Across Dark Waters
Although many people take comfort in the idea that humans are well separated from animals, I take comfort in the exact opposite. We have so much more in common than we do in contrast, and there is so much we can learn from the natural world to help us be better humans to the rest of life on this planet and to each other. I think we are born with this wisdom, but many of us lose this understanding as we grow up. And for the mothers out there, struggling, please know you are not alone.
I know she knows her daughter is dead. If she were a first-time mother, I could imagine she might not understand the difference between a dead baby and one that is simply unresponsive. But she nursed a son eight years before. And she tried to care for her niece after her sister died, but that baby died too. In fact, in this population, 70% of newborns die. Death, unfortunately, is familiar.
It is July 27, 2018, and The Seattle Times has broken the story that Tahlequah—known as J35 by killer whale scientists—is still carrying the body of her dead calf three days after giving birth. The calf was the first to be born alive in several years in this endangered population of Southern Resident orcas. She lived for only 20 minutes in the cold waters of the emerald, island-dotted, Salish Sea off the coast of Washington. Tahlequah is now swimming 60 to 70 miles a day, keeping her baby’s body afloat.
Although the machines told me hours before that he no longer had a heartbeat, in 2014, four years before Tahlequah, I labored and delivered my son Rhys just as I would have a live baby. I held his eight pounds just as close. Still and close. It was three weeks before his due date.
Many in grief have eloquently tried to pen this emotion, one symptom of which, ironically, is to strip us of words that even begin to trace its precarious outlines.
An ending in time.
A window blown through them.
An insidious creeping.
A disorienting world of magical thinking.
I know these assaults well. But I also found myself standing alone. Initially, I assumed the separation I felt was from Rhys. One of the most painful moments was finally letting Rhys’s body go with the hospital staff to be autopsied. His leaving me was unnatural, like a limb being removed. He was supposed to come home with me. I don’t tell most people for fear of their aversion, but I wanted the doctors to put Rhys back inside me. Back where he came from. Back where he belonged.
After Rhys’s body was taken for autopsy, my unnamable nature, my unbelonging, began to surface. The hospital didn’t know where to put me. I didn’t belong on the floor with new mothers and warm babies. I didn’t belong on other floors that didn’t have postpartum supplies, where they eventually did move me. I had a few stitches from delivery and was still bleeding. I needed the maternity pads they give you after delivery. I needed bed pads. I needed advice on how to manage the milk that my breasts were making. The internal medicine nurse actually asked why I was on her floor. Good question.
We have words for other losses: widow, widower, orphan, divorcée. We have names for the things that change you forever. Although there is a word for a bereaved parent in German, Arabic, Hebrew, and ancient Chinese, in the English language, there is no word for us.
Western culture is squeamish about death. We want it covered, boxed, and professionally “taken care of.” We want grievers to be discreet. I learned not to mention Rhys in the grocery store, or at preschool pickup for my other son. I side-stepped around answers because that was the only way to stay a part of the conversation. People wanted me to eat and be normal. People wanted me to move on. I understood—my grief reminded them that such terrible things were possible.
Caitlyn Doughty, a Los Angeles-based mortician, author of From Here to Eternity, and founder of The Order of the Good Death, describes in her book how Western culture has come to value “dignity” above all else, which simply translates to “silence, a forced poise, a rigid formality.” In the West, according to Doughty, death “must be as if it were not.”
Tahlequah has been carrying her dead calf for seven days. News outlets around the world are now following her story with daily updates and lengthy, scrolling pages of public comments. Scientists report that some members of her pod are taking turns keeping the dead calf afloat, seemingly to let Tahlequah rest and feed.
Carrying a 400-pound carcass is not a passive act—dead calves are not buoyant. Tahlequah and her family members repeatedly take long, deep dives—which require them to prepare with six to seven breaths at the surface—to retrieve the black and white sinking body. Back on the surface, they support the calf on their noses, backs, or pectoral fins, impairing their ability to swim efficiently.
