What the Elephants Teach Us

The beatitude says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  The word “blessed” means, according to notes in the Revised Standard Bible, to be “happy” or “satisfied,’ and that happiness and/or satisfaction comes to those who believe because in all things, in all situations, God is there comforting, supporting and helping.

One of the sources of great pain for human beings is mourning the loss of a loved one. The mourning process is cruel; it gives those who mourn brief times of relief but also invades the hard-fought for space of peace at a moment’s notice. One can believe that he or she has gotten through the worst of it, only to be lambasted by some unforeseen trigger, which thrusts one back into rough arms of grief. Grief holds onto us for far too long – or maybe it is that we hold onto grief. Either way, the pain is immense and the duration of the grieving process is far too long for far too many.

While many believe that it is best to try to “move on,” perhaps we should examine how we move on, how we treat those who have passed over. Maybe our grief would not be so painful if we felt like it was and is OK to truly grieve …and in that process, “take care” of the one whom we have lost.

Elephants do just that. Elephants are glorious, majestic animals, but they are also highly intelligent and communal, and they take care of each other even after death. Mother elephants – and the elephant clan into which that calf was born – show grief when a baby elephant is stillborn. When elephants come across the skeletal remains of another elephant, they stop. They are known to caress the bones of the dead elephant, and they hover over those bones sometimes for days. They take some bones and tusks away and bury them, covering them with twigs, leaves and dirt. The belief is that they are protecting their own from predators, even after death. They walk away from their dead friend only after they feel like they have taken sufficient care of it. Their mourning is assuaged by their capacity to care for their “friend,” even after death.

We are taught in our society to “move on,” but the cloud of witnesses is ever over us, affecting our lives, our thoughts, moves and actions, even if we do not recognized it or acknowledge. When Caroline graduated from Spelman College, and all of us went out for dinner, I felt compelled to have us stop talking, before saying the grace, to acknowledge her grandmother, her father’s mother, by name. Jeanne Allen had been a presence in Caroline’s life. She had been proud of her and every time something significant happened in Caroline and Charlie’s lives, she had been there. She had been at our house for Thanksgiving, bringing her rice and peas on my request (her family was from Barbados), her stories, her laughter and her wisdom.

That she was gone was a fact, but at that dinner, it felt like she was there, or like we had come upon her “remains.” I lifted her name up and it took away some of my own sadness. We were taking care of her, even in death. We were covering her remains and taking them to a safe place… The silence at the table was stark at first, but then, as, I felt, she felt like her presence was being acknowledged, there was a collective breath of …something …maybe peace? Comfort? Both? Whatever it was, it was noticeable. It was present.

In this holiday season, maybe we should be like the elephants, and “take care” of the remains, the spirit-remains – of our loved ones who are now in the cloud of witnesses. Maybe we should light  candle at our tables of food, and bring the loved ones to the table, telling the story of who they were and what they meant to us to our little ones, in essence, “writing it as frontlets between their eyes.”

The elephants teach us that the presence of a loved one is not gone just because of death; they teach us that, even in the bones, the spirit of that one living being is still active, still alive, still a part of this earth, still giving, still reaching. Still.

In the piece I heard about elephant behavior, the narrator said that the elephants “take turns” caressing the carcass of their downed friend. For hours, they take turns gently touching the bones with their trunks, dropping smatters of dirt over the bones to protect them. They grieve but they acknowledge that once, these bones were part of them, part of their family.

Maybe we should take the example of the elephants, and take care of, protect and perpetuate the spirits of our loved ones…beginning this holiday season.

Amen and amen.

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