The Twin Faces of Sorrow: Stories That Help Heal Grief and Rage

by Kimberley King.

When I got there, the camp was buzzing like a hive of angry bees. Teenage girls were stomping about, slamming doors, cursing, shouting, threatening to run away. The friend who had asked me to tell stories met me at the car.

“We’ve had a major blowout,” she told me. “Maybe you should just go home.”

“Why don’t we wait a little while and see if things calm down,” I suggested.

I had been to the camp – a therapeutic summer camp for seriously troubled teenage girls – the previous week. The program had been well received and I had been asked to come back again. There were about ten girls, aged fourteen to seventeen. Although I was not told individual histories, I knew that all of the girls had been raped. Most were drug users. One had seen her boyfriend shoot himself. One had just discovered she had AIDS. About a third of their original number had already been sent home for behavior violations: cutting themselves, drug use, and having sex with each other.

On this occasion, the fact that I was not “staff” played to my advantage. The girls had enjoyed the previous storytelling, and they allowed themselves to be rounded up to hear the stories. They were polite, but sulky. Anger crackled in the air, like an impending thunderstorm.

Synchronistically, I had been specifically requested to tell stories about anger. I mentally crossed my fingers, took a deep breath, and began. I told several folktales and then I brought out an original story of my own, one that I tell rarely and only for very special audiences.

As I told, I began to feel like a lightning rod. It felt as if all that crackling ozone in the air grounded right through me, drawn by the words I was speaking, down through my body and into the ground.

There was a deep silence when the story was done. Then the feistiest girl there said, “That was the bomb!” My heart sank. They’d hated it. My feelings must have shown in my face, because the counselor said quickly, “That means she really liked it.” (The slang was new to me then).

The anger in the air had utterly vanished. The girls thanked me enthusiastically and courteously. The mood was amiable. The entire group drifted up to the cabin to eat a belated dinner. The tables were set, the meal eaten, the kitchen cleaned up in perfect harmony.

I felt stunned. I didn’t know exactly what I had stumbled on, but I knew that it was powerful stuff. When I walked down to my car, there were two deer browsing near it.

“Well, cousins,” I said, “do you have a message for me?” Their beautiful long ears twitched and they moved toward me on precise, electric hooves.

“Listen,” they seemed to say. “Pay attention. Stay alert.”

I listened. What I felt was a pull of tidal intensity -stronger than anything since I had first felt the pull of storytelling almost ten years before. What I had known in my head, I now felt in my bones: stories are powerful medicine, and it was medicine that lay within my gift.

Story as Medicine

A gift can be revealed in a blast of illumination, but integrating it is, as they say, another story. The next day I found that a human lightning rod has a price to pay. The stories had done their work for the listeners, but I was the one who got burned. As the collective rage passed through my body, the grief which underlies anger left a residue. In the heat of those flames, I cried many tears. I cried for myself and for the young women who carried so much heartbreak and so much light. I felt like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as if I’d been given a magical power that was too hot to handle.

In the next few years, I listened, I paid attention, I tried to stay alert. My work as a Hospice volunteer convinced me more deeply of something I had always believed: grief and rage are the twin faces of sorrow, the natural reaction to life’s inevitable losses. Grief and rage are BIG SCARY forces. Yet in this culture, we have very few rituals of mourning. Without effective outlets for sorrow, our emotions become a lot like lions in the kitchen, only we pretend these lions do not exist. Unfortunately, ignoring them does not make them go away – it just makes them hungry, angry, and dangerous.

Healing, alas, does not allow us to banish the lions or even to tame them. There is no escape from grief and loss. But it DOES allow us to gain some distance from them, to come into conscious relationship with them, to learn to bear the weight of sorrow and go on. A story provides an arena; a contained space where we can look at the beasts open- eyed and feel safe. Stories help us because they are entertaining and accessible. They are non-confrontational. By mirroring the emotions of the listeners, stories provide a safe place for encountering strong feelings. And stories can provide templates for healing, without preaching or pointing fingers.

That first time, I fell into it almost by accident. The stories were left alone to do their work. Experience would teach me that when the atmosphere is really explosive that is the best and safest way. Traditional stories are more comfortable for most listeners than true-life stories because they are an additional step removed from direct experience. Charged experience is safer when veiled in metaphor – particularly for children.

I learned to do consciously what I’d done that day by accident, to let the audience find the meaning for themselves, rather than interpret the story for them. A story does not always evoke the response I expect. Most stories contain various layers of meaning and every listener brings a unique understanding and experience to their listening. I am often surprised, illuminated and humbled by individual reactions to a particular story.

