What Happened When I Learned to Look Up

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Juvenile bald eagle — photo my own

“Once you start looking for signs, they appear in flocks, like so many birds.” — Evan T. Pritchard, Bird Medicine

One parent sleeps clutching her child’s ashes to her chest every night. Another wears her son’s football jersey. A third refuses to celebrate any holidays. She leaves town or she stays inside until the day is over, shutting herself in, away from celebration, far from joy.

In the early weeks after my daughter’s death, I watched these parents with a lump in my throat, afraid to see my pain reflected in theirs. It’s a fear that’s palpably real because I understand the compulsion to remain with your dead child (in mind, if not in body). I know what it feels like to miss a piece of your heart.

In her groundbreaking book on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion effectively illustrates the cognitive dissonance that deep grief creates. She jumps backwards and forwards in time, demonstrating how anything and everything can trigger a longing for the person you’ve lost (in her case, it was her husband).

She calls it, “the vortex” and throughout the book she keeps trying to avoid getting stuck in it.

“Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life,” writes Didion. “The way you got sideswiped was by going back.”

Though this book wasn’t about the loss of a child, Didion clarified why it’s so hard for parents to move past grief in any sustainable way. Mothering a child, after all, embodies “the dailiness of life.” My life was centered around my daughter. When she died, she left an enormous void.

There was literally nothing I could do, experience, or feel that didn’t recall memories of her. Even now, more than two years after her death, I’m derailed by the smallest of things — catching sight of her favorite snack in the grocery store, the smell of spray roses, a particular shade of blue that recalls the color of her eyes.

The longing is overwhelming, but the memories are also comforting which is why, sometimes, I welcome that vortex.

Here is a thing I didn’t know about grief before it became my daily companion— one way to avoid getting stuck is to occupy your mind in ways that don’t trigger old memories. It’s why grieving people throw themselves into work or an energy draining home project or start a nonprofit. Distraction brings relief and also a sense of normalcy. It’s the opposite of Didion’s vortex.

But for grieving parents, this is extraordinarily difficult because everything reminds us of our children. It explains why some parents leave town or shut themselves inside during holidays. The memories — and longing — are overwhelming.

There was no way for me to avoid this after my daughter died. Easter was the first holiday that came and went without her, then my younger daughter's birthday, then Mothers Day, then her birthday, then mine. These were days I used to celebrate, but had become occasions to endure because they were terrible reminders of her absence.

I quickly realized that there would always be something that triggered a memory, beckoning me towards the place of being stuck. I was in survival mode. I needed to do something that offered some relief from my grief, so I sought out activities that wouldn’t trigger the barrage of memories.

That’s where the birds came in.

It started with hummingbirds. I’d been given a hummingbird feeder by a friend after expressing an interest in them soon after my daughter died. Ana loved tiny things — she collected dollhouse miniatures and built tiny worlds well into her teens (she absolutely adored making dioramas).

She’d wanted a hummingbird tattoo, but it was too much of an infection risk. This was the one bird that reminded me of Ana, so I hung the feeder outside in the summer of 2017 and waited. The hummingbirds came in late July and stayed throughout September, but then they left, migrating to Central America where they would remain for the long cold winter.

I couldn't bear the thought of six months without hummingbirds. They had become a perfect distraction from grief for a few reasons, but mainly because they weren't directly connected to Ana as she was in life.

They were something I discovered immediately after she died that helped me feel connected to her spirit. I didn't want to lose that feeling of connection, so I began to learn about other birds. Which ones hung around in winter? What did I feed them? How could I attract them to my yard?

I reached out to my mother. She'd been an avid birder for many years. “You only need black oil sunflower seed and suet,” she’d said, “It attracts the most birds.”

I started with two feeders, one that contained black oil sunflower seed and the other a brick of suet which attracts woodpeckers, Blue Jays, sparrows, and a few bigger birds like grackles and starlings.

The most ubiquitous bird in New York in winter is the northern cardinal. I already knew about cardinals. They’re bright red and kind of hard to miss. I could also identify blue jays and a American robins, but that was about it. I began to learn the names of other birds.

By the end of my first winter of birding, which was also the first winter without Ana, I learned to identify nearly a dozen birds: black-capped chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, tufted titmice, house sparrows, house finches, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, dark-eyed juncos, red-tailed hawks, white-throated sparrows, and goldfinches. I also learned that I had a lot more to learn.

Bird watching is extremely popular in the US, with more than 45 million Americans participating in this activity each year. For a newbie like me, there was a wealth of information available both online and off to help me become a better bird watcher.

I downloaded the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID App, which is essentially a field guide of birds that enables users to ID birds in a variety of ways (size, shape, color, region, etc.) You can even upload a photo of a bird to try and find a match. The app includes songs and calls for each bird, a feature I’ve used to help me recognize birds without actually seeing them.

I became an eager student, determined to learn as much as possible about the birds I was watching. I developed a particular fascination with raptors (hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls).

Raptors are everywhere. They perch on the side of the road as we drive past. They circle above us as we carry on with our lives, oblivious. They are magnificent and aloof and, just like the smaller birds they hunt, represent the thrum and cadence of life.

It was the raptors, more than any other bird, that taught me to look up.

I learned how to use my daughter’s camera, a gift we’d gotten her a few months before she died. I began photographing birds from a lawn chair in my yard. When I grew tired of staring at my own feeders, I ventured out to local trails, nature preserves, and bird sanctuaries. In my mind, I brought Ana with me on my outings and delighted in the discovery of each new bird, envisioning her spirit beside me.

Yesterday, as I was sitting on my back porch drinking coffee, I identified half a dozen different species of migrating warblers (brightly colored, perching birds with distinctive songs.) Warblers are among the largest bird families in the world. Yet, I’d never noticed these birds before.

Were they there all along? This thought intrigues me. It makes me wonder what else I’m missing.

Learning about birds has given me solace. It’s given me the gift of observation. It’s made me realize that I’m not too old to learn something new and that creating new experiences doesn’t mean I’m leaving my daughter’s memory behind.

On the contrary, learning about birds has helped me foster a connection with Ana’s spirit. It’s enabled me to bring her memory forward with me into this new phase of my life. The birds still have a lot to teach me. All I need to do is take the time to slow down and look up.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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