Within the first week of our move to a new rental home, one of the chickens that came with the house threw up. On and off she did this that first week.
When she stopped, we thought: great! Problem solved. All of us get sick sometimes, right?
We held her, and stroked her, and secretly loved her uniquely – her gentle spirit, her soft, caramel color, how readily she’d let us pick her up.
So when she grew lethargic weeks later, spending entire days in the cool shadows under the coop rather than moving about the yard, the lines on our foreheads deepened. Eventually she stopped leaving her roost in the coop altogether, and the day I decided to call the bird doctor for advice, I noticed flies – LOTS of them – buzzing near her body.
It all happened so fast, and by the time we got a good look at her underside, it was clear she had an infection far beyond repair. She was gone within the hour.
In retrospect, we could have taken her to the doctor sooner. We could have checked her body diligently. We could have listened to our intuitions that something wasn’t right with her and then acted on those thoughts to try to right it.
But we didn’t. And she died.
+ + + + + + + + +
Bad things happen. Bad in the sense that they feel awful. And there’s no Grand Book of Awful to say what awfulnesses are how bad for whom. Loss is loss in a subjective way, as is betrayal and disillusionment and physical pain. You know when they tear your heart or body apart. Observers can only guess at it.
+ + + + + + + + +
When our chicken died, Charlotte (my 3-year-old) went quiet and gripped my hand hard. She needed a couple strong hugs, but mostly gripped my hand and wouldn’t let go.
Eli (now 6) wept. At first his flow of tears was steady, but then words and questions punctuated it, then conversation, then silence, and then it came at unexpected moments throughout that day and those following.
My husband climbed the hill behind our house and dug a grave.
I moved instinctively toward flowers to adorn it – gold roses because our chicken’s name was Goldie and we remembered her grace and beauty; pink because we loved her; white because she wasn’t suffering anymore. This was our family’s first graveside experience together, so we explored what it meant to honor Goldie this way, to consider how her body would become part of the earth again and the life that grew there, to wonder whether her spirit might return as something else completely. Eli asked if we could bring a bit of Goldie-earth with us if we ever have to move.
It was a sad, sweet experience that felt good in a way I can’t explain. Through the whole thing I felt such love for all involved and such tenderness for life’s losses and the different ways we find to cope with them.
+ + + + + + + + +
Trust tending (the name of this site) is a practice, much like yoga, meditation, exercise, or prayer. There are long-term goals one can have with it (peace that runs deep, hope that can weather life’s storms), but every bit as key is the process. The “meantime” spaces. The day-to-dayness of it. Without attention to these, one can’t know the depth of it. One can’t come to trust the enoughness of right now, or of being a mess, or of being an oscillating mix of weak and strong, childlike and adult, terrified and comfortably at rest in Life’s arms.
So before we “get our shit together” and before we have years of therapy and before we have enough experience with loss and healing to know they can, in most cases, be parts of a whole, there is tending we can do.
When it comes to death and other bad things happening – bad in the sense that they feel awful – here’s what this type of tending can mean.
- Receiving tears like a gift (ours or someone else’s).
- Doing this again and again for as long and as often as they come. (This can feel metaphorically like doing sit-ups or squats to the point of muscle failure sometimes, so strong is our rush to make sadness go away.)
- Consciously holding tender space for our own numbness when we wish we could have access to feeling.
- Holding tender space for someone else’s “lack” of feeling (it’s there; it just hasn’t been able to the surface yet).
- Metaphorically throwing away all clocks and calendars that measure how long grieving should or should not happen. Letting it take whatever time it takes. No matter what others’ comfort level with our grief is.
- Leaning into love whenever possible. This one bears repeating.
- Leaning into love whenever possible.
- When pain is so great, and love feels gone, or the expressions of it available to us frustrating or annoying or unfitting in some way, being gentle with our inability to receive it. Practicing saying, in such cases, “This, too, is part of what it means to grieve.”
- Viewing grief like the very best medicine, drug, therapy, exercise, relationship, sex, or dark leafy greens you could gift yourself with.
- Viewing other people’s grief this way, too.
- Using your heart as much as you can (rather than your head) to determine what to do with how you feel.
- When your heart tells you you feel stuck or need help, reaching out for help to someone who feels safe. This might not be the person who is clamoring to help you most.
- Not right at first, but with time, holding the possibility that this awful thing can unfold into something beautiful and deeply good. Holding this possibility is not the same as painting over your awfulness with it. It’s not the same as believing it whole-heartedly or all the time. It’s just letting it be in the room with you and occasionally, if you want to or feel ready, giving it a glance.
+ + + + + + + + +
When Goldie’s burial was through, we went back inside. My husband headed back to the office and the kids and I to the couch. Eli’s tears were intermittent by that point and Charlotte, still quiet, picked up a flyer that was lying nearby. It was an advertisement from an art store that showed a picture of a mandala.
Do you know what a mandala is? It’s an intricate, 2-dimensional image that represents the universe, enlightenment (or the process leading to it), or the mix of enlightened and unenlightened things. Hindus and Buddhists use them in meditation, and their beauty is so striking that people who assign no spiritual significance to them often have them hanging in their homes. (Click here or here for some examples.)
Anyway, as I glanced at the mandala Charlotte held in her hand, I remembered a video I’d seen years before of Tibetan monks creating sand mandalas. Painstakingly, and with much reverence, these monks create perfectly symmetrical chalk drawings of mandalas – maybe 5 feet across – and then spend hours upon hours shaking brightly colored sand through tiny metal funnels to fill the drawings in in vibrant color.
The end results are breathtaking. You want to sit and stare at them forever. And all the more so once you know what it took to create them.
But do you know what they DO with these mandalas once they’re through? After all that earnest work, and hours of backbreaking dedication?
They sweep them up. As a meditation on impermanence. They sweep all that sand into a large vessel and pour it out into a moving body of water as a blessing to the world.
“May this beauty,” they say, in effect, “and our releasing of it, bless everything.”
(Watch this 4-minute video to see the whole process.)
As I took in that image, sitting there with my kids after Goldie’s death, I felt the whole universe in our hands. I felt the beauty of the lives and relationships and experiences of all of us – right then, of my family and our bird at rest on the hill behind our home – and the painstaking process of reaching where we are at any given moment – the myriad decisions and factors and tendings that take us to each point of our lives – and how in an instant everything changes. All that beauty and complexity swept and wiped away.
And how that process – the jarring awfulness that it is sometimes – isn’t where the story ends. Ever. It never is. The beauty that surrounds the awful – the love, the connection, the flow of tears that aren’t only about the one loss, the learning we do about how to honor what’s dear to us, how to be together, how to grieve: the beauty in the awful is a gift that keeps giving. A gift that flows from our unique losses and touches everything.
A gift that as much as I wish could be otherwise, flows from the very sweepings up – the very deaths – of life’s greatest gold.
+ + + + + + + + +
P.S. This post is the second of a four-part series exploring overtly what trust tending means. Click here for part one.
P.P.S. For more related reading from this site:
P.P.P.S. My soul friend, Alana Sheeren, has a wonderful free resource for people at all stages of the grieving process. It’s called Picking Up the Pieces, and incorporates her deep learnings from the loss of her young son, as well as reflections on grief from many other contributors. It can be accessed here.