[Books of the Dead] Crows and Giving Space for Grief

37th_Dead_WorldAt a crossroads, I watched a crow had been hit by a car, laid to rest there on one side of the street. Crows descended from the trees, probably a hundred crows. In groups of maybe eight, ten, twelve, they would walk around that individual that was on the ground. And then they would fly off, and over a fifteen, twenty-minute period, eventually all the crows flew off, leaving that corpse of the crow in the road. Tony Angell, Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans

Crows have been yelling at me a lot lately.  I’d like to tell you that I can understand what they’ve been saying, but I don’t know.  In my experience, it generally means that something is going to happen.  Sometimes good, sometimes not good, but more than daily life.  If he is feeling generous, Crow may show up in my dreams to elaborate.  But he has been silent on the matter, leaving the tiny cousins to chide me.  Or praise me?  Who knows.  I’ve never had a terribly strong communication connection with the goddesses, ancestors and spirits.  My logical brain is quick to tell me that I am just telling myself what I want to hear, so I try to rely on omens, portents, dreams and divination.  Sometimes that gives me a clear path, most of the time it doesn’t.  Sometimes when it’s particularly murky, I do as my friend JohnM, the psych guy, suggests and I assign reasons and explanation as it’s as good of an answer as any.  A very Roman approach to things, but sometimes better than nothing.

There’s debate about whether funeral is the right word to use because scientists aren’t sure that there’s a mourning component to the funerals or if it’s essentially a crow CSI lab:

‘The funeral behaviour of crows is so widely observed, and people often asked about it – but we haven’t known what was happening,’ Kaeli Swift at the University of Washington, who led the research, told Dailymail.com.

The study recorded the crow’s behaviour when stuffed crows which appeared dead were introduced to areas where they are feeding.  

‘I introduced one of my three dangerous scenarios: a masked person holding a dead crow, a masked person standing near perched hawk, and a masked person standing near a perched hawk with a dead crow.’

In all these cases the birds were taxidermy-prepared mounts.

‘The masks were used to work out how the crows recognised people – I had different volunteers each week,’ Swift said.

In 96% of cases , the response was the same.

‘The discovering bird (usually the territory holder) would scold and typically attract 5-11 additional birds.

‘The mob would stick around for 10-20 minutes, scolding loudly and gradually growing more silent and dispersing before all but the territory holders were left.’

Exposure to the dangerous stimuli would only last 30min, after which they were removed. – Mark Prigg

It made me think about human funeral rites, how when someone dies and there’s conversation about the deceased, part of the conversation is almost inevitably about the whys of the death and then often how to distance ourselves from that why.  But what do we gain from our impromptu amateur CSI discussions when we gather in groups in the parking lot outside of the funeral homes?  Do we learn anything about our predators and how to avoid them?  What do crows do when their lab comes up short and there is no answer?   Is it a hole in their tiny hearts that remains there because they could not find the predator?

Because . . .sometimes there is no answer.  When Devon died, we had no answer.  He was found under his Mustang, which he was very proud of.  Was it murder?  Was it a suicide?  Was it just some kind of freak accident?  I still don’t know.  My mother and I were so messed up, just seeing him quiet in his coffin, so young, only 21.  My sister had just started talking to him again, they would drink beer and laugh at the bar, happy to be hanging out together.  He was her boyfriend once, the first of three of her exboyfriends to die before she even turned 35.  Before any of them turned 35.   What do you even say to someone in this day and age who has more in common with a Victorian widow than a modern young mom?

It’s naïve to think that this terrible daisy chain of dead exboyfriends hasn’t changed her.  I can’t tell you how or why or where, I just know that it has.  How does my cousin Mikey get up every day?  He lost his brother who was only 32 to cancer and then his mother the next year to a car accident.  How do they both keep leading normal lives?  How do they learn to carry this heaviness?  How do they laugh at stupid jokes, go to the grocery store, go to work?  In some ways, the Victorian era made more sense, the mourning customs were oppressive, especially if you hated whoever had died, but you weren’t expected to ever be okay again.  If you were a shattered shell from grief, you were allowed to stay in that state as long as you needed to, even if it was for the rest of your life.

