Butterflies & Black Boxes: Helping Shoulder the Burden of Grief
May 2, 2019 § 7 Comments
Grief can be the loneliest feeling in the world. In the immediate aftermath of a great loss, we are often surrounded by an outpouring of love and affection. We receive letters, phone calls, dishes of food, offers of help. But, in the weeks and months ahead, most around us will eventually resume their own lives, leaving us to sit quietly, restlessly, fearfully with our grief. Some will stop mentioning it at all, perhaps worried that talk of it will bring up fresh sadness. Some prefer to stop thinking about it all together, lest the tragedy of what happened to us be contagious. None of this is ill-intentioned. It stems from our basic human instinct to protect and survive.
It may also stem from inexperience.
The new picture book, Maybe Tomorrow? (Ages 4-8), by Charlotte Agell, with illustrations by Ana Ramírez González, is a whimsical, hopeful, deeply touching story about a new friendship forged in the aftermath of grief. It is one of the most delicate and perfect manifestations of grief I’ve ever encountered in a children’s book—but it also does something else. It presents a window into what it’s like to be on the outside of grief. It invites us to empathize with those who are mourning, then gives us some ideas for how to help another shoulder the burden of grief.
When I started college, in the fall of 1994, I had lost my father three months earlier. I had had an entire summer to mourn. To cry, to rage, to field calls from concerned relatives and friends, to fight and make up with my mother and sister more times than I could count. When I walked onto campus that September and neatly unpacked my things into my single room, I felt pressure to put my grief behind me. To fit in. To throw myself into making friends and studying hard and not be known as “the girl who just lost her father.”
And then, suddenly, I couldn’t see.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. I could see, but everything was hazy. For weeks, it felt like I was squinting through fog the color of steel wool. I would close my eyes; I would lay down for a nap; I would wait for it to clear. Only it never did.
One of my classes was an intensive Freshman Seminar on Shakespeare. I had had to apply over the summer, so I felt pressure to live up to the acceptance. I loved the subject matter. This was supposed to be my wheelhouse. Only, we were required to turn in a paper each week, and every time I sat down to type, I felt like there were dozens of layers of film between me and the screen. The words would clear for a second, then turn fuzzy again. The space behind my eyes throbbed.
I invented excuses, asked for extensions. I was sick, I said. I’m getting better, I emailed. I’ll turn this one in next week with the other, I promised. And my professor, a stocky, rosy-cheeked, curly-haired man, reluctantly agreed. Until, finally, the unmet deadlines piled so high, I realized I was in danger of suffocating beneath them.
One week, after class, I asked to speak to my professor. “I can’t see,” I told him, realizing how utterly insane that sounded. And then, through gasping sobs, I told him about my father. I told him I didn’t understand what was happening. That I wondered if I should drop out of school. That I didn’t think I could do the work. Any work.
When I finally stopped talking, having dared to say aloud to him what I had been afraid to say to myself, I looked up to find tears glistening in his own eyes. “I, too, have recently lost my father,” he said. “I feel it, too.” He didn’t elaborate. His confession, uttered compassionately and vulnerably, was all I needed to hear.
I was not to worry about the weekly deadlines, he told me. I was to turn in all papers at the end of the semester. He advised me to reach out to the university counseling office and join a grief group (which I did). That was it. That was enough. For one crucial moment, I had been seen and accepted as I was.
I did finish all my assignments and turned them in on the last day of the course. I never had that professor again, but over the years, I would pass him on campus, and we would smile warmly at one another. I like to think he kept tabs on me from a distance.
I don’t remember exactly when my vision returned to normal—I think it likely happened slowly. A lightening, which spread across my body and settled into myself in a way not entirely unpleasant.
That grief can manifest itself as a physical sensation is the first insight brought powerfully to life in Maybe Tomorrow?, where an anthropomorphized pink hippopotamus named Elba is tethered by a string to a large black block. “She’d been dragging it around for a long time. It made her walk slowly. It made her think darkly. It was heavy.”
A crocodile named Norris, by all accounts a shiny, happy creature (“who danced everywhere he went, even uphill”), doesn’t have any experience with grief—though he has something equally valuable. He has curiosity. He comes upon Elba, sitting on her block, and asks her to a picnic.
“I’m Elba,” said Elba. “I do not go on picnics.”
“Well, what do you want to do?” asked Norris.
“Sit here with my block.”
“But you’re already doing that.”
“Is it fun?”
“Not really. No.”
Norris is intrigued by this box, which seems to have a mysterious and not entirely welcome power over Elba. He asks what’s inside, to which Elba replies with some annoyance, “It’s not a box, it’s a BLOCK.”
Elba may be a bit of a downer, but Norris doesn’t dismiss her crotchetiness by walking away. On the contrary, he moves in closer. He climbs up onto the black block and sits beside Elba. He observes: “I feel something in there […] Something sad […] I think it wants to come out.” Elba responds with a whisper. It’s only one word, but it connotes a world of hope. “How?”
That grief is in no hurry, that it cannot be tricked away or squashed down or set aside, is the second insight convincingly delivered by the story. Norris doesn’t have an answer to Elba’s question of how she can release the sadness from the block. They can only sit and wonder together, “Maybe tomorrow.” Days pass and the two continue their direct, yet weighted exchanges, Norris with his exuberance and Elba with her Eeyore-like disposition. Eventually, these exchanges venture into the realm of play, with tea cups filled with rainwater and plans to walk to the ocean. The beginning of transformation hangs in the air.
Herein lies the story’s third insight into grief. Grief may take its sweet time, but “the very, very long journey”—or, in this case, Elba and Norris’ literal walk to the beach—does not have be taken alone. When Elba is unsure how to get her heavy block to the beach, Norris helps her carry it, at times assisted by the butterflies which perpetually flutter around Norris. When Elba wants to talk, they talk; when she doesn’t, they walk in silence. My favorite part: when Elba begins to talk about the friend for whom she grieves, Norris wants to know everything about her.
“I miss Little Bird,” said Elba
as they crested the last hill.
“She is gone.”
“I miss her, too,” said Norris.
“But you didn’t know her.”
“No, but you are my friend,
so I can help you miss her.”
What follows a few pages later is a gut-wrenching moment, where Elba looks out over the ocean, watching some of the butterflies making their way towards the horizon, and nearly chokes out the words, “COME BACK!” Norris calmly reassures, “It’s okay […] Sometimes we have to let things go.”
That such depth of emotion is packaged among such cheerful simplicity from Norris—and alongside such bright, colorful illustrations—is a large part of the book’s success. A child reader will feel Elba’s pain, without ever losing sight of the hope offered by Norris’ presence.
The book’s final revelation about grief is perhaps the one we need most, whatever side we happen to be on. Elba is pleasantly surprised when, at the end of their day at the beach, Norris points out that the block appears to be both smaller and lighter. And yet, she needs her friend to know an important truth: “I’ll always have this block, you know.”
It’s what Norris does with this truth that is so telling. Norris doesn’t try and diminish or minimize the pain Elba feels. He respects the magnitude of her loss. Most importantly, he sees her for who she is, here and now. He says, simply, “I will help you carry it sometimes,” and he continues to hold out hope that the two can one day go on that picnic together.
The journey of grief does not end. What it does is transform us, become a part of us. Those who take the time to bear witness to this transformation deliver kindness equal to the weight of a thousand black boxes.
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Review copy from Scholastic. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!