Surviving the Death Talk With My Kid


The first time death came up, my son was asking about an old photo of my dog Jupiter. Jupiter, an American bulldog I rescued from L.A. just before my now-husband and I moved in together, died just a couple of months before my son was born. For several weeks I cried, unmoving, on the sofa. Agonizing over my loss and worried that my joy about giving birth was being overshadowed by my sorrow, I was nervous that heartbreak was seeping deep into my bones.

When he asked, I was so excited to tell my son, who was 4 at the time, all about this amazing dog’s life. It turned out he was far more interested in his death.

Like so many other hard conversations we’d had before, I initially tried to be as matter-of-fact about dying as I could be. I described how Jupe had been in a lot of pain, that the doctor said he was likely very ill, and that the kindest thing we could do for him would be to relieve him of that pain as peacefully and quickly as possible. “What was he feeling when he died?” my son asked. I wasn’t sure how to answer. In that awful, quiet moment, I only knew how I felt, and I was shattered. So I told him truthfully that I didn’t know what it feels like to die, but as I’ve done a million times before with things I’m not sure of, I promised we could get some books from the library and try to find out. But I knew deep down he wasn’t interested in hypotheticals and esoteric explanations about death. He wanted to know it, to see it up close and poke at it in the same way he investigated the bugs in our backyard.

The books at the library were unsatisfying, but he didn’t have to wait long to find out what the real thing felt like. The next year for our family was anchored by death, and the “what ifs” were left far behind.

Just a few months after our conversation about Jupiter, my husband’s father died. He flew home to be with his family in the very darkest part of the morning, and I sat up waiting for the sun to rise, hoping the light would help me make sense of what was happening, both for me and for the kids. My daughter was just a toddler, but my son — he was that very curious, very aware 4-year-old who would wonder where Daddy had gone and why.< This time I didn’t feel the need to explain as much; I just let him see for himself how death reshapes the room as my grief filled our tiny home like my tears were a million heavy glass balls. Loss was no longer something atmospheric, it was grounded by this now-empty hole in my husband; it became a window through his heart that he tried to hide but couldn’t. Now that death was suddenly tangible, we started talking about it a lot more, but it wasn’t until my mother-in-law died eight months later that the real, unraveling questions about it came. “Does everybody die?” Yes. “Will you and Daddy die?” Someday, yes. “Will I die?!” Yes, but … “When?” Not for a long time. “Is there anything after we die?” I don’t know.

Those were hard. I wanted to tell him the truth — I think kids are owed at least that much. My husband actually had to stop me from answering “When will I die” with something a little too honest. I just felt he deserved at least my attempt at the full picture of what it means to be alive, of the true price of this incredible experience. That a long life is not promised, it’s only what we hope for, and when and how we die is something no one knows. That death is arbitrary and often meaningless, and how finite our lives really are. Would I be denying him something fundamental by not making all of those things clear? Or was it actually cruel to burst that bubble of innocence for a kid who adamantly believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny? So instead I told him how lucky we are that before we die we get to taste mangos and read our favorite books. That we get to swim in the salty ocean and collect smooth, green glass on the beach.

I worried a lot that first year if I’d been too forthcoming. I didn’t want him to feel burdened by this idea of loss, and I didn’t want him to be afraid. But I also wanted to offer an explanation for why it sometimes felt like the roof of our house was sagging under with grief. I remember when my own dad’s dad died, I was quite a few years older than my son, but my parents shielded my sisters and I from what was happening. All we knew was that suddenly everything felt different around the house and our once stoic dad was felled by a pain we couldn’t understand. I thought and still do think when the emotional tenor of the household changes so dramatically and instantly, it’s important to let everyone know why. Especially since the aftermath of death can feel like a punctuated silence. You’re not sure what to say or how to say it; grief can feel invisible, so naming it, talking about it is a necessary flare to send up, to be clear that this house is in mourning.

