Living in an area surrounded by protected national forests, I have the pleasure of encountering wildlife every day. Sometimes, though, it is tragically on the side of a road, injured or worse because of a car. I learned a few life-changing things about grief from these encounters with wildlife and the people who help them, and I want to share one such story with you now.
Driving along the roads lined by Dandenong forests I spotted a collected echidna on the road opposite and did my usual mental dance. Should I stop and check it out myself? Do I feel up to looking? Can I be late to whatever commitment I’m going to?Should I just call Wildlife Victoria and report the location? And as always, I did a U turn and drive back to the injured wildlife, and pulled over with my hazards on. Checking for cars, I donned gloves and grabbed a small towel and proceeded to cross the road towards the echidna. Upon approaching her, I felt the heaviness in my chest and sadness like a fire in my heart. I picked her up and felt the weight of her in my arms, as I carried her off the road and lay her down. I collected a bouquet of flowers and lay them atop of her in an arrangement and said my funeral blessing. As I walked back, calling Wildlife Victoria to report the location for a volunteer to check her, I imagined that along the side of the road for hundreds upon hundreds of little crosses representing the wildlife that had been collected and killed by this road. I knew that I would always think of this little echidna driving around this particular bend on my route home.
As a meditator, and meditation teacher, my predominant concern when facing difficulty and helping my students face difficulty is: how can I be okay with this? Moving with the flow of life, and what reality presents to us doesn’t mean being unaffected, it means feeling what we feel, noticing it, and learning about ourselves while we do it. So I’m going to share the 3 biggest things I learned about grief through encountering these wildlife these past few years.
1. Grief can be a doorway
Step to take: begin acknowledging your emotions surrounding the loss.
It is good to feel things in the face of loss and death. An emotion can be a doorway to learning more deeply about yourself, becoming more resilient, and experiencing life in a richer way. As a teacher, I encourage my students to sensitively, and with discernment, dip their toe into feeling and allowing their emotions surrounding their loss. Even beginning by just acknowledging what you feel in response to this event or trigger. Important: doing in a way that feels safe, such as with the support of a trusted person alongside you, a meditation teacher or mentor, counsellor, or a friend.
For me, what did I feel around these wildlife?
- I felt responsible. Not individually but collectively, because my species, and specifically my European ancestors are notoriously egocentric, denatured, and short-sighted. Historically, to catastrophic consequences.
- I felt sad. For the unnecessary, and arguably, unnatural wildlife deaths caused by roads and traffic every day in Australia.
- I felt helpless around how to make an impact and prevent it. These responses make me hyper aware when I’m driving, especially at night and in areas close to vegetation, so I follow the common precautions of always slowing my speeds and using my brights when driving.
- But above it all, I feel connected. All emotions and responses we have are seen in Applied Ecopsychology (developed by Dr Michael Cohen), as webstrings. My grief and responses to seeing the wildlife are a doorway to a connection to nature and to these living beings. If I felt nothing on the other hand, my doorway to connection with nature may be closed, or need work.
And so in meditation, the emotions around grief are an opening to learning. Learning about ones love for nature, for example. If I had denied the feelings, gone into resentment or anger, I might have glimpsed the connection to nature, but only a glimpse. It would have been clouded by mental and emotional chaos, rather than surrounded by a stillness and peace of heart, as they eventually have become.
“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
– Herman Melville
Read about the science of webstrings here.
2. The sadness is the connection
Step to take: commemorate your loss meaningfully.
A teacher of mine gave me inspiration during this process, by suggesting that a blessing or prayer for the wildlife I encounter may help me. So this is what I do. I make sure to stop, pullover, no matter my obligations. I move them (as Wildlife Victoria suggests) using my gloves and towel off the road. I call wildlife Victoria for a volunteer to come and look at them. And if sadly they have already passed; I give them my funeral blessing inspired by the Buddhist metta meditation tradition:
May you rest in peace,
May you be free of pain,
May your body and life nourish the earth,
May you be held forever in loving consciousness.
I think it’s important to note the third line “May your body in life nourished the earth” is a kind of theological observation. That although we address the animal’s body as belonging to it, “your body”, it’s arguable that without consciousness, its body is not belonging to the Possum, or Echidna, or Wallaby, but belongs to the earth now. Like a fallen autumn leaf, it will break down and nourish the soil and surviving life around it, like insects, birds and bacteria. Does its soul, spirit, or self live on in the cells or atoms that are regenerated, or does it go somewhere else? Something philosophical to ponder…
So emotions can be healed and softened by truly being with them, sitting with them, breathing with them, one by one. They are not linear, or a checklist. They can be cyclical, sometimes happening out of order, sometimes happening over and over, sometimes strongly, sometimes softly. By being with the emotions around grief long enough, we may realise that love and connection is the driving factor of our Self, and is our true nature. From being with our emotions around grief, maybe a purpose or action to take will arise.
We could consider:
- If I could communicate with the thing I’ve lost: what would I want it to know?
- If it could communicate with me: what would it want me to know?
- And lastly, what action or purpose might arise from this wisdom?
“One night a man was crying,
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer for that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage,
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express
is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs no one knows the names of.
Give your life to be one of them.”
– Love Dogs by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks.
3. Suffering happens, and the world does care
Step to take: connect with others about your loss.
M. Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Travelled, talks about life becoming considerably more joyful when one can accept that life will be hard, and that this will save us a lot of misery. When we are presented with life’s hardships, I think it’s a mistake to take away that they simply shouldn’t be there, rather than bolstering ourselves to be more resilient. To blame the seeming cause of the pain, rather than learn stronger management techniques to deal with the pain.
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
― M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth
So asking, how can I understand the reality and inevitably of a loss like mine? If I take the example of roadkill in Australia, then I can understand the inevitably of injured wildlife on roads because Australian roads are typically not built to accommodate traffic of wildlife; only the traffic of human beings in cars. If we built road crossing points to accommodate wildlife crossing then it would be logical that less deaths should happen. If not, we must understand the likelihood of this loss, and face up with how to deal with it or reduce it. Understanding does not mean accepting, or giving up.
For your own losses and grief, a new perspective is almost impossible to generate alone, especially in difficult times. So reaching out to connect with a trusted person to talk about it and heal through it is vital. We can gain a different perspective. In Still-mind meditation, we look at things through a lens of reality, and we can see that both an emotional humancentric lens and a realism-based lens are needed to allow us time to heal.
Lastly, my promise to wildlife…
For all the many, too many wildlife I have encountered along roads; I feel your passing and will not ignore or numb myself from deep response of love and sadness for your suffering, I will strengthen my capacity for grief and allow it more deeply so that I may look at and not away. To the rangers volunteers, and locals I’ve encountered who deeply care for wildlife, I’m so grateful for your full, open hearts, and commitment to nature and our fellow beings on this land. Thank you for the strength you instil in the community.
Wishing you peace and mental strength on your path, and don’t forget to share this blog post if it helped you in any way or you know someone who would benefit from it!
(Photo by David Clode)