Vulnerable Grieving and the Freedom in Letting Go

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What We Can Learn from the Orca who Carried Around her Dead Newborn for 17 Days

Some of you may have tracked the Orca in the Pacific Ocean who just recently let her baby go after carrying around its dead body for 17 days.

“The female calf died after a few hours. The mother, preventing the body from sinking to the ocean floor, has been carrying it and nudging it toward the surface of the Pacific off the coast of Canada and the northwestern US.” — CNN

I saw this story the other day and it broke my heart for many reasons:

  1. The mother’s grief was so strong that she wanted to hold on as long as she could.
  2. I thought about my own baby girl and how I would want to do the same — hold on as long as possible — if something ever happened to her (God forbid).
  3. Many of us carry around things, grieving over the loss for many days, months or years, before letting go.
  4. People are struggling with knowing how to grieve properly and how to share that with others in openness and vulnerability.

I think there’s a lot for us to learn from witnessing this event:

First, we can learn more about the grieving process and how we work through it as human beings.

Second, we can learn how to help others when they are grieving.

Third, we can learn about letting go and what that looks like in our own lives.

Fourth, we can come from a place of compassion and help others process so they can let go.

The Grieving Process and Vulnerability

I am a big fan of the grieving process in all its forms. I have experienced deep grief in my life, the kind that wrecked me completely and made me want to crawl in a hole and stay in there for a long time. I believe strongly that we need to grieve and process, for an undetermined amount of time, in order to heal and move forward.

Casting emotions aside, covering them up or pretending they aren’t there inside us is damaging.

Our society often teaches us that blocking and avoiding emotions is best, so people turn to drugs, alcohol, sex and screens to deal with emotions that are too difficult to process.

We can often justify not dealing with feelings by saying thigs like “God has a plan in all this”, “I’ve got to be strong for my family”, and “I’ll just use mind over matter”.

“Thwarting emotions is not good for mental or physical health. It’s like pressing on the gas and brakes of your car at the same time, creating an internal pressure cooker.” — Time Magazine

Then we hear the story of a beautiful Killer Whale who does what no whale has done before according to experts — she morns the death of her baby by carrying her around for over 2 weeks until she can finally let go.

“Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb said it’s “unprecedented” for an orca to keep this going for so long. He said the mother has traveled more than 1,000 miles with the corpse, which has begun to decompose.” — CNN

I imagine if she was a human being, dealing with grief in a way that people hadn’t seen before. What would people say? What if a human had chosen to do this? Not that I’m recommending carrying a dead baby around for weeks, however humans have done some pretty intense things when grieving the loss of someone or something.

And many of us judge.

What ends up happening with humans is in carrying our emotions around for everyone to see, people often become uncomfortable or critique them for “taking so long to get past it” or asking, “Hasn’t she let go of that yet? It’s been 5 years”, etc.

We don’t give eachother permission to cry, get angry and stay in bed all day. We understand that grief is important, but only when it is:

  1. Done in the correct time frame (whatever seems appropriate)
  2. Done behind closed doors (where others won’t be affected by it)

I’m not saying we should head to work right after a terrible grief-worthy event with tears streaming down our face, getting angry at people, distraught and in despair to the point where we can’t actually do anything productive.

As the world changes into one where people start to see that the struggles are real for everyone, I pray that more employers will give them the time off that they need to properly grieve those initial intense emotions.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, shared in an interview that she was blessed to have been given as much time as she needed to mourn the death of her husband. She was extremely thankful to receive the time she did.

There is a time to deal with the worst of those feelings and that may take weeks or months with our closest friends and family members by our side.

What I am saying is that we are human and we have feelings. We need to be able to express them because they’re there and we often don’t process them adequately. We cover them up and pretend we’re okay, and in truth, we are only hurting ourselves and the people around us.

We hurt ourselves because the feelings will resurface when we least expect them (often at inappropriate times).

We hurt others because:

  1. They get the brunt our or pain when it resurfaces
  2. They don’t get to see us being vulnerable so in turn they may not feel comfortable showing their emotions when they are hurting.

If we were all able to be more authentic, we would see that everyone is suffering in some way and we could all work to support and love eachother through it.

This whale has been an example to many people, putting on full display the heartache we all experience at times. Hers was on show for everyone to see and people wept for her and they empathized with her. They knew that if an animal could be so distraught over losing her baby, unable to let go, that maybe human beings are having trouble with emotions and moving forward too.

Sometimes people just shut down because they don’t know what to say to the person who is grieving. Sheryl Sandberg (mentioned above) has shared about the reactions from others during the time of her husband’s death in 2015 — how instead of talking to her, they stepped back.

“People looked at me like I was a deer in the headlights,” says Sandberg, in an interview at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. “I know they were kind and wanted to do the right thing, but they were afraid to say the wrong thing, so they said nothing at all.”

Sandberg says there isn’t one way to grieve, but she’s learned that processing your feelings and not blaming yourself is an important part of recovery. She poured her thoughts into a journal, writing more than 106,300 words following her husband’s death.