I reminded myself of what a privilege it is to watch each other grow and that in the inevitability of death is also a promise to relish life.

Sometimes it felt like he was prodding at us like a couple of worms he’d dug up, seeing which questions would make us recoil or squirm. He often recited that his grandparents had died like it was an animal fact or something he’d learned at school, as a reminder to himself that yes, something had changed this year, we really were different.

>The next summer, my son got really into space. We started talking about all the different galaxies and planets and stars, the bigness of everything around us and the smallness of us. And I told him, a few weeks after the memorial for his grandparents, that he, too, is made of stardust, that part of what’s out there is also in both of us. He loved the idea of being a part of something so huge and the thought that when you died, you might still leave something behind. I knew he’d been seeking that kind of comfort since our very first conversation about it, but I couldn’t promise him something I didn’t know to be true. In stardust though, I was finally able to say with confidence that after we die, we don’t just disappear.

It’s been a couple of years now, and we don’t talk about death as frequently. Some light has come back into our house, and I’ve noticed that my son isn’t as scared of the idea anymore. He understands how momentous death can be, but along the way, because we always answered his questions openly, honestly, and with care, it has become something normal. It’s as much a part of life as anything else, and he’s seen that firsthand now. The only thing that has really changed is that he won’t let me kill bugs in the house anymore because he says they deserve a long life too.

Complete Article HERE!

I got married at 19 and was widowed at 42.

— It took me 4 years to rediscover sexual pleasure after my husband died.


  • When I felt ready to move on with my sex life after my husband died, I faced feelings of betrayal.
  • Coping with sexual bereavement as a young widow was an immensely challenging experience.
  • I learned that experiencing intimacy after loss is possible with the right support.

Losing a life partner is an unimaginable experience that can leave you feeling lost and invisible. And that’s exactly how I felt when I became a widow at 42. Tony and I married when I was just 19, and losing my partner — who had been with me for more than half my life — felt like losing a part of myself.

Grief was a lonely road. But sexual bereavement was a whole new kind of struggle. Sexual bereavement — the term used to describe the grief I felt because I missed sexual intimacy with Tony — is often associated with older adults.

Yet, for four years after Tony’s death, unaddressed sexual bereavement kept me from moving on. As a young widow, I felt like a stranger to myself.

Sexual bereavement impacts people of all ages

Many people believe that sexual bereavement only affects older adults. After all, older adults tend to experience the loss of their long-term partners more often than younger individuals.

But this is a common misconception. And this realization hit me hard.

After Tony died, well-meaning friends and family members encouraged me to start a new chapter in my life. But I resisted the pressure to do so until I was confident in my own healing process.

When I finally felt ready to engage in intimacy, I was unprepared for the overwhelming wave of guilt and shame that consumed me.

Sex felt like a betrayal to Tony, and I grappled with my conflicted emotions. Feelings of grief and loss made it difficult to be present in the moment. I struggled to feel a sense of normalcy in something as simple as physical touch.

Rediscovering sexual pleasure after loss

In grieving the loss of a loved one, sex can easily take a backseat. But eventually, the desire for intimacy may resurface. And there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to dealing with sexual bereavement.

Sometimes it can feel like experiencing sexual pleasure after such a profound loss is disrespectful or taboo. “Give yourself permission and time to adjust to many different stressors that happen as a result of the death,” Beatty Cohan, a psychotherapist and sex therapist, told Insider.

Cohan notes that it’s important to communicate your feelings and concerns with potential partners. Going from a long-term relationship to a brand-new one takes some getting used to. “It’s not like you turn on a light switch, and you’re sexually in tune. Hopefully, you have chosen a partner who is empathetic, supportive, and understanding,” Cohan said.

Still, some people may choose not to have sex after their partner dies, and it’s important not to judge them or assume they have sexual dysfunction or that something is ‘wrong’ with them, says Cohan.

“If someone is interested in sex with themselves or a partner(s), and they can’t understand what’s getting in the way of their interest or desire, that’s the time to reach out and ask for help and figure out what’s going on and what to do,” Cohan said.