The Whale Museum on San Juan Island releases underwater audio recordings from their hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse of Tahlequah and her pod using echolocation. Orcas use the clicks, calls, and whistles projected and “echoed” off other objects to find schools of salmon, communicate, navigate along rocky Pacific Northwest coastlines, and stay together as a pod in the often dark and murky waters. Not only do different populations of orcas have different dialects or accents, but even pods within those populations and families within those pods have their own unique languages. Scientists do not know what Tahlequah and her pod are saying—the recordings just prove they are still in the area, together, communicating.
Was I sleeping when he died? Was I laughing? Was I eating? Was I cleaning up the urine of his potty-training brother? How could I not have known the exact moment? Felt it in every cell of my body?
Just after Rhys died, a photo of me in the hospital holding Rhys wrapped in the quintessential blue and pink striped hospital blanket circulated among family and friends. I could feel in most responses how much people wanted to take my pain away. However, one response (not sent directly to me) called the photo “so creepy.”
Creepy. The dictionary synonyms are frightening, terrifying, spine-chilling, alarming, shocking, harrowing, horrifying, horrific, and nightmarish. None of those words describe my only moments holding my son.
I held him against my cheek. I wanted to remember his smell. I wanted to remember every inch of him. At one point his lips parted and I heard a soft, saliva sound. I remember truly entering a magical alternate world. I knew it! He isn’t dead. The machines are wrong. The twenty doctors and residents and nurses cycling through the room are all wrong. My family members who are also doctors are wrong. Everyone is wrong. The very pillars of Western medicine are cracking and falling…
Creepy. The word rang in my ears for months. Perhaps it still does. Like a hospital flat-lining beep that needs to be switched off.
Orcas have a gestation period of 15 to 18 months—almost twice that of a human—so they can give birth only every three to five years. Researchers studying the J, K, and L pods of the Southern Resident Orca population say that when Tahlequah gave birth in 2018, it had been many years since there had been any viable offspring.
The Southern Resident Orca, Orcinus orca, has been federally listed as endangered since 2005. During the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the main threat to the whales was captivity; 45 whales were taken to parks worldwide and 13 others died during their capture. Now the whales are facing three threats to their survival: water pollution, ship traffic and noise, and lack of enough Chinook salmon. Scientists tell the news outlets that if they had to guess the reason for Tahlequah’s baby’s death, it would be Tahlequah’s malnutrition. Research shows that a calf’s chance of survival depends greatly on a good salmon run that year. Researchers are already closely watching another member of Tahlequah’s pod, a four-year-old named Scarlet, or J50, who appears to be starving. The Lhaq’temish of the coastal Lummi Nation may try to feed her live salmon.
When I came home from the hospital, I sat on the bed next to my living, two and a half-year-old son, Balen. And Balen knew. Balen knew he didn’t get to come to the hospital like we had talked about for months. He saw me come home with no one in the car seat. He sat with me in bed and asked what happened to Pom-Pom. Pom-Pom was the name he gave his brother when we asked for ideas. Although it never became a true contender, the name stuck in our everyday conversation.
“Is Pom-Pom still in there?” he asked, staring at my deflated midsection.
“No, Pom-Pom is not in there anymore,” I said.
“Where is he?” Balen asked.
“He came out of my tummy, but he was dead.”
“Why?” he asked.
“We don’t know,” I said.
“Are you sad?” Balen asked. This time he made eye contact.
“I am sad. Daddy is sad. Everyone is sad.”
“Is there another baby in there?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
And that’s often the way it was with him. It was shocking—enough to make me choke. But I appreciated that he didn’t beat around the bush hoping I would give him information for which he wasn’t brave enough to ask.
It is not unprecedented for an orca to carry a dead infant. There are many records of toothed whales (like orcas), baleen whales, and dolphins carrying dead infants. In most cases, the mother carries the body, but sometimes the carrier is a close female relative, occasionally a male relative, and often the individual is accompanied by one whale to an entire pod, which scientists label in their reports as “bystanders.”