After 30 days of religious mourning for her husband, a period known in Judaism as sheloshim, Sandberg typed out what she learned from grieving in a lengthy Facebook post.

“There’s no way I’m sharing this,” she thought afterward. The words were too raw, too painful and too honest.

The next morning, thinking life couldn’t get any worse, Sandberg shared the post publicly. The reaction that followed shocked her.

Strangers shared stories about their tragedies. More than 70,000 people responded to her June 3, 2015 post. Neighbors, coworkers and friends reached out. One colleague, who had been driving by Sandberg’s house unsure about knocking on her door, finally rang the doorbell.


This is a perfect example of how opening up can result in empathy from others. It can result in people connecting. This example is so similar to the Orca, who showed her grief openly and received an abundance of compassion from others.

What I’ve learned in my nearly 40 years of life (and mostly in the last few years) is that everyone is struggling. I have struggles every day and I always thought I was the only one suffering. When I have chosen to open up about my internal thoughts and feelings, I have heard about other people’s struggles too. They are facing things in their lives and I have no idea until I open up about what I’m facing. Then I get to support them, as they support me.

When people withhold judgment and seek to understand, simply because they have been through similar things and know how to empathize, it is extremely comforting.

I would love to see a world where people feel they can be more real about what they’re feeling. The stress that comes from keeping things in is so unhealthy. Choosing to be vulnerable and open can result in freedom, healing and a deeper connection with others.

Letting Go

Another main lesson taught by this Orca is that we all get to grieve for a time and then learn to let go in order to move forward.

There is a time for grieving, processing and letting the tears fall, then there is a time for healing.

The Byrds made the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” popular in the 1960’s and the lyrics in this song, based on the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, explain well how there is season for everything.

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

In life, we must realize that not everything needs to (or will) stay the way it is, even if we really want it to.

Sometimes things need to be let go of and when we hold on for too long, it can make life more difficult for us.

In the case of the Orca, I think we can all understand what made her want to keep that connection between her and her baby. Many of us want to hold onto things that we feel connected to, even if they are not great for us to hold on to. We also know the joy of letting something go that we are carrying around, feeling the freedom of having that weight lifted off us.

When the Killer Whale let her baby go after 17 days, a CNN article said, “Her tour of grief is now over, and her behavior is remarkably frisky,”(CNN)

I believe she felt the freedom of letting go. She grieved and made peace with the situation and the let it go in order to move forward.

Was it an easy process for her? I’m guessing it probably wasn’t. 

Is it easy for us when we are grieving or holding on to something, unable to let go. I believe it isn’t easy, at least in my own experience.

What I do know, is that there is process to grieving and letting go. We need to be kind to ourselves and one another as we make our way through this journey called life and all the emotions it brings.

If we feel like we can be open about our own struggles, being vulnerable and authentic about the fact that we don’t have it all figured out, we can help others do the same.

As we hear others explain their plight, we can empathize with them and have compassion for what they are going through, refraining from judging them and agreeing to be with them as they walk through the hard times.

As we process our own grief over the losses we experience in life, and get closer to a place of letting go, we can also help others process and get closer to releasing their own losses.

This process is difficult and as we open up and help eachother walk through it, we can become more connected and more authentically human.

“To really change the world, we have to help people change the way they see things. Global betterment is a mental process, not one that requires huge sums of money or a high level of authority. Change has to be psychological. So if you want to see real change, stay persistent in educating humanity on how similar we all are than different. Don’t only strive to be the change you want to see in the world, but also help all those around you see the world through commonalities of the heart so that they would want to change with you. This is how humanity will evolve to become better. This is how you can change the world. The language of the heart is mankind’s main common language”. — Suzy Kassem

I believe it’s time to stop pretending and start showing our real selves to others. There is freedom in the grieving process and in letting go, but it is so much better to do this with others than it is to make a go of it on our own.

Human beings are meant to be in community and sharing our true selves, with all our light and darkness, creates deeper relationships and a linking of arms so we can walk through life together.

“The purpose of life is to help others, and if you can’t help them, won’t you at least not hurt them? I know that is a platitude, that that is sentimental and can easily be attacked. But loving, caring is simple, and we make it complex. Our own neuroses make it complex”. — Leo Buscaglia

I am thankful for the example of the Orca. I believe she opened many hearts and drew compassion out of many people.

Now if we could just show that same compassion and non-judgment to one another, we would be able to have the same impact on people as she did  — connecting ourselves to others and them to us.

I realize that this particular article is not offering step by step instructions on how to grieve and let go. The truth is, this article is simply focused on human togetherness — how we can choose to show our hearts to others and allow them to open their hearts to us.

When we do this we all become more connected as human beings.

And in the end, after we have worked through things inwardly and with the wonderful people around us, supporting and loving us through it, it’s crucial to find a way to let go.

Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting — it simply means moving forward.

“The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward.” — Steve Maraboli

When something has been grieved over in the time it truly deserves, it is healing to let go of what is no longer alive.

In letting go we can all experience liberty and freedom — just ask the Orca.



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