As parents the greatest lesson we can teach our children is conceptualising loss and pain: from as trivial as losing a toy in school to losing someone dear to your life, because the inevitable cannot be fortified.
As parents we always strive to shield our children from getting hurt, making sure the sharp corners of the furniture around our house are safely child proofed even before they come into this world, placing our hands strategically below their bum when they start taking their first steps, running along with them when they first learn to ride their bikes, holding them tight and close when they face their first failures or just being there when they are heart-broken.
Our zest for being parents and thinking of what is best for our child makes us weave a cocoon around our children, a cocoon so strong and dense that even the strongest of all pain, rejection and deception will be left ineffectual. But loss is a part of life, very much like eating food or drinking water or just breathing air because death is inevitable and loss is just its shadow.
The loss of a parent or the loss of a child is rather depressing in itself; a pain so crushing that often one shuts off completely from the world and glides into the shadowy darkness slowly. Things of profound importance suddenly seem illogical and fatuous.Experiences and journeys that once brought happiness and added value to our lives suddenly become worthless.
The Heart and the Bottle is one such story told through the eyes of a child; it tells us that as parents the greatest lesson we can teach our children is conceptualising loss and pain: from as trivial as losing a toy in school to losing someone dear to your life, because the inevitable cannot be fortified.
The book is a gentle reminder of what we stand to lose when we lock away a loss. “Children … are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” E.B. White had once famously asserted in an interview
The Heart and The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is an amazing antidote that addresses children’s experience of the darkest moments of their lives.
The illustrations and the pictures address some powerful emotions within the reader and help in understanding that death and loss is as much part of his existence as is life and happiness. They are just the two sides of a coin; the side that is flipped around to face you just prepares you for the hind side.
In the book Jeffers tells the story of a little girl who is “much like any other”, full of curiosity and eagerness. Her exuberance and expansive curiosity is fuelled by the stories told by her father- stories of fascinating adventures in the seas, extraordinary animals in far off lands, mysteries of the human body, remarkable achievements by ordinary people propelled by their own curiosities in learning about new frontiers and the different phenomenal wonders around the earth.
As we move on with the story we witness some of the duo’s invigorating and blissful explorations until one day the chair where the little girl’s father used to sit and narrate the most fascinating stories suddenly becomes empty. We realise that the father of the little girl is now gone, gone for good. With exquisite subtlety the master story teller, Jeffers personifies loss merely through his paint brush and economy of words- a feeling so strong that it almost silently uncorks the outpour of hollowing emotions engendered by loss.
The little girl stands in front of an empty chair, the chair where the father daughter duo used to drift into the surreal and enthralling world of their books. She is holding a picture she has drawn illustrating one of her animal stories she had read with her father. The picture turns from day to night yet the chair is still empty and the girl is still waiting. Her sole companion in all her fantasy worlds is no longer there.
But if grief can be so overwhelming and crushing for an adult how can a child remain untouched by it? She couldn’t and it wasn’t long before the little girl is swept away by a black wave of despair and delusion and she “thought the best thing was to put her heart in a safe place.Just for the time being. So she put it in a bottle and hung it around her neck. And that seemed to fix things… at first.”
Did the fortification of the heart help the girl to overcome her grief and move on? When grief strikes, it doesn’t take into account our age or our capability to fathom the loss; it just strikes, often catching us off guard. And to the individual, whether an adult or a child, grief is like that stomping dinosaur staggering so high above us that we are unable to see the end of it. It feels like we are in a dark tunnel which has no end. It feels as if the world around us is slowly cutting its corners and converging towards us, crushing and suffocating us from within.
So the best we can do to survive is to fortify ourselves in our glass chamber so that even though the demon is nearing us it can never reach us. In the story the little girl is so grief stricken by the loss of her father that she zips the world around her and stays in her safe cocoon, oblivious, ignorant and unhappy. She was so blinded by her loss, that her father’s efforts to show the world and its magic through the eyes of the books goes down the drain.
But as Victor Hugo said..
“even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise”
the little girl who is now a grown woman finds her light; light which finally opens the Pandora Box, the bottle, and sets the girl free from the dungeon of captivity and re-find ‘Happiness’ once more.
Who is that ‘Messiah’ who sets this girl free?
Life and death are part of life; much like day and night. Without one the other is not possible; it’s like The Cause And Effect Theory of Philosophy which focusses on light-oriented thinking.
It is pointless to live in constant fear of the law of cause and effect. We should not be hampered by the vanishing traces of the past. Rather we should continue to live brightly and confidently in the present with the firm belief that when those past causes have disappeared, things will definitely get better and brighter.
As parents we should teach our children that death and loss is that ubiquitous albatross which is as real as life and happiness; sooner or later it will come. The only thing we can do is live in the present and not whine about the past or anticipate much of the future.
Please note: All images are attributed to the Book ‘The Heart and the Bottle’ by Oliver Jeffers