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