Have you ever felt like no one in the world can feel the level of grief or sadness that you feel?
Parents who lose their children sometimes report that their grief feels like no other kind of loss. Children simply are not supposed to die before their parents do. It’s a basic tenant of our core belief system. Accepting the loss of a child is difficult.
My birthday boat excursion, on July 18th, spent with dolphins near Dana Point left me feeling peaceful and comforted for days. I was filled with a deep sense of love and fulfillment, so much so that I felt compelled to read about dolphins and how they deal with grief. If just observing them from the deck of a boat made me feel so contented, what else did they have to teach me?
I grew up being told that attributing human emotions to animals was scientifically unsound. I was taught the word anthropomorphic to describe the “improper” attribution of human characteristics to animals. My science instructors spoke in deprecating tones warning us to avoid assumptions that animals share any of the same intellectual, community or emotive capacities of humans. Even then I remember thinking, “Aren’t we part of the animal kingdom?”
Today animal researchers have collected a wealth of scientific observations over the last few decades that make this attitude hard to continue to support. Biologists have observed dolphins, whales, elephants and chimps demonstrating complex emotions once attributed only to human beings. There are many documented instances of deep animal grief at the death of their loved ones.
Sea lion mothers, watching a baby being eaten by a killer whale, wail pitifully. A mother elephant will stand vigil her dead newborn, her mouth, eyes and face (even the carriage of her ears, head and body) spelling grief. Sometimes an elephant mother will try to lift her dead baby elephant up or stuff grass in its lifeless mouth. A chimpanzee mother often becomes lethargic, staring into space, refusing food becoming hollow-eyed and gaunt if she loses her baby.
Pods of dolphin have been witnessed trying to help a dying calf. They take turns lifting the ailing creature to the surface. They swim around the sick baby dolphin in an erratic manner. Sometimes a mother dolphin will stay with her dead calf for days, carrying it on her back, retrieving it time and again if a wave separates them.
Captain Dave, who I sailed with, has encountered a dolphin funeral procession along the coast of Dana Point harbor. The mother dolphin carried her dead calf on her dorsal fin through the waves. The rest of the pod surrounded her and swam with her in a funeral procession. Scientists label the giving of care and attention to another animal ‘epimeletic behavior’. Dolphins have been seen trying to flip sick members of the pod over, perhaps trying to help them breathe.
Rather than make me sad, my findings cemented the deep happiness and sense of connection I’d had with the dolphin pod on my birthday. It underscored a bond that Brittany spoke to me about, a bond that all living creatures have.
I found the day transformative. It was one of many days where I felt Brittany’s encouragement swirling around me – willing me to soak up what is important. The message that I am left with when I fully let myself be present on these days – is that we are wired to seek connections. We may tell ourselves that we are independent but we are interdependent – like it or not. There is an inborn, untainted and irrefutable connection that humans have with nature.
Nature makes me feel that I am part of something bigger than myself. It rebalances my perspective. Thank you, sweet child of mine, for loving the natural world so beautifully. Our times together in nature are my favorite memories. I will love you always and forever.
Mother dolphin carrying dead calf on her dorsal fin.