Grieving with the Elephants

In near-dark and fog, I walk a wooded country road near my home. On the side of the road, I see an elk or caribou that I assume to be male, given its size. Nearby, other, smaller animals and perhaps a deer, move about. My stomach flutters with excitement at the sight of the great beauty in profile. He lifts his head, but he does not look at me.

Turning right onto another road, I continue walking. Up ahead, I see a baby elephant running toward me. Something is wrong. It seems thin, and looks grief-stricken or terrified, maybe both. Its face is asymmetrical and looks broken. As it approaches, I kneel and bow my head to the ground, hoping for an encounter with the Divine. I imagine and hope that the animal will stop when it reaches me, and we will speak silently to each other of love and kinship. But it runs fast, and for a moment, I think maybe it will run me over. Instead, it passes me on the left and keeps going. As it does, its face, which appears simultaneously young and ancient, sears itself in my mind. I am embarrassed by my hope that we would connect, and troubled by the look on its face. I feel awe and love for the young giant.

Later, in daylight, I am in a different neighborhood. Here, there are far fewer trees. Houses line both sides of the street: close together, but not on top of one another. A family neighborhood, it seems. Two adult elephants are in the road, lying down, their legs folded beneath them. As I approach, I see the road is filling with people, both in and out of cars. Many prostrate themselves before the elephants, imitating the animals’ posture. A small blue car looks as though it has been in an accident; its front end has been torn off, exposing its occupants, who are huddled together and focused entirely on the elephants.

Over and over, I hear the collective lament, “It’s so sad, so sad.”

This dream comes on December 15, 2012, the day after the world was catapulted into collective shock and grief upon learning of the mass shooting of twenty elementary school children and six adults in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, which is about an hour from my home. It was the second largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl in the hours and days after the news of Sandy Hook. It was such a deliberate and depraved act, the wanton destruction of young and innocent and decent lives, the final and utter severing of so much potential, and so many futures. The town and the nation came undone, and in many ways came together, in grief and mourning. The trauma of the event seemed to reverberate through all of us, knocked us off kilter, forced us to ask and reckon with deep and complex questions. There was also the relentless media coverage, creating and feeding the public’s appetite for every minute detail about the shooter, the timeline of the morning’s horrific events, the weapons used, the lives lost.

Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2012, more than 100,000 elephants in Africa died at the hands of poachers. In January 2013, just weeks after Sandy Hook, poachers murdered a family of eleven elephants for their ivory. There was then, and still is, little mainstream media coverage of the tens of thousands of grief-stricken and confused young elephants that are orphaned after witnessing the slaughter of their parents, siblings, cousins and elders. In horrific acts of trickery, betrayal and violence, they lose their caretakers, teachers, social system; they are severed from their connections to the customs, rituals, cultural nuances and norms of their people.

Elephants live in a matriarchal culture with tight family bonds, and in which the entire community participates in the raising of the young. Elephants have enduring rituals for mourning and remembering their dead. As youngsters, most of us learn that their memories are long, perhaps infinite or nearly so, if their communities are left intact and able to pass down to younger generations the rituals and information about those who have preceded them. Yet their communities and this wisdom are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate; scientists have noted that many surviving elephants are exhibiting signs of PTSD, and that young males, in particular, are exhibiting signs of aggression and violence against other species that historically have not been observed. Some people have gone so far as to predict the complete collapse of elephant culture.

In the dream, it seems the elephants have suffered a trauma, as first seen in the shattered face of a young one that appears to flee something that is not seen. Then the adult elephants literally stop traffic with their public display of grief in a family neighborhood, which pulls people from their homes and cars, and creates an interspecies community in mourning.

Whether an invitation, an instruction or both, the dream suggests a shared jeopardy and shared losses between humans and elephants, and the opportunity to grieve together. The poacher in the jungle and the murderous young man in the classroom are more similar than different. Such a desecration of life tears the fabric of a community whether its members have two legs or four, and sends ripples through space and time, across generations and species. In the dream, an encounter with the young elephant is equated to an encounter with the Divine, and all share in the elephants’ grief. In our oldest human memory, perhaps in the memory of our cells and DNA, is the knowledge that each and all life is divine; every interaction and exchange between life forms is holy by nature, and we are all connected. Elephant may be the dream’s messenger precisely because she is associated with ancient memory. Might we remember what we once knew if we prostrate ourselves beside these graceful giants and lay open our grief-laden hearts for all that has been lost to them, to us, to the planet?

About the Author

Kristin Flyntz is currently the Director of External Affairs at an independent boarding and day school for girls in Connecticut. She writes and enjoys acting and directing for the stage. She lives in the woods with her husband and their two feline companions.

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