By her side
A little less than a month ago, a pregnant, endangered whale captured international attention. The mother orca is part of a pod being observed by the Center for Whale Research near San Juan Island, just northwest of Seattle. The organization works to protect the critically endangered species and studies their migration over time.
Late last month, the whale, named Tahlequah, gave birth to a calf that lived for less than an hour. And what happened next was equal parts heartbreaking and beautiful.
As the mother grieved her loss, she continued to carry the calf with her, pushing it through the water with her fin or on her head.
“She must be in anguish,” one biologist noted. “What’s beyond grief? I don’t even know what the word for that is, but that’s where she is.”
Day after day, the mother continued to carry her calf with her, displaying an image of deep grief not unlike that of humans. And as time went on, so did the interest in her well-being and the emotional heartache of people around the world observing such sorrow.
However, the researchers were quick to point out that Tahlequah was not alone. She was surrounded by her entire family. Day and night, they kept vigil, never straying more than a few hundred yards away. For 17 days, and over 1,000 miles of traveling, the other 70+ orcas did nothing but stay close by, offering protection and care as they let grief take its course. And, in due time, the whale returned to its typical behavior and was seen once again frolicking with the rest of its pod.
I won’t pretend to know anything about the emotional needs or mental health of marine creatures. But I do think there’s a reason this story struck an emotional chord with so many people. We’ve all experienced deep grief. And we’ve all seen others with broken hearts and wondered how we can help.
Perhaps we can take our cues from the orcas. I don’t know how whales communicate, but as far as I can tell, there was no one trying to convince this mama whale that she needed to move on quickly. No friend or family trying to cheer her up or distract her. Just their presence was all it seems she needed. Swimming by her side. Giving her space for grief and sadness. And maintaining her place in the midst of the larger group.
The same thing happens throughout scripture. When Job has lost everything and his heart is broken, the best thing his friends did for him was simply sit silently and make sure he wasn’t alone. And when Jesus saw his friends in deep grief, he wept right alongside them.
It’s hard for any of us to see another person (or whale, as the case may be) struggling or hurting. But maybe our greatest gift of help can come in the form of presence and care. There are no words that can instantly heal a broken heart or grieving soul. So, instead, consider sitting, standing, or swimming right beside one another. It might just be the greatest gift you can provide.
-Katy Warren, associate pastor