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May Benatar, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

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Kafka and the Doll: The Pervasiveness of Loss

Posted: 10/03/11 11:40 AM ET

Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying. She had lost her doll and was desolate.

Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. Unable to find the doll he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.

"Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures." This was the beginning of many letters. When he and the little girl met he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll. The little girl was comforted.

When the meetings came to an end Kafka presented her with a doll. She obviously looked different from the original doll. An attached letter explained: "my travels have changed me... "

Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll. In summary it said: "every thing that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form."

There are many versions of the story of Kafka and the doll. I heard this one from Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher in Washington D.C.

Only after many tellings am I able to relay this story without crying. And I have found that when I tell it to others young or old, my listener is invariably moved, occasionally bursting into tears.

When I went online to find confirmation for the story, I found one source that referred to it as a "healing story." That seems right. For whether this actually ever happened the story is real and true and provides a template for healing.

For me there are two wise lessons in this story: Grief and loss are ubiquitous even for a young child. And the way toward healing is to look for how love comes back in another form.

I think there are advantages to viewing grief as omnipresent, an inescapable part of being a human being. Grief encompasses far more than the loss of a loved one, although that is perhaps its most profound manifestation. The loss of the doll in the story is devastating to the little girl. This is what moves Kafka to create the wonderful stories of travel and adventure. He perceived the depth of her pain. It is reported that he put as much time and care into creating these letters for the little girl as he did in other writings.

Holding the perspective of the universality of loss, helps us with shame and loneliness. If a profound grief reaction to divorce or children leaving home or the loss of a pregnancy, or unemployment, or retirement, or having to confront the limitations of our children, or aging, or the loss of health is something I share with my fellow beings, I am less alone. And I don't have to be ashamed that I feel the way I do, for shame is part of the legacy of isolation.

And love coming back, in a different form? I believe it was Kafka's letters that were the real gift of love, and what was ultimately healing for the little girl was the relationship that was the balm. Someone cared enough for her pain to write her lovely stories of the lost doll's adventures. A great writer at that.

How healing it is to hold this conviction, that love will return. It is our job to recognize it in its new form.