On July 24, an orca named Tahlequah (also known as J35) gave birth to a calf that lived for less than an hour.
Afterward, Tahlequah carried or pushed her dead calf nearly a thousand miles over 17 days, finally dropping it on Aug. 11, at which point the Center for Whale Research in Washington state proclaimed that Tahlequah’s “tour of grief” was over. Her grief (for what else could it be?) captivated the world. It was so achingly poignant and horrific because it actualized one of our deepest, most primal fears — the death of a child.
I understand that grief.
I lost my daughter, Ana, 16 months ago. Ana was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when she was 11. Her adolescence was dominated by the disease. Ana died in her room, in her own bed. My last words to her were, “I love you. It’s OK to go.”
But the truth is, nothing will ever be OK again.
We kept my daughter’s body in her room for three hours before we called the funeral home to come get her. We saw her one last time, the next day, laid out on a gurney with a sheet pulled up to her chin.
Her face was peaceful. Her were eyes were closed. Her forehead was cold as stone. It was the same forehead I had touched countless times, checking for fever. It was the forehead I had kissed when she was a baby, a toddler and a smiling child who’d loved frogs and strawberries. I knew her face better than my own.
Still, I had to say goodbye. I had to walk away. That’s what you do when someone dies. Except this wasn’t just someone. It was Ana, my sweet girl.
I wanted to curl up beside her and die right then and there, rather than lose the last bit of my child — her physical body. Even in the first few hours of my grief, I knew that holding onto the essence of her would be difficult as time put distance between me and the last time I was able to look at her beloved face.
So, yes, I understand why Tahlequah continued to carry her calf for more than two weeks even though it exhausted her, even though it threatened her own life. I understand that when she finally let the calf drift to the bottom of the ocean, the world breathed a sigh of relief. It’s incredibly hard to witness that kind of pain. I can’t help but wonder if Tahlequah is truly done with grief. Just because her sorrow isn’t visible, doesn’t mean it’s not still there.
I’m anthropomorphizing a whale. I realize that. But I believe that Tahlequah has a lot to teach us about grief, lessons I’ve been learning over the past 16 months.
I’ve learned that when it comes to death, time means distance. As the second year without Ana continues to move forward — spring into summer, then autumn and beyond — she feels so much further away.
Sometimes I feel crazy, wondering if she was even real. That’s something new, too. At first, I couldn’t believe that her death was real. I used to conjure up the last minutes of her life and those final, agonizing moments at the funeral home just to remind myself of the awful truth. She’d never text me again. She’d never ask me to make her a grilled cheese sandwich. Her room would remain empty.
But now? Her birth, her childhood, and the promise of her bright, young life — were these things real? On my worst days, this thought plagues me. It mocks me. It fills me with shame. How can I doubt that my own daughter existed?
Grief changes shape. That’s another thing I’m learning. In the first year, it was sharp and painful. It made my heart hurt as though a fist were squeezing it. But now grief is more like a cloak draped over my shoulders. Sometimes it makes my entire body ache, but sometimes I’m able to shrug it off and find joy again.
Joy has a different shape, too. The fact that I’m able to experience it without Ana here is surprising and frightening. Does it mean I’m moving on? Does it mean I’m healing?
As a bereaved parent, I hate the terms “moving on” and “healing.” These sentiments feel wrong. I’m still carrying Ana with me. I feel her close, but I can’t reach her. I’m desperate to touch her hand and hear her voice, but I know I never will again. I mourn for the promise of her life, the things she’ll never experience and the adult woman I’ll never meet. I can’t move on from a future without my child. I can only move toward it whether I want to or not.
I’ve begun to grasp the permanence of this loss. I know that I will always grieve.
As each year passes and the distance between me and the physical reality of Ana grows wider, I expect that my experience of Ana will shift, just as it would have if she’d lived. Her childhood will continue to fade — all those nuanced moments, all the smells and sounds and colors — and something else will take their place. This has already started happening.
I find myself picturing her spirit existing in an unreachable place. Sometimes I’m sure she can see and hear me, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find her. I talk to her all the time. I write her letters. I imagine her voice in my mind as she answers my questions and gives me advice.
I carry her with me because there can be no forgetting her. Sometimes it feels like I’m alone with the burden of remembering, that holding on forever may pull me down into the darkness. But letting go isn’t an option. I bet Tahlequah would understand.
This is a confession that may upset some people who want me to move on — there is no healing from the loss of a child. There is only learning how to exist in a new reality. The love is still there. It’s endless. And so is my grief.