Strong Back, Soft Front: Staying Open to Emotion

“Every man is for himself, on that you can rely
You’ll have to hide behind a shield to stay alive.”

David Roth

The Armor Song 

How do we envision life—what image catches its essential nature? Is life basically a struggle, a constant challenge and confrontation with obstacles? Is life a gift, a blessing to receive with gratitude, care, and nurture? Is it a test or a trial for what comes next? Or perhaps life is like a small boat on a huge ocean riding out the great varieties of weather—storms swells which can capsize, dead calm with no discernible movement or progress, and strong breezes offering smooth sailing.

And how do we envision death? Is death a robber, threatening to steal what is most precious? Is death a cold and natural consequence of our poor decisions and fallible human condition? Could it be that death is an integral and natural, though sad, part of life, the balance of endings to go with life’s persistent beginnings? Is death the enemy or an old friend? The last word or the start of a new adventure?

However we envision life and death influences how we imagine our own living and dying and the living and dying of those around us. Life as struggle not only feels different than life as gift but it also points us toward different ways of living and interacting with the world. What is the best approach to life and what is the best approach to death?

Of course, there are not simple answers to these questions and life, and death, can be many things at once—struggle and gift, enemy and friend. And the answers can be different for us at different times of life. When first given a devastating diagnosis, it may be a time to fight and we put all we have within us into the battle. There can come a time, however, when continued fighting no longer makes sense to us, and we change our approach becoming more stewards of our gifts than warriors. This kind of transition does not fit everyone as for some life continues to be a battle, death continues to be the adversary, and if they go down, they will go down swinging. And who is to say that we cannot live as both stewards and warriors in whatever balance fits us and our time?

Grief is the same in that it matters how we envision it. Is grief just keeping our heads above water or swimming toward a distant shore? Are we travelers deciding what and how to carry or caretakers of a home filled with too many, and yet not enough, possessions from the past?

So many ways to think about life, death and grief, and each provides different insights and takes us in a different direction.

Drawing from experiences with the dying and from her spiritual tradition, Joan Halifax suggests a helpful and humane way to envision our approach to life, death and grief. She talks of the importance of “strong back, soft front.” Too often we can get caught in an unhelpful either-or choice when faced with pain and suffering. We can “be strong” and armor-up as directed by the father in David Roth’s “The Armor Song” quoted above. Or we can let down our shields and become a puddle. “Strong back, soft front” offers something different. Soft front suggests openness and compassion—for others and for ourselves. It is feeling the pain that is present in front and within us. Yet we are not overcome as we are supported by a strong back which gives us the strength to stand, or perhaps to stand again.

Strong back, soft front fits when adults are supporting children after a death. After the recent death of a beloved elementary school student, everyone—students, teacher and parents—were sad and upset. It was explained to the students that they might see their teachers and parents looking sad and upset, perhaps even crying, but their teachers and parents would still do the things they needed to do to take care of them and do their jobs. Strong back, soft front means feeling what there is to feel and doing what there is to do.

When we offer compassion, sometimes the last in line to receive it is ourselves and the bucket is too often empty when it comes to us. Strong back, soft front is not a supply, however—it is an approach or stance, a way of walking or being. It can be how we envision our relationships with life, others, and ourselves. In this way, we don’t run out of compassion because compassion is not a commodity—it is our soft front. And we are not overcome because supporting our soft front is our strong back, drawing strength from whatever sources we trust and imagine.

Our questions about how we envision life and death, losses and grief will likely continue to change and evolve as we do (and growth is also a powerful image). As we continue to question and envision, it’s comforting to imagine our vision perched securely upon a strong back and our hearts rooted deep within our soft fronts no matter where or how we go, land or are taken.

 

Greg Adams

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Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two young adult children—a son in college and a daughter working in-between college and graduate school. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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