An invaluable lesson on how to let go from a surprising source
When a warbler hit my window last week, I thought about death and transitions, and how much we can learn from the graceful ways that animals navigate both.
One morning last week, as I sat down to write, I heard the unmistakable thwack of a bird hitting glass. With a sharp inhale and tears in my eyes, I crossed the room, peered outside, and saw a beautiful warbler on its back, shaking, its tongue darting in and out of its beak. My heart broke. I paused a few moments, then stepped onto the balcony and bent down beside it. Unsure of what to do, I walked back inside and called the local Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. The woman on the phone told me that birds often need about an hour to recover and that I should put it in a box and let it be. If, after an hour, it hadn’t flown, I should bring it in.
I found a box and, as carefully as I could, wrapped the little bird in a baby cloth, turned it onto his belly, and placed it inside. Then I left it alone. I didn’t want to leave it alone. I wanted to sit down next to it and stroke its soft wing until it recovered enough to fly. But on the Wildlife Rehabilitation website it said that animals in trauma need to be alone and that, despite our best intentions, they perceive any human contact as a threat. So I went downstairs and quietly came up every twenty minutes or so to check on it.
As I waited, I thought about death and how simultaneously natural and painful it is. Everest was concerned about the bird, but I could also hear in his explanations to Asher that his experience witnessing Mocha’s demise and death last spring has helped create more acceptance of death for him. He said to his little brother, “The bird might die, Asher. It’s just what happens sometimes. But it will come back in another body. It’s okay.”
And I thought, of course, about transitions. I thought about how transitions most be endured alone (for whether the warbler would recover or die, the event would be a transition in its life.) In inner bonding we talk about the core feelings about loneliness, grief, heartbreak, existential fear. Loneliness, like existential fear and core grief, is one of the defining emotions for transitions. When we’re in the midst of getting married, pregnancy, new motherhood, moving, changing jobs, or retirement, we realize that no one can grieve the old life and make the brave leap into the new life for us. Transitions are initiations, and like the indigenous boy who is left in the middle of a forest alone to find his way into adulthood, so we are metaphorically left in the forest of the unknown, flooded with memories of what is no longer and grappling with fear of what’s to come.
My engaged clients often say to me, “How can my partner and I be walking toward the same experience – the wedding day – and feeling so differently about it? I feel like we should be closer than ever but it’s like we’re on two different paths.” My pregnant clients in their first and third trimesters share, “Ever since I got pregnant I’ve pulled into myself and withdrawn from everyone around me. I always thought I’d want to connect with my friends and family when I got pregnant, but I’ve just wanted to be alone. I feel lonely, but not necessarily in a bad way. I’ve just needed to be separate, to process this on my own.”
If a transition is to be navigated with consciousness and completion, there must be a time in which we withdraw or separate from the people and world around us. Within the crucible of solitude, we cut the ties that bind us to the old life and attend to the critically important world of emotions that the transition activates. We grieve. We acknowledge the fear. We find a way to surrender to being out of control. We recognize that no one can do this for us and we stop trying to find a way to abdicate responsibility for the challenges that arise. Within the crucible of silence, we slow down, we find stillness, and we let go. In this release, we realize that we will find the wings that will allow us to soar into the new life.
And so it was with the little warbler. In Peter Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, he says all animals undergo the same process in response to trauma: they energetically release it and move on. They may need to shake or shut down for a period of time as a bird does when it hits a window, but it doesn’t hold onto the trauma longer than it needs to move it through its body. This is exactly what I witnessed: first the warbler shook, then it shut down, became very still, and waited either to leave this world or to fly off to the next moment.
After about an hour, I went back upstairs to check on it. It was still huddled in a corner of the box. I decided it was time to take it to the Center, so I gathered my things and came back out to get the bird. But when I bent down to pick it up, the bird hopped. It shook out its wings and I could see it wanted to fly. I lowered the sides of the box and away it flew to the nearby aspen tree as if nothing had happened. I’ve thought about the experience many times over the last week, but the bird will never think of it again. It happened, it worked it through, and it moved on. We have a lot to learn from animals. A lot to learn about the art and science of letting go.