This week is that week
Death-versaries, the Bardo, and the precarious life of a fledgling
Hello. This post is about Death & Birds.
Friends, I promise there’ll be a solo Birds post soon, but, this week is that week, so it didn’t feel right. And what is ‘that week’, you might ask? It’s a Death-versary week; when the anniversary of the Death of a loved one comes around. Sometimes, the stars will even align so that you get multiple Death-versaries in one week—and this week is that week for me.
My mother died on June 14th, 1989 (I was 3) and one of my dearest friends died on June 17th, 2022 (I was 36).
I was curious in the lead up to this week as to how it might feel. I am blessed to have processed a lot of the grief I’ve felt around these, and other, losses. When my friend, Daniel, died last year I had been reading ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ and, at a loss as to what to do with the rolling and, frankly, panic-inducing tsunami-like waves of devastation that were coming at me thick and fast, I decided to practice a ritual of reading to him, daily, for 49 days. In Tibetan Buddhism, the transition between Death and reincarnation can take up to 49 days, and this transition is spent in a liminal space known as ‘the Bardo’; which, translated, means “gap, interval, intermediate state, transitional process, or in between”.
I am not a practicing Buddhist, nor a practicing anything that I can clearly define, but, nonetheless, I have a deep respect for the tradition and I had a deep need for a space into which I could place some of the very powerful energy of heartbreak, and so, every day for 49 days I would light a candle or some incense, sit quietly, say his name aloud three times (“Daniel, Daniel, Daniel”), and then read to him from The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The first few days of this practice surprised me. They felt enormously co-creative. When I first stopped reading and closed the book I immediately felt compelled to open it again and continue to read aloud, as though Daniel wanted, or needed, this kind of engagement. Intuiting the presence of people who are no longer living is something that can be quite uncomfortable to discuss—not least because there is no empirical data to back up an intuition, not everyone has experienced it, and it has the potential to require a drastic shift in ones belief-system. But—either entirely in my grief-drenched imagination or in some kind of ‘thin place’1 where the division between typical, waking life and something far more mysterious had lessened—Daniel and I spent some time together.
About ten days into the practice it shifted into something different. It began to feel as though the ritual was more of a solo one, and it became instead about honouring the days that he had spent alive; from the joy he had conjured, to the injury he had suffered, and everything in between.
All this to say that the seven-week-long process of daily acknowledging Daniel, and my grief at his departure, played an enormous part in my not buckling under the weight of his disappearance.
I was, however, recently reminded of the Tonkin theory of ‘Growing around Grief’. For those not familiar, this is the theory that grief does not, in fact, diminish over time but we instead grow around it—slowly expanding and creating space for things other than grief to occupy our consciousness. Please see some, slightly dizzying, visual aids below where we (the grief stricken) are represented by the orange circles, and our grief by the dark blue ones :
I was reminded of this when one of our Magpie fledglings died (I use ‘our’ to distinguish between the Magpies which co-inhabit our garden, and the Magpies at the Rescue Centre2). We’re not sure why he died, he had all his feathers and was being tended to by his parents. Being a fledgling is a very precarious thing (fledging marks the time when a bird has just left the nest and has very few life skills; they have not yet learned to fly, to feed or to defend themselves)—but I was, nonetheless, devastated.
I wracked my brain for what I could, and should, have done differently, how I should have intervened, and I berated myself at having failed as a good friend to Birds, and railed against the unfairness of a life finished too soon. I held the little Magpie in my hands and wept for him, and for Daniel—the grief at his loss still there, still huge, still ready to be felt at a moments notice.
Everyone, and every thing, can be a teacher. Since the passing of the fledgling, when I see a Magpie I think about how low the chances of it reaching adulthood were, and how little time it had to learn how to be out in the world. This thought has naturally extended to people—when I walk past a stranger my mind ponders the trials and tribulations that they, too, have had to endure so that they, too, still walk among us.
We are all here despite extraordinary odds. Love accordingly.
“A thin place is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense the divine more readily.” Mark D. Roberts