For the Birds Radio Program: Grief
In the movie Forrest Gump, there’s a scene early on where young Forrest’s best friend, Jenny, drops to her knees to pray, begging God to turn her into a bird so she can fly, fly, fly away. When I was a little girl, I remember saying pretty much that exact same prayer. I was the older sister, and if I couldn’t fly away, I could at least protect my little sister.
Then we grew up. I became a birder; she got busy running her husband’s dental practice, and we both became mothers. We always lived hundreds of miles apart so we didn’t see each other often but we stayed in touch, and always felt close. The three years that separated us seemed huge when we were children, but even as that difference shrunk as our ages went up, the weight of responsibility of being the big sister never left me. So I felt helpless 13 years ago when she developed Stage 2 breast cancer. She had surgery and chemo, and all seemed well until just before that 5-year mark, when the cancer came back with a vengeance, Stage 4 and involving her lungs and then her bones. She was on chemo for 8 years straight until late this spring, when the cancer had spread too much. A few weeks before she died on August 25, it had reached her brain.
When I’m faced with more sorrow than I can bear, I turn to birds. It’s not like they’re immune to cancer, though when wild birds get it, they die much earlier in the process, weakened enough to be easily picked up by predators. It’s also not that they’re immune to sorrow. When West Nile Virus hit the crows in Ithaca, New York, some adults that lost their mates and young returned to their parents, and they all seemed out of sorts and depressed. But the natural world is unforgiving and unrelenting, and any grieving creatures that are benumbed or forget to eat for a few days end up dead, too. That seems cruel, but in a sense it’s also a mercy. A single chickadee may live to be older than 12, but most chickadees don’t make it to their first birthdays and the ones that do have a normal life expectancy of only 4 or 5 years. Older birds have seen dozens of losses of immediate family, including their children, in the time that a human in our 50s has typically lost less than a half-dozen immediate family members. If birds were susceptible to sorrow in the way that we are, they couldn’t endure.
So why is it that we turn to them in sorrow? As Rachel Carson put it, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” I remember sitting at the funerals of a dear uncle and a dear cousin, both during the month of April in different years but at the same church, and hearing a Brown Thrasher singing loudly from right outside an open window throughout both services. A cynic might think about how those birds were focused on mating and territorial aggressiveness at such a time, but for me, it was comforting. Now I can’t hear a singing Brown Thrasher without thinking of these special people. In a sense, the birds sanctified their passing in much the same way that a choir does during High Mass.
Birds have the capacity to engage our minds, our hearts, and our spirits. After my father’s funeral, I took a long walk in my favorite park, where four Buff-breasted Sandpipers were feeding on a grassy field. This was the first time I’d ever seen this lovely species. I was intrigued with their plumage, how they fed, their soft vocalizations, and I was thrilled to my bones. I was also so moved that I started sobbing—the first time I’d cried for my dad. Seeing these birds was a gift, and again, I can never see Buff-breasted Sandpipers without thinking about him.
Few birds engage us more than chickadees. They live their lives with integrity, and unlike most elements of the natural world, chickadees invite us into their universe, alighting on our hands and looking us in the eye with their own eyes, sparkling with life. Roger Tory Peterson called birds the most vivid representation of life. In the final analysis, maybe that’s why seeing birds comforts us when facing death. Birds and humans—we all return to the earth one day. But while we’re here above ground, a chickadee’s sparkling eyes and vivid life force remind us that no matter how dark the day and no matter how grievous our loss, we’re never truly alone.