Sometimes this happens in captivity. In 1994 at Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, a mother beluga named Mauyak gave birth to a daughter who died 20 minutes later—her second calf to die in two years. The zoo staff removed the infant’s body from the pool. The mother, after delivering the placenta, carried the placenta for 10 hours before zoo staff removed it. She then carried a pink buoy with rope attached (which she had never done before) for several months.
Most cases of wild marine mammals carrying dead infants last a few hours to a few days. Likely there are many in the vast ocean that humans never witness. At nine days, The Center for Whale Research says, as far as they are aware, Tahlequah is setting a record.
In the months following Rhys’s stillbirth, I sometimes felt envious of people who had a visible ailment or scar. I wished that everyone knew what happened because I often felt like I had to lie to be part of normal society. Usually, I could get by just saying the truth in my own head.
“Do you just have one child?”
“Yes.” (No, one died.)
“Is Balen your only child?”
“Yes.” (No, one died).
“Do you want more children?”
“Maybe.” (I had one, but he died).
“I can’t wait to never be pregnant again.”
“Uh-huh.” (If you are lucky.)
I often felt like two different people trying to navigate the world. There are things you simply cannot say. If you do, expect to be left alone at the buffet table or by a window with a row of succulents.
“What can I get you?”
(My baby died.) “A grande, nonfat latte, please.”
“Regular mail or priority?”
(My baby died.) “Just regular mail.”
“Aren’t you glad it isn’t as humid as it was last week?”
(My baby died.) “Last week was awful.”
“Do you have plans today?”
(My baby died.) “No.”
“How are you?”
(My baby died. My baby died. My baby died.) “OK…you know.”
There is only one answer to every question in the universe.
Sometimes, my conversational-side-stepping failed. At a baby shower a year later, I forgot to stay within the traditional lines of diaper-cake-silliness and premature joy.
“The other morning I couldn’t feel anything, but then boom! I felt an elbow!” said the mother-to-be, giggling, echoed by the guests.
“Keep counting those kicks,” I said, smiling, but clearly serious. The silence was acute, like a papercut. Flickers of horror were swept away with face-framing bangs and smoothed from Anthropologie blouses. I regretted saying it. The baby would most likely be fine and the mother didn’t deserve to be afraid. But I also didn’t regret saying it. I would have given anything to have had someone remind me the day before Rhys died to count his kicks.
One of the most helpful books I read shortly after Rhys’s death was Finding Hope When a Child Dies: What Other Cultures Can Teach Us by Suki Miller, Ph.D. It is an unassuming paperback, written in 2002, with only seven Amazon reviews. It does not come up in the initial wave of books when you search about stillbirth and children dying, and the cover is less than inviting. In many other cultures, there are rituals and stories that surround the death of infants or children. The Yakurr people in the rainforests of Nigeria believe the child’s spirit stays by the body after it dies to judge whether it is worth returning to the same parents. If the parents are grieving and sad, then the child will know it was loved and perhaps will consider returning to those parents in a future incarnation.
The babalawo or spiritual leader of the Yoruba people in West Africa consults with their God Ifa to find out why the child chose to die. Other African tribes take the perspective that certain children were not meant to live; they are “abiku” or born to die. The Karanga people of Zimbabwe bury the stillborn fetus in a gambe jar shaped like a uterus in the grainy sand of the sloping riverbank. In the first rains, when the river rises, the jar is swept away, and the Karanga believe that the child is reborn to another woman on Earth.
The Mahapatras of India are untouchable members of society because they bear the shadow of death—they care for the wrapped bodies of the deceased on the burning ghats, the wide stairway used for cremation leading down to the holy Ganges River. The Mahapatras believe that inherited karma can take a child early, but an Indian astrologer may be able to find the child’s spirit and karmic path among the great orbits of the planets and the starry darkness in between.
