I am that orca
It isn’t often the subject of baby loss makes high profile news but this week the story of a mother orca carrying her dead calf for several days has been shared extensively on social media and by news outlets across the world. The articles describe how the calf, who died shortly after birth, is being carried and pushed along by her grieving mother who is fighting to keep her afloat, diving to retrieve her body when she sinks. The mother is doing this at the expense of her own health, still swimming miles a day and not eating in her effort to ensure her baby’s body is not lost. One headline described the mother’s act as ‘extraordinary’ but really it isn’t.
Like us, whales are social animals and in both species there is a strong bond between parent and child that forms even before birth. What I see in this orca is the very normal reaction of a mother whose baby has died, it’s one I understand first hand. After Henry died all I wanted was to hold his body and not ever let him go. With the aid of a cold cot, a cooled room and trained hospice staff my husband and I spent almost a week with Henry after his death. To some this may seem morbid or macabre, but to us, his parents, it was the most natural thing in the world. The bond we had created with our child could not be broken by his death. The time we had with him was used to say goodbye and it was probably the most important part of our grieving journey. When the time came for the final goodbye I placed my son’s body into a coffin, I knew this would be very last time I would ever hold him in my arms so putting him down was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I didn’t want to let him go, if I could have held onto him forever, cold and still though he was, I would have. To others the idea of holding onto a dead body may seem incomprehensible but he wasn’t a dead body, he was my baby. Letting go of his body was my last act of physical care for him and it was only the knowledge that this was what was best for him that I was able to do it. I have no doubt this mother orca will also know when it is time to let go of her baby’s body.
What we have seen with this Orca and her baby happens to countless families every day. In quiet side rooms on hospital wards mothers and fathers thrown into a world of grief hold their babies. They take photos, count fingers and toes and stare into their baby’s face, as beautiful as any other baby, trying to commit every small detail to memory. These parents may speak of their loss after these events have passed and others will acknowledge that a terrible thing has happened, will empathise with the parents’ pain, but very few will ever witness it in this way. Though I share our story I do not believe our son’s death is quite as real to other people, how can it be?
I wish this baby orca had not died and that this mother was not experiencing grief on this level but I am glad this story has engaged people in conversation about baby loss and grief in a way that doesn’t usually happen. Some may not recognise this mother orca’s grief as the same as a human mother but I can tell you this orca’s response to the death of her baby differs in no way to my own. Every time I have seen this story over the past few days I have cried because I am that mother orca and I know how she feels.