Lessons in Grief | Sojourners

Lessons in Grief

What a Grieving Mother Whale Teaches Us About Humanity

Tahlequah has been carrying her deceased calf in mourning for more than 10 days, the longest recorded period for an orca whale to mourn in history.

While reporters watch the period of mourning unfold, I wonder what this can teach us about our humanity, about suffering, about grief, about love.

Orca whales in the Puget Sound area have been endangered since 2005 according to an NPR report.

Tahlequah, who lost her baby, was expected to mourn for a day or two, but continued to carry the deceased whale through the waters, her pod assisting her along the way.

It is important that as people, we watch for what creation wants to teach us.

What could it possibly mean to us that an endangered species of orca whales hold a mourning period after losing their young? While mourning is a natural habit of many creatures, we should pay attention to Tahlequah’s process of grief. Perhaps if we observe the creatures we have been called to care for and learn from, we might learn something about what it means to be human.

In America in 2018, we are all traumatizing ourselves over and over again, and it’s as simple as turning on the television or logging onto social media for the latest news. According to a Gallup poll from December, 79 percent of Americans feel stressed sometimes or frequently in their everyday life.

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, the most common source of stress among Americans is the future of the nation, followed by money. This stress can be seen in the antagonism of our social media conversations, in everyone’s heightened awareness that we are a country in identity crisis, ongoing battles for who matters and who doesn’t.

Our constant look into the face of injustice paired with our own personal struggles leaves many of us longing for healing and looking for peace around every corner. We are carrying our grief and our trauma with us, often unaware of how to deal with it in a healthy way.

Take, for instance, the crisis of immigrant children being separated from their parents and kept in detention centers. The blatant human rights abuses and lack of care provided to these children is of course a cause for concern among lawyers fighting for immigrant families. A CBS News study found that sixty-seven percent of Americans call it unacceptable to separate children from parents who've been caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally.

Whether people are actively working to end such policies or not, this discussion has not gone unnoticed by much of America, and only adds to our communal grief and trauma. It is a conversation we should be paying attention to, especially in the church, and it involves grieving our nation’s identity and asking what the future looks like if we are to be people who pursue justice.

With recent discussions around emotional health and even mental illness within and outside the church, we have to continue asking if we can grieve and process difficult things in safety.

If we look globally, we find other traditions and cultures that practice what it means to grieve and to experience death. In Hinduism, death is part of the journey to another season in life. They practice a 13-day mourning period after someone has passed.

In Jewish culture, mourning often takes place for a week after the funeral of the deceased as they practice shiva, meaning seven. During this time, family and friends come to visit those mourning, bringing them food and caring for them as they honor the life of the person who has passed on.

In some Evangelical Christian communities, mourning, though not for a certain time period, involves bringing meals and checking in on those who are grieving. But in many Christian communities, grief is difficult to talk about, and in American society, we’re often expected to move on quickly from our grief.

Indigenous peoples also practice mourning ceremonies, differently for different tribes and communities. The process of honoring life and grieving death is part of honoring the cycles of life, using the Medicine Wheel, a symbol of indigenous culture to guide us through different life seasons of birth, childhood, adulthood, and death. We remember that life is a cycle, not a straight line, and that grief is a long process, not something we can rush through.

A pod of whales, swimming alongside a mother mourning her child, is reminding us that grief is a process we cannot ignore. It is a process we need to write about and think about, something we should be talking about in our faith spaces and even in our businesses. Because no one is exempt from grief, no one should be pressured to grieve too quickly. And with all the trauma and grief that consistently surrounds us in America today, we need to be paying attention to ourselves and to one another.

The word Tahlequah, like the town in Oklahoma, is a Cherokee word "Ta'ligwu" meaning "just two," or "two is enough." And I can’t help but notice the irony of that, of a mother whale nicknamed Tahlequah, mourning the loss of her child, mourning the fact that she is no longer part of a pair, no longer able to swim alongside her child.

Maybe Tahlequah’s grief reminds us that we are meant for community —

Me and you.
Us and them.
Creator and creation.
Mother and child.
Mourner and comforter.

Maybe if we pay attention to the way the creatures of the world grieve, we will learn to pay attention to our own grief, and to share our grief with the people around us.

We do, after all, belong to each other and to this earth we inhabit, and Tahlequah and her precious calf remind us of that today.

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