The Toraja people of Indonesia believe the souls of stillborn children roam the Earth, thirsty for water, drinking dew and raindrops until the soul of their mother comes and takes them to the city of the dead. The Japanese secure the favor of the guardian of the crossroads, Jizo, to help the unborn spirit—mizuko, or child of the water—to cross over the river into the afterworld. Mizuko Jizo statues are everywhere in Japan—visible and part of everyday culture. Parents place little offerings nearby.
The Afro-Brazilian-Catholic Umbanda religion and culture, based mostly in Brazil, say that when a child dies, spirits of the family help him break his ties with the earth and guide him to the spirit realm or back to be reincarnated. The Hopi Tribe of the American Southwest believes a child who dies returns to the house of the parents and waits to be reborn in the next child. If there are no more children, they join their mother at the gates of the underworld when she dies.
Whether I agreed spiritually with the beliefs or traditions of these other cultures did not make a difference to me. What I found in these stories were other women, across time and across extremely different cultures, who were profoundly affected by losing a baby. They needed explanations. They needed to believe their baby was OK, wherever he or she was. They needed to still belong.
It has been just over two weeks. Tahlequah is still carrying her decaying calf and has traveled almost 1000 miles. Scientists and anthropologists argue heatedly and publicly over whether her actions can be labeled as grief. Deborah Giles, an orca biologist at the University of Washington, tells The Seattle Times that Tahlequah’s actions could not be interpreted as anything other than grief. But another scientist at the University of Washington tells The Seattle Times that we need to be cautious about projecting our own feelings onto the orca.
The scrolling public comments below the daily Tahlequah update have, for weeks, given a glimpse at how divided humanity is over the idea that a whale might be grieving and, more so, what to do about it.
“It’s obvious what is happening…this animal is grieving for its dead baby, and she doesn’t want to let it go.”
“There is a really quick jump to interpreting this behavior as grief.”
“What is beyond grief? I don’t even know what the word for that is, but that is where she is.”
“We have to be cautious about not projecting about how this makes us feel.”
“Someone needs to remove the dead calf and dispose of it so the mother can move on.”
“Humans need to stay out of this and let nature take its course.”
I was informed of many things I had to do after Rhys died. At the top of the list was immediately finding a therapist who would talk me through my grief and deliver me to the other side, ready to reenter society. (Eventually, I did see a therapist, but not until much later, when I was ready to put words together.) Almost every conversation in the first month began with, “Have you found a professional you can talk to?” I could tell it was comforting for family members and friends to know I was processing my grief—but with someone else, behind closed doors. My grief did not belong outside, drying in the warm, second summer winds of October.
Instead of immediately finding a therapist, I bought a portable paper shredder, and Balen and I sat for hours feeding paper into the teeth of the “Gorgosaurus.” Could he feel that sometimes I wanted to put myself through the shredder? I don’t know. Could he feel that sometimes I wasn’t sure how to put my failed-mother self back together, like the confettied documents all around us? Maybe.
Sometimes, Balen and I threw rocks into a muddy, fern-laced stream near our house in Oakland, California. He usually did not acknowledge the weight I was carrying, which made me feel like I might sink into the streambank. But just when I thought that he, too, had finally left me alone in the darkness, he would echo the words in my mind, as if he could hear them.
“Pom-Pom died. And he isn’t coming back.”
He said this one day as he popped up to the surface in the pool in which we were swimming. It was a month after Rhys died, on a day when I could not understand why summer had not immediately bypassed fall plunging into the deepest winter on record.
“Yes…” I said, my brain clunking and screeching like a dysfunctional machine with bolts and nuts clanging to the ground. As I was trying to figure out what to say, Balen dove back underwater and grabbed his toy dinosaur from the bottom of the pool. In some ways, he was right. That was all that needed to be said.
After two weeks, Tahlequah’s calf’s body begins to deteriorate, but the whales keep diving into the dark waters, retrieving it, and carrying it with them. Each time Tahlequah dives, she has to make a conscious decision to do it again. And again. And again. The default is to do nothing, and the body will sink away into the depths.