I learned to encounter the emotions of sorrow more deeply by discussing the story, but confining the discussion to THE CONTEXT OF THE STORY. I might ask the audience to think about which character or event resonated with them the most. (Sometimes I ask a few of them to identify their choices, just to show that there are no right or wrong answers.) I found that it was safe to discuss the behavior and motivation of the characters in the story. Fictional characters can be commented on and criticized freely. This is lion taming; the metaphor of the story acts as leash, chair, and whip, keeping the dangerous teeth and claws at bay.

In a more intimate setting, I learned to deepen the exercise by having participants do short writes (five to ten minutes) on a specific topic related to the story, either before or after the discussion. With children, adolescents, or an adult group that is comfortable together, I sometimes have the listeners act out the story. Its fun and moving physically through the events of the story can allow it to work at a deeper level. I sometimes ask that they draw an image which represents the story to them, or just use colors on the page to respond to the story (pastels work really well for this). Or, with plenty of time (and lots of old magazines), I may have them create collages to illustrate the character/event that stood out most vividly for them.

It’s more difficult to allow the discussion to enter the realm of personal experience. That’s letting the lions out to roam the room. I found this out the hard way; when I asked a group of women to share memories which were triggered by a particular story. The gentlest story I heard was of a young woman whose boyfriend left her when she got pregnant. The harshest was of a sexual predator who courted a woman with an eye to her unborn child. That time, I stayed after class for two hours until everyone had their say. I learned not to let the lions out unless there was plenty of time (and support) for processing; as well as time for closure. A simple ritual (or a short, gentle, story) can be an effective method to accomplish closure at the end of the session.

I learned that I can’t expect audiences to face strong feelings unless I am willing to deal with my own. This means being clear within myself about the issues I am addressing. Hospice, for example, discourages volunteers who have experienced death in the family in the last year. It means being willing to share my own “stuff.” And it means debriefing, which can be writing in a journal, confiding in a friend or counselor, staff discussion or whatever works best. These processes help me to avoid the emotional backlash I experienced with the first group of girls. I learned that in spite of all that, no matter how careful I am about setting boundaries, sometimes a particular person or group will get to me emotionally; sometimes a lion will follow me home. I learned not to beat myself up about that, but not to turn my back on the feelings either. When rage or grief follows me home, it requires something from me, some attention to unfinished business of my own. I learned that when it comes to lions, it pays to listen, pay attention, stay alert. It’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s gross carelessness to make the same mistake twice.

I’ve learned a lot, and Fm still learning. But stories have been my teachers. Stories that I have read or heard or written or told have helped me to find my way without being devoured by grief or rage, to find safe paths through the wilderness. I’ve learned to trust my wisdom and experience, to hone my intuition, to learn from my mistakes. I’ve learned that the audience brings as much or more to the story as I do. It is a blessing and a gift to share stories that may help others to find their way, in turn, through lion country.

More Tales Addressing Anger or Grief

“Beauty and the Beast” from Shirley Temple’s Storybook, edited by Josette Frank, Random House, Inc. 1958.

The Crane Wife by Sumiko Yagawa, translation by Katherine Paterson, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1981

“Demeter and Persephone” from The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch, The Heritage Press, New York, 1942

“Ii Naoto and his Wife Osada” from Tales from the Japanese Storytellers, by Post Wheeler, John Weatherhill Inc., 1964,

The Seal Oil Lamp by Dale De Armond, Sierra Club Books, Little, Brown and Company, a Yolla Bolly Press Book, 1988

Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, Edited by Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield, Harper: San Francisco, 1991 contains the following stories:

  • “Samurai Story”- Buddhist, pp. 295-296
  • “Right Use of Anger”- Buddhist, pp. 297
  • “The Man Who Planted Trees” – pp. 33-42
  • “The Dancing Master of Kung Fu” – Pierre De Lattre, pp. 154-161
  • “The Brave Little Parrot” – Buddhist, pp. 92-9
  • “The Captured Bird” – pp. 391-392

“Vasilisa the Beautiful” from Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanasev and translated by Norbert Guterman, Random Books, 1945. Copyright renewed 1973 by Random House, Inc.

This article originally appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 3, Spring 2002
Kimberley King earned a B.A. in English Literature from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR. She is a co-founder of Arts of Passage, a story-based, multi-disciplinary performance arts project for high-risk youth at Juvenile Justice, residential treatment facilities and alternative schools. Kim tells stories, teaches artist residencies and is also a writer and musician.

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