Not only that, but Cohan cautions it’s important to consider the impact of mental health, hormone imbalances, the side effects of medications, and physical issues on our sexual desires.

Young widows, you’re not alone

For me, sexual bereavement lasted for years. I didn’t know what it was, felt isolated, and didn’t seek help soon enough.

Rediscovering sexual pleasure after the loss of a spouse can be intimidating. It’s up to you to decide whether you’re ready for intimacy. Allow yourself ample time and space to heal and show yourself kindness and understanding along the way.

Complete Article HERE!

My death is close at hand.

— But I do not think of myself as dying.

By Paul Woodruff

How often do you think about death? “Every third thought,” said Shakespeare’s avatar Prospero in the last line of the last speech he gives in Shakespeare’s last play, “The Tempest,” aside from the epilogue that follows the play. My friends say they think of death at least as often as Prospero. I do, too. If we think about death so much, we ought to know what to think about it. Philosophy is supposed to have answers, but the answers we hear most often from philosophers are not good for us. “Live every day as if it is your last,” we are told. “Remember that you are on the way to death each day.”

A friend recently wrote an email message with this line in it: “Paul is dying of a lung infection.” He had meant it for someone else, but he had misdirected it. That sentence infuriated me. I do not have a lung infection. My death is close at hand, however, because of a lung condition called bronchiectasis, and I am on oxygen day and night. But I do not think of myself as dying. I am living each day with as much life as I can put into it. For me, that means going to bed each night planning at least one project for the next day — something worth getting out of bed and living for. As I think of dying, I make each day a time for living, for having something to live for.

What kind of project is worth living for? Not a project I could complete today. Worthwhile projects spread out over time. Writing this small essay and finding someone to print it will take at least a week, and today is only the first day. I will make sure that the last day for this essay will be the first day for something else. Thinking of death, I want to live every day as if it were the first for something.

Living as I do, with projects that continue over time, I can be sure that my death will cut me off before I finish something worth doing. I want to be cut off when I die of something I care about doing — not from thoughts of death alone. Unless I am in unbearable pain, I should be able to live right up to the last moments. Here is an inspiring (although slightly gruesome) example: Under bloody Queen Mary, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the author of the lovely Anglican prayer book, was burned at the stake for his protestant views despite signing false confessions of faith in Catholic doctrine. Even as the flames licked up around him, and his death was moments away, he was very much living (not dying) when he put his right hand into the heart of the fire to punish it for signing false confessions

I know I will die soon. But must I be miserable about it? Why not find a cause for joy in each day? Some corner of my mind always knows that sad thoughts lurk behind my projects. But my dying will be much harder on my loved ones than it will be on me. Survivors often think they have failed to keep their loved one alive. I want my survivors to know that death is not unwelcome to me, although I want to be living each day. There’s nothing wrong with dying. All the best people in history have done it. Let foolish philosophers see themselves as dying every day. Thinking of death, I choose life.

Complete Article HERE!

Leaving the earth a better place

By Kathleen McQuillan

Three young men work in silence excavating the place where their grandmother’s body will be buried — free of harsh embalming chemicals or the effects of a fiery furnace.
No concrete vault or steel casket. Her remains are “dressed” in her favorite pajamas and wrapped in a simple white cotton shroud, ready to be placed in a designated plot of ground at what is called a “conservation burial site”. A hand-made wicker basket housed her body for the length of time it took to decompose. The lid was covered with dried ferns, rose petals, and her favorite wildflowers. Although the men have agreed to silence, nothing stops a steady flow of memories, some of which will be shared for the lowering of her body into this hallowed ground. With explicit details on how to prepare the site, they are fulfilling their role in what will be remembered as their family’s ritual of final good-byes.

