The death of anyone or anything is tragic. Whether we are directly involved or witnesses from a distance, the presence of death resonates inside us and reminds us of the impermanence of our own lives. And so, the sight of a dead swan, lying half-submerged in a marsh, tugged at my heartstrings. But it was the response of the swan’s mate that really brought a lump to my throat. She (or possibly he) would not leave to join the other swans but swam for days in the vicinity of her mate. I could feel her sense of loss, of not being able to grasp exactly how her world had suddenly changed so drastically.
This incident, and the death of an eagle chick at a nest with a live webcam, triggered a debate among my bird-watching friends. Do birds mourn? Do they experience emotions of grief and loss? Or are we just projecting this? On the far side of the polemic are the people who are certain that birds and animals have the entire gamut of emotions humans do and maybe more. Way over on the other side are those who pronounce any attempt to ascribe human behavior or emotions to birds as anthropomorphizing. There is little understanding between the two groups. There are, however, attempts to find a middle way.
There was a shocking, or maybe touching, moment at the webcam when the mother eagle fed a bite of the flesh of the dead chick to the remaining chick. Then she removed the body from the nest. Was it a practical solution? Or a farewell ritual?
At the core of our experience of grief is the feeling that something that had formed us, has now vanished, leaving us unformed again. The partner we were building a life with is gone. Who are we if we are not in that life? The child we had nurtured is gone. Who can we nurture now? I can remember, when my mother passed after a long illness, I felt as if the glue that held me together was dissolving. I didn’t understand my reaction, she was old, very ill, and her death came as a welcome closure. The essence of my grief, of this dissolving, was incomprehensible.
When we try to understand our grief, we start creating stories around it. The stories help us soften the sense of loss so it doesn’t feel as raw. But in doing so, we go away from the grief. We don’t allow it to cleanse and heal us. Grief is a very important and very honest emotion.
And so I do think the swan felt the essence of grief. Her existence as a swan with a mate had changed in some terrible, inexplicable way and she was lost. Numbly swimming near her mate until the tug of biology would tempt her to rejoin the other swans and begin again. The biggest difference between birds and humans is that we build stories around our grief, trying to understand it and basically numbing ourselves to the devastating pain. Birds and animals undergo it, without understanding, and eventually move on.