Elephant Size Grief

Lisa, a beloved elephant at our local zoo, was euthanized yesterday

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

It is with a heavy heart, the announcement from our zoo read, that Lisa elephant was humanely euthanized yesterday

She was getting older, had several ailments, and was declining in health.

How is it that even though I knew that this was coming, the shock still comes? How does one contain grief that is the size of an elephant?

I have volunteered at our local zoo for almost 10 years now. I am on the Behavior Observation Team for the elephants. I get the privilege of watching these wonderful animals for two hour shifts and recording their behavior. We use the data to keep learning about them as well as to make sure that they are ok and to try and give them the best life possible. 

I have come to know and love these majestic creatures. When I first started volunteering there, we had 4 elephants. Three females and one male. Three years ago we suddenly lost one of our females. A shock, a wave of grief, and so much sadness. I grieve her still. 

And yesterday, Lisa left us. 

The day before, the zookeepers and volunteers and others who loved her spent extra time being near her, feeding her all of her favorite treats. Loving her as much as possible.

 I am so grateful to have been invited and to have been among those who got to spend that extra time with her that day. I hadn’t realized, until I was there, how important it was to be with others during the shared grief and pain. We held each other, crying together. It is a pain that, although each of us bears alone, we also share with each other in deep understanding. Together in our grief, as well as witnessing and honoring each other’s solitary pain.

Standing in front of Lisa, I found myself trying to soak up her very presence, to memorize even more each detail of her being. Each breath of her spirit. She was already in my heart, as all the elephants have been and are. I wanted to take her in even more deeply if I could, to keep her spirit alive within my being. To keep her inside of me when she was gone. 

She was 46. She had been with us since she was 2. We all became home to each other. 

 Elephants live longer in the wild than they do in captivity. They can live up to 60 or longer in the wild. 

There is a movement going on these days to have elephants (that need to be rescued and that can no longer live in the wild) be taken to live in sanctuaries and not in zoos. I agree with this. To go where they will have more room and space to be who they are. To be able to walk as much as they need. To be among their herds. To live the best life possible.

Our zoo does the best that they can to provide all of our animals with a good life. They have more space for most of the animals than most zoos are able to provide. They are involved in education and conservation. They are connected with an elephant sanctuary in Africa that they raise funds for. I am glad for all of this, and also realize that it is still a zoo. Not a perfect environment for an elephant. 

These elephants are cared for with much love. Lisa had received many different treatments for her various ailments, including an innovative stem cell treatment in hopes that it could help her. But, it was not enough to stop the decline. Not enough to stop the pain of her body getting more and more tired.

 It was determined it was finally time. What an awful decision to have to make. 

I still struggle with the idea of euthanasia. I understand that we don’t want animals to suffer, and yet, it is so very hard to come to that final decision. To finally say it is time. I saw the struggles that the staff went through, the tears.

I love Lisa. I miss her so very much. I don’t know where to contain my deep grief. It gets caught in my chest, my throat, my gut. Tears come randomly and whenever and wherever they like. I let them flow. I want to honor how much she meant to me. I want to allow the grief its space to be. 

It makes me think of all the losses, grieving, and mortality of us all.

I approach my 70th birthday soon. I think about changes that happen in our bodies as we age. Treatments for what we can help. Acceptance for what we cannot. Realizing that I also will have my date to pass on. To leave this body that has been loaned to me. 

One of the gifts and curses of this aging journey is this awareness of our own mortality. It become more real with each passing year. With each new ache or stiff joint. With each new sign of aging that can be seen in the mirror. That can be felt in our bodies. 

I cry for Lisa. I hope that she can meet her friends and family and herd beyond. I am not sure what I believe anymore, but if there is something after, I wish her joy in the reunion. 

I cry for all the losses that I have had of pets, of family, of friends. The losses come faster and faster these days. The ever increasing companionship of grief that comes with aging.

I sometimes cry with the thought of my own eventual death. The thought of leaving this life that becomes more precious each day. To leave this beautiful earth and all that it contains. To no longer be part of this life that I come to appreciate more each year. Especially knowing that there are far fewer years ahead of me now than there are behind me. 

And so we go on, those of us who are still here. 

We grieve, we hurt, we cry. We miss those who have left us. We carry them inside of us. 

These elephants have taught me many lessons over the years. Lessons about being in the moment. Lessons about being who and what you are. And now, one final lesson comes from Lisa. How to live until we die. 

Maybe we can remind ourselves to keep living as much as we can until it is our time. Lisa did not know when her last day would be. She kept living and enjoying all the treats that she could until the last moment. Maybe we can learn to do the same. 

Thank you, Lisa, for having allowed me to be in your life. To be in your presence. For gracing me with your spirited essence.For teaching me about not being shy to let it be known how you felt. 

You would throw sticks toward someone who, for some reason, may have been irritating you. You drenched one of the zookeepers years ago with a trunkful of water when you were displeased with his blowing bubbles at an event that was being held. Such laughter and giggles all around from everyone who saw this, including the very drenched keeper himself. 

I want to learn that more, setting limits and boundaries where needed. Expressing displeasure and irritation when needed. Symbolically hosing someone down when needed! Being myself. Thank you again, Lisa, for showing me this. 

And thank you, life. For allowing me to experience you. For each moment. I will try not to waste any of them. To remember and to honor Lisa. To honor myself. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s