Why do we expect people to be okay again? And so quickly?  My current company is generous in benefits, but when my mom passes, I get three days.  If it’s Jow, I get a week.  If it’s April, I get a day. New Jersey doesn’t even require that my company give me anything.

I can’t wrap my head around that.  But it’s true, in my hourly positions, I lost a week’s pay when my Wasband’s mom died and then as a nanny lost a few days’ pay when my uncle died.  And I do understand that some people want the routine of work to stabilize them after a death.

But why aren’t we given the option to take time to be really present with our grief?  Even at wakes, it’s always asked how the bereaved is doing and if the bereaved can fake looking together for the span of several hours, the bereaved is inevitably praised for it, no matter how many drugs are in her system to present this facade.  If you are a disaster as the bereaved, all that is given is . . .pity.

Pity.

Pity for being present with your grief and loss.  Pity for taking the first step in accepting that your life will never, ever be the same.  Pity for being vulnerable with your loved ones.

I think that sucks.  I think everything about current grieving conventions sucks from the shortening of wakes from three days to one and done to the inevitable reprehensible behavior from people who can’t act like they were raised to the whole funeral home grindhouse.  Everything is supposed to be sanitized and your time with your dead is to be brief and then you get on with your life, worker bee.

I can’t really tell you why the crows come together when another crow dies.  I can only speculate.  I think they want to learn something, I think they want to relay the news of the crow’s death to each other so that other crows can learn to avoid the same predators, I think there’s a social component there too (“Sophie’s territory is up for grabs now!”  “I guess this means Fred is on the market!”). All of that happens at a human funeral rite too.

But if we want to be an example to the crows and to each other, we need to start taking a good hard look at how we view the bereaved and what we give praise to the bereaved for.  We need to tell our grieving sisters and brothers that they are strong, brave and loving for being present with themselves and their emotions during this traumatic time.  We need to tell stories during these events that show our beloved dead as whole people, not cardboard saints but whole, vibrant people who changed our worlds.  We need to provide a space where it is safe to have actual feelings about the loss of a loved one, both in a funeral rites place and the weeks, months and years after.  Grief is not convenient.  Grief is messy, grief is complicated and grief does not happen on an organized time table.  And grief will often manifest in ways that look bizarre, off putting and sometimes even cold to people who are not grieving themselves or who have not experienced profound grief themselves.  Sometimes even to people who have experienced profound grief themselves.  But there needs to be more space in our modern society for it.  And we need to be the change we want to see to make that happen.

If you are not sure if your loved one is grieving in a safe way, call a crisis hotline and talk to a professional.

Deborah Castellano
Deborah Castellano's book Glamour Magic: The Witchcraft Revolution to Get What You Want is available for purchase through Amazon, Llewellyn and Barnes and Noble.
Her frequently updated catalogue of published work is available on Author Central.

She writes about Glamour Magic here at Charmed, I'm Sure. Her podcast appearances are available here.

Her craft shop, The Mermaid & The Crow specializes in old-world style workshop from 100% local, sustainable sources featuring tempting small batch ritual oils and hand-spun hand-dyed yarn in luxe fibers and more!

In a previous life, Deborah founded the first Neo-Victorian/Steampunk convention, SalonCon which received rave reviews from con-goers and interviews from the New York Times and MTV.

She resides in New Jersey with her husband, Jow and their cat, Max II. She has a terrible reality television habit she can't shake and likes St. Germain liquor, record players and typewriters.  

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2 Responses

  1. I love this post so much. I would have agreed with your thoughts about our society’s messed up attitude toward grief before, but being recently bereaved this is so, so relevant to me right now. Crows are super awesome and all, I love them, but what does it say about us that birds do a better job of memorializing and grieving their dead than we do?

  2. My relationship with death has changed so much as I’ve gotten older. As a child and adolescent, it was always this heavy and devastating thing. Now that I’m in my 20’s, I’m learning that it’s just going to happen and I don’t find myself spending as much time wondering why. There’s not an answer to that question, and it’s very emotionally draining to dwell on it, hoping for an answer to make itself apparent. I’m glad that my employer also was very lenient and understanding about bereavement when my best friend died.
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