The Flute Player

Excerpted from Swallowed by a Snake

Tom Golden LCSW

The following story may help in looking at other aspects of grief:

Long, long ago, in a place far south of here, there was a village at the edge of the jungle. This village was a peaceable place except for one major problem, the boa constrictor. These boas were not the snakes we know today; they were huge snakes many times as large as the boas of our modern world. They were uncontrolled animals whose viciousness was only exceeded by their appetite. Much of the time they ate other animals, but without a doubt the boas' favorite dish was humans. Snakes would enter the village at will and eat whatever and whomever they pleased. There was no place to hide from these monstrous beasts.

One day in the village, a woman was speaking openly about her pain related to the boa. She spoke of her two children who had been devoured by this beast and was lamenting the state of affairs of having to live in such an unsafe place. She wondered aloud if there might not be someone who could put this snake reign of terror to an end. Her hope was that the men, women, and children of the village could live in peace.

A man had been listening to her pain and suffering. He was the man who played the flute most beautifully. He pondered her words and knew that something must be done. He packed his bundle of maize and his small knife, and off he went into the jungle, playing his flute as he walked.

The man carefully chose his spot in the jungle and sat and played his flute. He was aware that the boa was approaching, but continued his playing. Then without warning the snake attacked and swallowed the flute player with one bite. The darkness from within the snake's belly was complete. The flute player tried to make himself as comfortable as possible, then unpacked his belongings and took out his knife. He consciously and deliberately used the knife to cut away the snake's belly a bit at a time. The snake reacted to this tremendous pain in its belly by making as much room for the flute player as it possibly could.

The flute player knew that it was going to take awhile to complete the task of killing this huge snake. He proceeded to cut and eat a bit of the snake's flesh each time he got hungry. This went on for quite some time, and the snake was continually in pain. He made it a point to tell all of his snake friends to never again eat a human, or they would suffer the consequences of this great pain that he now felt.

After awhile the flute player came to the boa's heart. Upon cutting this, the boa died. At that point the flute player emerged from the snake and returned to the village playing his flute. Everyone in the village was surprised to see him and asked where he had been. The flute player responded that he had been in the boa, and to prove it he showed them a piece of the snake's heart. The people then knew that the snake was indeed dead.

This beautiful story speaks about grief. It tells us that going into grief may at times be like being eaten by a snake. We are cut off from our everyday life, we feel that our existence is confined, and we are surrounded by our grief like the flute player was. Our world is completely changed, going from life as we know it into the belly of a snake. Imagine being in the belly of a huge snake. Dark. A very tight spot. Every place you turn, there is the belly of the snake. The entire environment is this wet, warm, restrictive belly, pulling at you to conform to its wishes. This is similar to the way a person may feel who is experiencing a deep grief. Sometimes the grief takes over, and you feel that your life has to conform to the grief rather than to your own wishes.

Many times we have a sense that there is no way out of the situation, that the grief we are experiencing is never going to end. Part of a significant grief is the feeling that the grief has become the only reality and will continue forever. The flute player must have sometimes felt the same as he experienced his struggle. He took his bag of maize and knife with him, realizing that this was not a short term project. He knew that he must cut away a little bit of the belly at a time, and he seemed to have faith that eventually he would get to the "heart of the matter." This is the way it is with grief. We need to come prepared and be ready for the long haul. Grief is not a short term project; some types are lifelong struggles. With the death of a child for example, the parents are in the belly of grief for years. After the first year or two they find that they are still in the belly. Although probably not in the same way as they experienced it in the first year after the death, the pain is still strong and stays strong for a long time. This kind of loss leaves behind the old metaphor for grief which is that of a wound, and brings forth a different image: that of an amputation. Dealing with a loss like the death of a child is more like learning how to live after a part of you has been cut off than it is like healing from a wound. What I have seen these people do is to find other parents who are also in the belly and form small communities that can honor their grief. Our culture superficially expects that these parents will heal from their grief in a relatively short period of time, and it just is not so. Often I have worked with a parent who has been asked by a friend, "Aren't you over that yet?" Sometimes this question comes after only a few months. We need to honor these people for learning how to live in the belly and not tacitly demand that they don't mention the belly they are in.

The flute player was prepared for his journey. He took along what he would need for his prolonged struggle. He didn't kill the snake with one blow; he knew that he had to carve away a bit at a time. This is the way it is with grief; we need to carve away at it a bit at a time. We need to realize that each time we experience the feelings involved in our grief we are taking another chunk out of the snake's belly and getting a little closer to the heart of the matter. Many times people don't realize that this is the nature of grief. They feel that honoring and acknowledging their grief is not having any effect. The snake wants you to feel that it is hopeless, that you are never getting out, that your pain is endless, that you should lie down and be digested. This is not the case. With most grief, cutting away a bit at a time will eventually lead you out of the belly.

In our story, one of the reasons the flute player responded to the call of the village woman was that children were being killed. This is also true with grief. When we are carrying unresolved grief within us and dragging the snake behind us, we lose our child-like qualities, such as spontaneity and creativity. Our child within is being strangled. Our reasons for wanting to kill the snake should include the renewal of our passion and creativity, which will emerge after we leave the snake.

When in the belly, we must learn a different way of living. In this dark, restrictive environment our usual skills for living are not particularly effective. The situation calls on us to use parts of ourselves that are not our usual strengths. Instead of seeing clearly what is before us, we might have to grope around, using our sense of touch rather than our eyes. Once our activity has brought us into the belly, we may need to find or develop other skills that will help us in navigating this inner terrain.

The flute player in our story found a way to enter his grief through his flute playing. Men tend to find activities that will help them in being in the belly, and this is the case with many men in our culture. With our void of socially-endorsed grieving rituals, men have had to be creative in finding active ways to lead them into their boa. Many times the activities that men find, like our protagonist's flute playing, will be related to their psychological strengths. Finding and using this strength as a means to enter into grief is a vital exercise for men. Notice that the flute player did not continue playing once he was in the belly; he had to use other skills in order to deal with the snake. Also notice that his work was not done from the outside, but was accomplished from inside the snake. This is the way it is with grief. We must do this work from the inside, but find our way into it through our strengths.

Excerpted from Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing pages 14-18.
Tom Golden LCSW

Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. You can find out more about Ton's private practice here. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also order his book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing on this site or through


Tom Golden LCSW
 P.O. Box 83658
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20883
301 670-1027