As I read this story, I recalled the burial rite for my mother who died five years ago. My brothers and I agreed to dispense of a formal funeral because most of our extended family were scattered across the country and all of my mother’s closest friends had predeceased her. Not aware of alternatives, we decided on a simple cremation and planned to disperse Mom’s ashes at a place we’d named “Karen’s Rock”.

Located up a hill and across an abandoned pasture left fallow for at least thirty years, a massive granite boulder rises out of the willow brush and wild plum. My guess is that it was deposited there by an advancing glacier scraping its way across the landscape some ten thousand years ago. When my sister died in 1997, this was where I sprinkled her ashes with my family in full agreement that this unique rock monument would act as a suitable headstone. On the day we sprinkled our mother’s ashes, I and my siblings shared a warm and comforting thought. Our mother was finally reunited with her daughter.

The opening to this story was inspired by an article entitled “Down to Earth” by Kathy Jesse that appears in the Spring issue of the National Wildlife Federation magazine. It examines “eco-friendly alternatives” to the conventional funeral practices of embalming and cremation. I’d heard of “green burials” but never “natural organic reduction” or NOR, a process that places human remains in a specialized vessel with a mixture of organic materials that hasten decomposition. After six weeks, the body is fully transformed into compostable soil that is, in most cases, returned to the family for final disposition. There are twenty NOR facilities in seven states with accompanying tracts of land called “conservation burial sites” where composted remains can be buried and the land eventually available for reclamation and reforestation. Minnesota is not among them.

Interest in alternative burial practices is increasing, partly because of growing environmental concerns with embalming and cremation, and also due to increased use of services provided by hospice professionals and death doulas dedicated to educating and supporting families’ direct involvement in end-of-life decision-making and caregiving. Americans, as a whole, are becoming more at ease with issues surrounding the final stages of life. More of us are completing Advanced Directives that clarify our preferences regarding medical interventions as death draws near. Books and podcasts abound that focus on death as an inevitable and natural part of life to be discussed openly rather than denied, avoided and feared.

Since the mid-1800s, Americans have adopted embalming, burials in vaults and caskets, and more recently, cremation as our conventional methods for disposing of our bodies after death. These practices have become increasingly expensive, creating enormous financial burdens on grieving families. According to Jesse’s article, a study conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association in 2021 states “the average cost of a casket burial in the United States is $7,848, with cremation averaging $6,970.” And these figures don’t include the cost of a burial plot.

Green burials and NOR are significantly less expensive. They also inflict far less harm on the environment. As earth’s human population approaches 8 billion, how we handle our physical remains becomes an ever-increasing concern. Most of us are clustered in urban areas. The land available for burials is rapidly declining. When we take a look at the volume of natural resources consumed each year for burials — an estimated 20 million board feet of hardwoods and 64,500 tons of steel used for caskets, and 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults; the toxins that leak into the soil from an estimated 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid made of formaldehyde and other carcinogens; and atmospheric pollution from crematorium emissions estimated conservatively at 140 to 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per person — the need for less polluting alternatives becomes ever clearer!

Dr. Sara Kerr PhD., a Canadian educator, certified death doula, and founder of The Centre for Sacred DeathCare in Calgary, Alberta states on her website that NOR uses 1/8th the energy of cremation (furnaces must reach 1900 degrees F. and maintain that temperature for two hours), and NOR sequesters its carbon (about one pound per person) back into the soil. She describes human composting as “a collaborative vision in service to ecological restoration, regenerative agriculture, grief-tending, and land-based healing.”

Just imagine… our bodies giving back to Nature … a final gesture of good will in return for the life it gave us. As this method gains greater acceptance, our death rituals will evolve, bringing us together to mourn and celebrate the lives of our deceased and with a deeper understanding that death is less an “ending” and more a “returning”. For those of us standing by, we can be comforted knowing that this final act did not degrade the earthly home left behind, but instead helped to restore it.

Complete Article HERE!

