We often speak about the two wings of the bird in grief tending – an image that comes from Martìn Prechtel. The two wings represent grief and praise, the pain of life and the joy of life. In the teaching as I’ve come to understand it, a full life means one where both wings are strong. We cannot love deeply without deep grief. We cannot celebrate beauty, open to the joy of the moment, let ourselves be free with laughter or creativity without also meeting those moments when the loved one is gone, the laughter and beauty is finishing. Impermanence means every sources of joy comes to an end, everything living dies, every moment passes.
I’ve been with these two wings as I hear people who are either with increasing loneliness, stress or hardship themselves, or are witnessing others in that state. In a recent grief sharing someone spoke of those who have died of lockdown. Not dying from COVID, but from the diminishing of life under the conditions of lockdown.
It brought into stark relief for me a deeper insight about the two wings that grief tending has clarified for me. That one wing is often what pulls us into life – the love, beauty, joy, connection, tenderness, welcome of the praise wing. And the other, the reality of the pain life brings, can pull us away from life.
What does this look like, this pulling away from life? For some this might be more speed, distractions or busyness. For others it could be more numbing, more sugar or alcohol or other drugs. For some it might be more armouring, even violence, to self or to others, human or not. There are many ways of trying to cope, to express the pain, to manage it. For some it is literally a pull away from life, towards death. I have an image of humans, in a continuing dance between these two pulls.
I was always powerfully struck by attachment theory as a way of understanding not just a model of human development, but the ongoing issue for us as humans – if we don’t feel attached here in life by those who love us, see us, welcome us, our presence here is loosened. And if we didn’t have that early attachment to pull us into life as we left the holding environment of the womb somehow we can be always trying to find that pull, that holding, which encourages us to show up, to tell us we’re wanted, needed, welcomed.
I’ve been listening to speakers at the Embodiment conference talking about trauma. For me the simplest understanding about trauma is that it’s something that didn’t heal, leaving scars that continuously impair how a person or a community function. Trauma is exactly the absence of that pull back to life, of the warm arms that hold us after something overwhelmed our ability to cope; perhaps a group coming to make a ceremony to heal a great injury. I see that the most lasting effects in our culture are internal, to psyche, to our emotional and mental bodies, to our trust in the world, in others and ourselves, to our capacity to keep showing up in life. I see that we have lost the technologies and capacities to recognise when someone needs to be pulled in, to know when I need to be pulled in, to trust that I can ask for something, for help, for a response.
In the regular absence of this, what happens? For children, and adults?
I personally don’t believe our culture is one that is frightened of death. I think we’re entranced by death, hence our capacity for creating it on global, industrial scales. What we’re really frightened of is living, of showing up for life fully, with all its beauty and warmth, all its loss and decay, all its generative power and its falling to nothing.
This image, of life and death tugging at one arm each feels helpful to me in this time. When I speak about it in grief tending circles I speak of the need to focus on the wing of praise if we are to grow our capacity for stretching into the wing of grief.
But also the wing of grief is needed, to bring vulnerability so that we can be closer to each other. It feels vital – like the word, necessary to life – that we can sometimes be received in our pain by other humans, who give a response to our pain, even if it’s just a simple “I hear you, I’m with you”. Part of the magic of grief tending together is that what feels overwhelming on our own can often be held in by a group. And that each of us can be both the one falling apart, and the one holding things together, in turn.
I’m wishing that we can all find a voice that responds, even if there isn’t a warm hug as well. I’m continuing to offer on line grief sessions. It’s not the same as being in the same room, but we can still be present to each other’s grief, and each other’s capacity for offering love, even in the toughest times.