On July 24, 2018, Tahlequah (aka J35) gave birth to a beautiful baby calf, sending waves of joy throughout the Pacific Northwest. Tahlequah is one of only about seventy-five remaining members of a species of endangered whales. The region’s (and now an international following’s) joy was soon doused in a tsunami of grief with the untimely death of the calf barely thirty minutes after birth. Tahlequah went into full-on-momma-whale mode. For over a week now, the endangered killer whale has been “tending” to her dead calf – meaning she refuses to let go, literally.
For days, she has pushed the deceased calf through the water with her forehead. Tahlequah has carried the calf by its fin. When tides and currents pull the calf’s body under the surface, Tahlequah musters the kind of strength only a parent can and dives deep into the belly of the sea to retrieve her lost baby.
Tahlequah’s pod (aka whale family) is surrounding her. Primarily, the pod keeps her company and reminds the momma whale that she must eat. Researchers keep vigil at a respectable distance. Daily, they keep watch for the tiny calf that appears as a shimmering wave across her. As the days progress, however, the baby calf becomes dimmer and dimmer.
One researcher commented, “What is beyond ‘grief?’ I don’t even know what the word for that is, but that is where she is.” (Deborah Giles, Research Scientist, as quoted by Lynda V. Mapes, “Grieving Mother Orca Falling Behind Family as She Carries Dead Calf for Seventh Day,” www.SeattleTimes.com, July 30, 2018) Giles went on to note how Tahlequah’s situation is a metaphor for the declining whale population.
Perhaps, but are we missing a bigger metaphor boat?
This momma whale’s love and deep mourning is but a shadow of human mourning. Tahlequah’s “tour of grief” should open our eyes to our family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues who tour grief daily – silently. We are all lost in lament. We are all endangered species.
Where is the poster child for how grieving humans are struggling to survive? Indeed, we should be asking the question, “What is beyond ‘grief’?” For too many humans, the answer is isolation and deep despair.
Right now, the eyes of the world are following Tahlequah and her calf. Where will the eyes of the world turn when the baby calf slips finally into the depths of the sea? When our eyes can no longer perceive the obvious signs of mourning, some other shiny object will divert our attention.
Initial expressions of grief can be hauntingly beautiful. There is art in the raw emotion that Tahlequah is parading before the world. There is beauty in the vulnerable strength of those who are willing to put their suffering on display. It captivates us. We want to see it, but we do not want to touch.
The reality of grief in the long-term isn’t so glamorous. Initial loss is like an oil spill. The mess is everywhere. Crews scramble to contain it and do, for the most part. Yet, a slick remains. It clings to everything it touches. Pools of oil that escaped the initial clean-up explode onto shore. If you look closely – turning it to just the right light, there is a subtle splendor in that grief slick. There is a little shimmer of hope reflected in the mundane – the things many take for granted – the little tasks of daily living, like breathing. These are the things that tax strength of the bereaved. Conquering these things is the true art of “moving on.”
If Tahlequah’s brave display of despair does nothing else, I pray that she helps the world understand just how hard it is to “let go” and to “move on.” If there is a number one complaint that I could share between the “bereaved” world and the rest of the world – sometimes you guys in the “rest of the world” push the bereaved to “let go” and to “move on” – way too soon. Once our baby calves are no longer visible to the rest of the world, it is easy to assume that “things are better.”
How can we show more compassion for a whale’s need for time than we do our fellow humans? No one is pushing the momma whale to let go or to move on. Researchers are hanging on the outskirts, watching, and waiting for Tahlequah to move on in her own time. Maybe it is easier to tour grief with Tahlequah because we can’t get close enough to get dirty. We can just hang, watch, and wait.
How much waiting is enough? That is ultimately the question that whale watchers and researchers are mulling. Perhaps, the J-Pod (the name for the whale pod of which Tahlequah is a part) wonders the same thing in their own way. How long will we swim beside Tahlequah? How long can she survive in this state? How long can we survive in this state with her? How long will she carry her baby calf?
These are the same questions that we should be asking when it comes to human suffering and grief.
How long will we swim beside Tahlequah? As long as she needs.
How long can she survive in this state? You’d be amazed.
How long can we survive in this state with her? Longer than we realize.
How long will she carry her baby calf? Forever.
Stick around after the initial clean-up. Be willing to get a little grief slick on our hands and our hearts.
Ms. Tahlequah, thank you for your unabashed vulnerability. Though different species, we share a similar heartbreak. Together, we are both species endangered. Yours of extinction. Mine of extinguishing the ability to connect on the level that makes us uniquely human. They say that babies don’t come with manuals. True. And, you and I know all too well that there is certainly no handbook for how to grieve the loss of one. Together, I pray that our tales may open conversations about grief and how together we can do it better.
It is important for me to acknowledge that I personally have a very strong and wide spread net of support in the form of family, friends, online support groups, and most importantly faith. For each and every one of you – I am grateful! When I become isolated in my grief, I cannot blame lack of support.
Not every grieving soul is in the same position. My prayer is that this blog post might awaken our collective eyes and hearts to those around us who are not getting the support that they need. I pray that there will come a day when we share our human grief with the same passion and compassion with which the world has been sharing Tahlequah’s gut-wrenching heartbreak.