How to Support Someone with a Terminal Illness

Terminal illness, sometimes called ‘life-limiting illness,’ is a condition or illness which cannot be cured and is likely to lead to death. Death is, of course, a natural part of life. Everyone dies and many (if not most) of us are afraid of it. Our brains don’t do well with the idea of death, in fact, researchers say that our brains shield us from the existential fear around dying.

Yair Dor-Ziderman, a researcher at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, says this: “The brain does not accept that death is related to us. We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it. We cannot rationally deny that we will die, but we think of it more as something that happens to other people.”

So what, then, do we do when someone we are close to is diagnosed with a terminal illness or life-limiting condition? How do we face down that existential fear and help? Or cope? Or help them cope?

Advanced cancer, dementia (like Alzheimer’s and others), lung disease, multiple organ failure, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney failure, AIDS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and adult failure to thrive are among conditions and illnesses which can become terminal.

What a person with a terminal illness may be experiencing varies from person to person and from moment to moment. These feelings may come one at a time, in groups or they may cycle and include:

  • Denial
  • Fear
  • Shock
  • Sadness
  • Resentment
  • Anger
  • Relief
  • Acceptance

People’s reaction to the news that they have a terminal illness comes in stages. The way we react to the news that a friend or loved one has received a terminal diagnosis is equally varied. There’s no standard reaction, and there’s no such thing as a right or wrong reaction. Some people feel numb at first, as though what they’re being told doesn’t make sense. Some are immediately frightened, others may initially appear very matter-of-fact.

At the consultation or doctor’s visit, after a person hears that his or her illness cannot be cured, they may be unable to process or retain information that comes afterward. The diagnosis is simply too much to take in. Friends and loved ones may experience the same thing. If you find yourself in the difficult emotional space of helping someone you care about deal with the premature end of their life, look for ways to support the person, their caregivers and yourself.

Some tips:

Don’t assume. For example, don’t automatically count someone with a terminal illness out of gatherings, trips or socializing. Someone with a life-limiting illness is first and foremost a person, with interests and an identity outside of their prognosis. If you aren’t sure whether a loved one would like to get together, invite them and let them decide.

Try not to focus on the illness. While you may feel the need to talk or ask about the person’s illness, it’s a better plan to allow them to determine when and how much to talk about their health. People living with terminal illnesses can feel removed from everyday life, or reduced to only their medical condition. Some may feel that the person they were before diagnosis doesn’t exist anymore, and they may miss the autonomy they had before. When an illness progresses, the person living with it loses control of so much – when to eat, caring for themselves, sleep patterns – so any sense of control you can help them maintain is a very good thing. Even if it’s as simple as when or if to talk about their illness.

Avoid describing the person as ‘dying.’ It’s natural. When someone has been given a terminal diagnosis, ‘dying’ is the word that comes to mind. Remember, though, that to them they are very much still alive, even though their time might be limited. Technically, also, a person is only ‘dying’ at the moment of death. Until then, he or she is living with a life-limiting illness. A fine distinction? Perhaps, but fine distinctions are often the most important distinctions.

Remember caregivers. You really can help someone by supporting their primary caregivers. People caring for seriously ill loved ones need relief. Ask if they need an afternoon or evening off. Hug them if they’re huggers. Make a meal, bring them a coffee.
Rephrase! Don’t say “It’s going to be okay” or ask “How are you?” It’s insensitive to say it’s going to be ok to someone whose fate has been sealed by illness, especially if we don’t know where they are in their processing/mourning process. Instead, ask how they are feeling today. Of course it’s natural to open a conversation with ‘how are you,’ but asking how a person is feeling today helps keep the focus on the moment at hand, and is less overwhelming than asking a big, open-ended question.

Jump in and help. If you tell some to let you know if they need anything, that’s vague. It might even feel meaningless, even if you really want to help because it’s non-specific. Just jump in. Visit often, or call. Ask if you can tidy up the kitchen or take care of some laundry. Ask for a grocery list and mark that chore off the list or mow the yard.

