Whales and Grief

Even on my best days I feel unsettled and disoriented. When I leave the house I check my purse several times to make sure I have everything — phone, keys, wallet — it’s all there. I go through a mental checklist, but I’m still uneasy. Then it hits me — It’s not something I’m missing, but someone.

I’ve written about how hard this time of year is for me. Seven years ago this month, my oldest son died from brainwinged-heart cancer just when he was supposed to go into fifth grade. Each day that passes in August I feel my chest grow tighter and my nerves shorter. I can’t concentrate. I have flashbacks and PTSD. I brace myself for the 24th, and again two days later for when we buried him on the 26th. And then Childhood Cancer Awareness Month starts in September — but let’s be clear — I’m never not aware.

I followed the recent news story of a mother outside of Seattle so consumed by grief she refused to let go of her deceased baby for seventeen days. Medical professionals who observed her behavior said they’d never seen anything like it. They were worried for her health and even her survival. She neglected to eat. Her family never left her side. They tried to help, in fact, relatives took turns holding her baby so she wouldn’t starve or become exhausted. She became exhausted anyway, but still wouldn’t let go.

I understand this momma’s heartache. It doesn’t really matter that she’s a whale and I’m a person. Grief transcends species and manifests similarly among bereaved mothers.

Scientists wonder if the orca, named Tahlequah, actually experienced grief or if we humans projected the emotion onto her. The fancy word for this is anthropomorphism. Well, I’m no scientist but I don’t think I’m projecting. I think it’s arrogant to assume we are the only species capable of primal and even complex emotions. I recognize a sister in bereavement when I see one. I can’t deny Tahlequah the authenticity of her heartache, which was on obvious display for two-and-a-half weeks.

Like Tahlequah, I know what it’s like to not let go. I held onto my son for ninety-six days while he lay in a coma in the PICU at Children’s Hospital. At first he was minimally responsive to my voice and touch — his increased heart rate was his response. I passed long hours each day holding him and whispering I love you in his ear. Summer progressed and the tumor snaked throughout his brain, and eventually his vitals stopped indicating if he knew I was there. Still, I held him. I knew he would die when the cancer finally touched the part of his brain that controlled his heartbeat.

One morning in late August, a concerned social worker gently asked my husband and me why we thought our son was still here when he should have died months ago. I said, “For the love.” My words hung in the air when his heart rate monitor went silent and his lips turned gray.

I told my best friend I would have held him for another ninety-six days if I had the chance. She said, who are you kidding you would have done it forever.

It’s torture to never hug, kiss, touch, tickle or hold hands with my son again. No more wiped tears, kissed boo-boos, or counted freckles. High-fives, winks and pats on the back are gone. I can never crack his toes. His voice and (oh, god) his laugh — what can I say…

Some people might say I’m anthropomorphizing to think Tahlequah knew what she would lose when she finally let go of her baby, but I know there’s no other explanation to hold on like she did.  It is a desperate and crazed way to prolong the inevitable — the real hell — that begins the next morning when you wake up without them.

It is now seven years after the first morning I woke up without him. I’m afraid still when I cry it will be impossible to stop. There’s a scientific myth that the cells in our bodies replace themselves every seven years, essentially making us different people from whom we were before. Except for neurons in the brain. Those don’t change. Those will hold my memories of my baby forever. 

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