Cry, Heart, but never break
Saturday morning mediations on death
There is a beautiful children’s book, written by Glenn Ringtved, called “Cry, Heart, but never break”.
It tells the story of Death arriving at a house, where an elderly grandmother is in her final hours upstairs, while her grandchildren sit around the kitchen table upstairs.
I found this book so beautiful because it portrayed death in a way that had never been shown to me in a Christian-Western culture.
Death was always something cruel and tragic. Something that no one spoke about which even to me, seemed difficult, considering it was the one thing that will happen to all of us. Death was taboo. Hidden in hospitals and happening to other people. In fact, I essentially gave up on the idea of a traditional religion when, after a family friend passed away at a young age from cancer, no one from the church could give me any half-decent reason as to why someone so young should die. All the platitudes really didn’t make sense. Not “we’re in pain and nothing makes sense”, they literally just didn’t make sense.
So when I discovered this gem a few years later, I was confounded to find another description of death, not bound by religion or consequence. There was no punishment of wrong-doing or promises of angels. Just Death, personified, sitting down at the kitchen table with some children, sad as they are that he has to do his job. Ringtved describes Death in the most incredible, comforting way.
“Some people say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.”
The children try to persuade Death to go, thinking that if they keep giving him coffee he will stay up all night and have to leave the house before his job is done. They think his work can only be done under the cover of night.
To soothe the children Death tells a story of two brothers, Sorrow and Grief, who get married to two sisters, Delight and Joy. They make two balanced couples, Sorrow and Joy, Delight and Grief. One only really understanding him/herself, in relation to the other.
Death explains to the children,
“It is the same with life and death… What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”
With the kids solemn understanding, he goes upstairs.
One of the last lines he leaves the children with is, “Cry, Heart, but never break”. It really is one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read. For me it gave complexity and nuance to this terrible thing that no one seemed to know how to talk about. In death, don’t forget life, In your sorrow and despair, don’t forget that you would not know them if you had never met their beautiful wives, Joy and Delight. Let the pain of life bend you, but never break you.
Sometimes when I wonder why we make art at all, I have to think about this random author, in a different country with a life a world away from mine, who had the bravery to pitch a story about death to a children’s book publisher, and bring this peace of beauty and comfort into the world.
PS: I found out about the book from Brainpickings — the most wonderful email I get every week. Her article on the book is here.