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Thanksgiving Elephants

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

"When my friend Chris's young son died, I told her about how my therapist used to ask our group to "be like the elephants" and gather around the wounded member. I knew I couldn't really help her process the grief, but I could be there, at first just a body sitting close to her, later a voice on the phone. She told her friends about the elephants, and people started giving her little gifts or cards with elephants, just saying "I'm here." Gather your elephants, love. We are here." - Gloria Flynn, a friend of the author, in a personal message - From the book, "It's OK That You're Not OK" by Megan Devine

Ian is the first person I know who died that I was close to. That he is my son is a special type of grief. Many people don't know what to say or do when someone dies. I know that I was one of those people once. In those early days, our whole family was drowning in grief and shock and trying to process. I am not thinking of turkeys this coming week, but of elephants.

Elephants are one of three animals that have funerals. When they lose one of their own, even upon seeing bones or a carcass of an unrelated elephant, they will stop and have their ritual of gently touching the bones with their trunks. They remain very quiet and cover the body with leaves and grass. They may stay with the body for days or weeks, sometimes leaving for food or water, but always coming back. Through touch and vocal assurance, Asian elephants have been observed comforting one of their own who is stressed, sometimes forming a protective circle around her. There is also evidence of emotional contagion where seeing a friend in distress was distressing to the other elephants. They try to console one another. (source: National Geographic)

My elephants surrounded me in those early days after Ian's death. They arranged for food, and they tried to direct traffic at the service when so many people wanted to just have contact with us but knew it was just too much at that time. They brought frozen washcloths and bottled water to the service for us (the frozen washcloths were so needed). They showed up the morning they found out Ian died and sat outside our house in her car with a cooler full of water and bottled drinks because it was the first random thing she thought of and drove an hour to us, with no plan except the overwhelming need to see us.

They texted and messaged and called and left voice mails, sometimes just crying. They wanted me to know they were grieving too. They came to the house to hug us. They took flowers and excess food to nursing homes and hospitals for us. They flew in and drove in. They cleaned the house and did the laundry to cope with their own grief. They sat on my "crying chair" and cried with me. They just sat and stared into space with us. They gave me a Tear Soup book.

They returned in the weeks after to sit some more with us and talk or sit in silence. They aren't afraid to say Ian's name to us knowing that we need to hear his name. They bring a simple bouquet of hydrangeas for the private family burial service because she knew I wouldn't think of that. For those whose love language is gifts, in the subsequent weeks and months, they give me little gifts of Love Heals hand lotion and peppermint tea, an elephant candle, elephant stickers that were made special for me. They went on walks with me.

They may have struggled with not knowing how to help me cope. But just by showing up and being my elephants, huddling around their wounded without needing to say anything, that is the only thing that "helps" someone get through to the next day. And the next day. And the next. Until those days turn into weeks, months, and eventually years. If you don't know what to do or say to someone who had a loved one die, a hug will usually do the job. Sharing a memory or a picture you have of that person is very special as well. We received a lot of those from the index cards at the service, through private messages on Facebook and Instagram. Even months later, I still receive unexpected messages from Ian's friends. There's never a time limit on reaching out. As time passes, those random messages are very special.

After the initial outpouring of contact happened and people got back to their normal lives, as is expected, my elephants have stayed close and taken their cues from me - understanding if I cancel plans, my now normal lateness (Ian has passed that on to me now, it seems), my checking in and out of being present in the moment, my less smiley self. They accept me as I now am and are patiently and quietly observing this new person that I am, waiting in a huddle around me for as long as it takes. Sometimes leaving for food and water, but always coming back.

This year, I am very thankful for my herd of elephants. ~ Ian's mom

Originally posted November 24, 2019

Watercolor by Ian's cousin, Sarah Gartin.

Elephant Grief - Soul Fountain Poetry

We are all creatures of this great earth — interconnected in ways beyond understanding. Take elephants. So big. So strong. And yet, when a member of the herd passes, even elephants mourn. They gather around, extend their trunks, and gently touch the tusks of their fallen friend. It’s their ritual. It’s how they heal. And it’s sad. And it’s beautiful. -Author Unknown

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