On August 11, 2018, The Center for Whale Research reports that the calf is gone. No one sees the moment the calf’s body disappears. Tahlequah and the rest of the pod may have finally defaulted, not retrieving it the last time it sank. Or it may have disintegrated past the point of retrieval and carrying. All we know is that after 17 days and over 1,000 miles of decisions and hard work, something changes.
The relatively new and growing fields of comparative and evolutionary thanatology—the comparative study of non-human animal responses to death and the study of the evolution of human responses to death—are uncovering to what degree many non-human animals understand or behave around death, and how ancient humans evolved a comprehension of death. It used to be an absolute career-ender to consider animal emotions in any scientific study, let alone acknowledge that animal emotions exist. In some fields, it still is taboo.
But the Frans de Waals, Richard Louvs, Jane Goodalls, Carl Safinas, and Barbara Kings out there—you know, the ones that have spent their entire lives studying animals—will tell you that we have much in common with animals, especially highly intelligent, social animals. “Our desire for sharp divisions is at odds with evolution’s habit of making extremely smooth transitions,” says Frans de Waal. The growing list of animals that have more complex reactions to death—elephants, giraffes, wild horses, peccaries, dolphins, whales, seals, manatees, dingoes, birds, cats, dogs, rabbits, goats, and multiple species of monkeys and apes—stretches long, like evolutionary time, raising questions about humanity’s aggressive ownership claim over grief and all other emotions. Other scientists are pushing back, too. “The question of animal emotions” graced the prestigious pages of the leading journal Science in March 2022, arguing for the sentience and emotional intelligence of invertebrates like octopus and lobster.
I wonder what Tahlequah and her pod were saying to each other after carrying a dead calf for over two weeks? Were they trying to convince her to let go? Were they trying to distract her by talking about salmon? Were they telling her she was completely off her rocker and endangering her own survival as well as theirs?
Of course, we can’t know what they were saying. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? She could hear their echoes across the darkness. She wasn’t alone. Why do people need to fight over how to label any of it? Grief? Call it whatever you want. But look at the facts and at her actions and her pod’s actions. An incredibly intelligent, highly social species with a customized dialect within a larger whale language altered their normal behavior for 17 days and communicated together while continuously carrying and diving for a decaying, sinking body. That doesn’t need a name.
I made my offerings. I was the one who touched the dead and carried him to the banks of the Ganges. I buried him in his jar. I traced his path through sand and stars and now wait for the river’s mighty tide. I look for him in raindrops. And I reach down looking for his hand at every gate, at every river, at every crossing. Perhaps there will always be a piece of me there, in the deep darkness of the receding tide, with him.
Barbara King says, “Goat grief, then is not chicken grief. And chicken grief is not chimpanzee grief or elephant grief or human grief.” Just because our grief doesn’t look the same doesn’t mean it isn’t there. King pushes this further to say even within species there may be variability in grief that we need to be able to see and accept. “There is no one way to be a chimpanzee or goat or chicken,” she says, “just as there is no one way to be human.” No, there is no one way to be human.
I am in awe of those—human or non-human—who somehow know exactly what to do when someone they love is in danger of being lost. Because the reality is, sometimes you might have to talk about the only thing she can think about. Sometimes you might have to be an echoing voice she can hear in the darkness. Sometimes, yes, you might even have to descend to dark fathoms with her. But sometimes you might just need to swim next to her until she finds her own way home through the darkness.
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- Whale Museum, The. Lime Kiln Lighthouse SeaSound Hydrophone. whalemuseum.org/pages/seasound-remote-sensing-network
Charlotte Stevenson has a broad writing portfolio ranging from the technical to the creative. She writes for institutions and organizations such as NOAA, USC Sea Grant, the Institute of Science and Policy of the Denver Museum of Natural History, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She has published freelance pieces in Undark, Age of Awareness, and The New York Times Online. She is currently a degree candidate in the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Master’s Program in Science Writing and has an M.S. and B.S. in Biology from Stanford University, spending many years at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, CA.