans, Hilda, I am sorry to tell you that Stefan is beyond my help and must soon die.”
Struck speechless by this pronouncement, they heard the neighing and hoof beats of horses outside their cottage. Hans went out to discover that the Princess in her royal coach had stopped.
“I was returning to my castle when I heard your son was sick. Bring me to him.” Hans led the Princess inside and she beheld the dying Stefan.
“Let me take him home with me and I will heal him. However, I will keep him with me as I have no sons after four years of marriage.” Although it broke their hearts, Hans and Hilda agreed for they knew it was best for Stefan.
The Princess herself picked Stefan up to carry him to the carriage. As soon as the Princess lifted him, Stefan started to look better. The Princess placed him in the coach seat opposite her and the coach drove off, leaving the couple waving goodbye with tear-stained faces.
Life was not the same in the little cottage, although the family seemed closer together then ever before. Their shared grief was an invisible weight pressing upon their shoulders, made bearable only by the sharing.
Three days after Stefan’s departure, a white dove appeared and made a nest in their thatched roof. Strangely, the family felt comforted by the presence of the dove that never left their roof. Hans always looked for it when he returned from his wood-cutting forays into the forest. Hilda and Matilda often looked up when they were doing their outdoor chores to see if the dove was still there, and to experience the sense of consolation and protection, which seemed to emanate from the dove.
After a few years, Matilda married a cooper and moved to a village about ten miles distant. Though they missed their daughter greatly, the couple now had the dove for company.
Finally, stricken with years, the old couple became weaker and weaker and sensed that they both were going to die. Hans said, “Let us go outside, bring our bench and sit on it, hold hands and look at our dove.” Hilda agreed and they brought their bench outside. They settled themselves on the bench and faced their cottage, but were surprised to see that the dove was no longer on the roof.
Finally growing too feeble to move, they heard the sound of horses’ hooves. With their last breaths, they beheld the royal coach approaching. As the coach drew near, they saw a smiling Stefan inside, dressed in shining white garments and looking every inch a Prince. “Come home with me,” said Stefan. Overjoyed, and amazed that they suddenly no longer felt feeble, the couple stepped into the coach.
As the coach started to pull away, Hans and Hilda looked back to see if their dove had returned. But the dove, no longer needed, was gone. This disappointment was replaced by their boundless joy at seeing how happy Stefan had been and by knowing they would be with Stefan forever in their new home.
Note from Lisa Saunders: My father, Richard W. Avazian, wrote this fairy tale after my daughter, Elizabeth Saunders, died at the age of 16 from the effects of congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV), the #1 birth defect's virus. The Woodcutter’s Tale was originally published in Anything But a Dog! The perfect pet for a girl with congenital CMV (cytomegalovirus), (Unlimited Publishing LLC, 2008), used by permission. Please visit http://www.unlimitedpublishing.com/saunders for more information. Anything But a Dog! is about my daughter Elizabeth, her tomboy sister, and a series of dysfunctional pets—including a homeless, old dog who became Elizabeth’s constant companion.
The following are comments from a licensed mental health professional about loss and grieving.
Julie Russell, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
The Woodcutter’s Tale demonstrates the stages of grief while highlighting the continued love the couple has for their child. It is important to understand the stages of grief to gain insight into when one may need additional help by a professional. A traumatic event, often a death of a loved one, causes those who are connected to the loss to experience the multiple stage process known as grief.
Understanding grief also empowers those who continue to love the individual who has passed. Five stages of grief are cited frequently as introduced by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. Grief is unique to each individual and is characterized by the relationship between the survivor and the loss.
DENIAL. Not believing the death is real is recognized as the first stage. Often a person is emotionally shocked and may question whether the person has died. This first stage allows emotions to be placed on hold and critical decisions regarding burial, organ donation and other arrangements to be made.
ANGER. The overwhelming feeling of anger is often the second emotion experienced. This is at times directed toward the person who died, healthcare professionals, and oneself. During this stage one may wonder why God would allow death and suffering to occur. When the care-giving process involves difficult decisions survivors often feel increased burden. One may express the pain of anger as irritation or frustration. Anger is never a bad emotion, but a necessary one for many to reach a sense of peace.
BARGAINING.As individuals work through the anger and pain, an intellectual aspect enters the grieving process. It is during this time that a person wonders “What if I had…” or “If only the medical treatment had …” Intellectual answers are inserted in the areas where those left must fill emotions questions. Often denial, anger and bargaining occur to some degree at once. A Survivor will momentarily forget the death has occurred, usually in the process of performing a formally routine task such as picking up the phone to call the individual or entering the room a loved one was cared for when ill. Upon remembering one may face anger or begin the process of questioning what may have been a series of difficult decisions.
SADNESS. The loss of a loved one leaves a hole in the survivor’s life. The emptiness can often be described as sadness and loneliness. This, like anger, is a normal response to the death of a loved one. This hole may threaten to consume someone after a loss, but it is common to all who have experienced grief.
ACCEPTANCE. The final stage of grief is acceptance. Life will never be the same, and accepting the death of a loved one does not equate to agreeing with it, or not wishing it had occurred. It only means that the survivors understand that the death has occurred and it is permanent. Acceptance most often comes in bits and pieces as one cycles through the stages of grief. A person has less intense periods of denial, pain, bargaining and sadness as the moments of acceptance become longer.
Grief is both a healthy and a normal response to loss – it is the process that leads to peace. In this tale, a couple adjusted to their loss of a child by finding a direction for their continued love--the dove.
While grief is a normal response to loss, individuals often find navigating its complexities with a licensed therapist beneficial. Many health insurance companies cover services related to grief and loss and there are support groups in most communities. Lisa Saunders shares how she navigates her grief and continues to live a complete life following the death of her daughter in the following account. Grief is a path that many navigate which allows them to continue to find meaning and purpose in life.
Julie Russell, MSW, LCSW, is a clinical social worker specializing in the treatment of trauma and the scope of emotional and mental disorders that prevent one from achieving a sense of wholeness.