Tahlequah, also known as J-35, is a 20-year-old female orca whale whose calf died just 30 minutes after being born. This mourning orca mother has refused to let go of her dead baby calf ever since, carrying the infant either by one fin, or pushing it through the water on her head. Today marks day 17 and this grieving mother is still carrying the body of her baby through the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
The world is watching and mourning the loss with this grief-stricken Orca mother as she has swum hundreds of miles with her baby. Orca whales have a gestation period of 15 to 18 months. To feel your baby alive, growing in your body and then just as suddenly be gone is incredibly hard to process. Herself and others in her pod are in grave danger because they are neglecting themselves in tribute to this loss.
I get it. I think any mother who has ever lost a child gets it. You don’t want to let go because letting go makes it real. Being real means finality. Finality means that your baby is dead and that is a hurt too hard for any mother’s heart to bare. It is inconceivable and when you are experiencing it, you do lose sight of everything and everyone else.
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As much as you want the pain to go away, you want to embrace it and feel every bit of it because “it” is the only thing you have left of your baby. That pain is the placeholder of where your baby is supposed to be and some part of you never wants to let it go even when the pain is so heavy and dark that it burns your lungs to breathe. You don’t care. You don’t care if you breathe because when your baby dies, some part of you (as a mother) dies too. We feel it and it hurts beyond measure.
Tahlequah is part of an endangered pod of southern resident killer whales. There are only 75 left in the PNW. Her calf was born alive near the San Juan Islands in Washington state but died just 30 minutes later. She has since swum hundreds of miles toward British Columbia, carrying her child with her the entire way.
My heart breaks for this mother whale because I know this deep, unrelenting sadness too well. Unfortunately, too many mothers do. It has been 6 years since my baby died. I spent a month in bed sobbing and tortured. I numbed my pain with medication and solitude. I was not fit for company and I was so sad and felt such despair that I had no appetite. I had no desire to exist. All I could do was focus on what I had lost and scramble to try to hold on to it before even the clarity of the memory disappeared.
I was not logical or rational. I was grief-stricken and heartbroken like only a mother who has lost their child can be. It is a loss beyond comprehension. The pain of living in a world where your child does not is the cruelest there is. To wake up every day knowing that your child is not afforded that same luxury brings with it a guilt that one cannot begin to understand without having tasted its bitter reality for themselves.
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Tahlequah is just doing what every single mother who has lost their baby, no matter the stage of pregnancy or life that “baby” may have been at would do, she is holding on for as long as she can because she knows that once she lets go, she will never feel that baby again. Once her baby is gone, she is gone forever.
I am glad the world is watching and empathizing with this mourning mother Orca. I am glad that this whale’s desperate actions can give words to the universal feelings of loss all grieving mothers, especially humans, feel when they lose a child. I hope the compassion spills over and the next time a mother comes into our lives who has lost her own baby, we can treat her with a little more tenderness and compassion.
We mothers who have lost our babies, we carry on. We survive. But we are not the same woman we were the day before. We are broken and we have a hurt that is eternal and can never be healed. Just because time passes and from the outside, it looks like we are ok, know that we are not and we will never be again. Our wounds leave more than our arms empty; they leave irreparable scars on our hearts. When our babies die, they take a part of us with them.
As soon as I knew that I was pregnant, I loved that baby. I love the baby I never got to hold as much as I do my two daughters who I hold every single day and I don’t think that love will ever dissipate. But where all this love lives in my soul, there is no tangible direction to guide it. It exists and yet, sometimes it feels like my third child only existed in my mind. This is why we can’t let go. We mothers keep their memories alive so that the world knows they were once here, no matter how briefly.
I think every mother who has lost a child can relate to Tahlequah on a cellular level. We wish that society could recognize how deep this loss is felt and how it changes us down to our very core. Too soon, Tahlequah will have to let go but at least she’s had these days, few as they may be. Most human moms are not privileged to have that time. We are told that our baby is dead and just as quickly, our baby is gone from our eyes, from our arms and from this world. There is no gradual time of acceptance.
Our society dictates that a dead baby is taboo. They’ve decided that it’s better for us to remove the evidence but its too fast. Our hearts can’t shift gears so quickly. I remember, quite literally, howling in pain like a wounded animal when it hit me that I had to let go of my baby. Thinking of that moment in my car, alone with my dead baby inside me, before a preschool pick-up, trying to digest it all and not die breaks my heart right now. Our culture dictated that I pull myself together and move on but I had no idea how to. I couldn’t even speak. How was I supposed to function and go on like nothing happened? How was I supposed to forget.
I know that soon Tahlequah is going to have to let her baby go. Her body will grow too weak and weary to carry on, though she will try. She may even try until her very last breath. Believe me, I get it. There were dark moments when it first happened that I wished I could just die so the pain would stop but, unlike Tahlequah, I had to carry on for my living girls. That’s what mothers do. We push through the most difficult moments of life by loving and serving others. This is not as selfless as it sounds, this is them (our living loved ones) giving us the purpose to live even when it hurts so bad we’d rather die.
Tahlequah is in a grief loop. She can’t let go but she has to. We all have to physically let go of our babies but we keep them in our hearts for the rest of our lives. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember, but eventually, you are able to breathe again.