Don’t give up. Someone with a life-limiting illness may not feel well enough for visitors all the time, but don’t try once and then throw in the towel. Living with a terminal illness is difficult and unpredictable. Everyone’s emotional bandwidth is limited – people dealing with end-of-life issues may find that their bandwidth is much narrower or fluctuates more than before. Keep checking in.

Make it a no-phone zone. Sometimes we check our phones without even thinking about it, but if there’s a time to put it away, it’s when you’re spending time with someone whose life has been shortened by disease. Be fully present for them.

Say something. Even if you aren’t sure what to say, something is almost always better than nothing. It could be as simple as ‘I’m thinking of you,’ or ‘I love you.’ You don’t have to directly address the illness or condition, in fact it may be a relief for the person to not talk about it. Speak from a place of kindness and it’s hard to go too far wrong.

Feel what you feel. You may find yourself dealing with anticipatory grief, which is similar to the grief we experience after someone dies. There are differences to be aware of. There is often more anger. You may not know how you feel – holding on and letting go at the same time. Anticipatory grief is a deep sadness which is hard for anyone who hasn’t experienced it to understand. Not everyone will feel anticipatory grief, and it’s neither right nor wrong. Don’t go it alone – talk to someone about your pain. Find a friend who doesn’t judge and speak openly and honestly, making it clear that you don’t need them to fix anything but just to listen.

Complete Article HERE!

New Washington law makes medically assisted death easier to access

— A measure Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law earlier this month will cut down the wait time between when patients first ask for life-ending medication and when they can receive it.

By Melissa Santos

A new Washington law aims to make it easier for patients to access aid-in-dying services under the state’s Death with Dignity Act.

  • The new law also will let more kinds of health care providers sign off on requests for a medically assisted death, and allow the necessary drugs to be mailed to patients instead of picked up in person.

Why it matters: Family members of people who have had terminal illnesses say the current requirements can be a barrier to patients ending their lives on their terms, which was one of the goals of the 2008 law.

Others said the law’s requirements have acted as important safeguards to make sure people are truly ready to die.

Zoom out: Ten states plus Washington, D.C. have laws allowing medically assisted death, according to Compassion and Choices, a nonprofit group that supports access to aid in dying services.

  • Lawmakers in Massachusetts are once again considering the latest measure introduced there this year.

Catch up quick: Under Washington’s voter-approved Death with Dignity law, patients qualify for physician-assisted death if they are terminally ill and have an estimated six months or less left to live.

  • To receive the drugs needed to end their lives, patients must ask three times — once in writing, and twice orally, with 15 days between the two oral requests.
  • Two doctors have to affirm the patients’ prognosis and that they are acting voluntarily.

Details: Washington’s new law will cut the required waiting time between patients’ oral requests to seven days.

  • It also will allow physician assistants and advanced nurse practitioners to be one of the medical providers who sign off on the procedure, and eliminates a two-day waiting period for prescribing the drugs.

What they’re saying: Supporters of changing the law told a House panel last month that some patients who seek physician-assisted death are dying before they can complete the 15-day waiting period, or have become physically incapable of making another request before that timeline has expired.

  • “Too many families, too many patients have faced great anguish and great pain in being unable to carry out their end-of-life wishes as the initiative intended,” state Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver) said during a Senate floor speech.

The other side: Opponents expressed concerns that people may choose to end their lives to avoid being a burden to family members, or because they are being coerced.

  • “If it’s going to change, shouldn’t it really be changed by another initiative?” state Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) asked during debate on the Senate floor. “Shouldn’t we honor what the people have said?”

What’s next: The update to Washington’s law takes effect on July 23.

“Secrets of the Elephants”

— Reveals their uncanny ability to grieve and empathize

An adult elephant sprays water from its trunk after taking a drink in a watering hole.

Salon spoke with Dr Paula Kahumbu, star of Disney+’s “Secrets of the Elephants,” about her close encounters

By Matthew Rozsa

Tolstoy used to be a formidable elephant: Massive in size, revered by the young bulls, and with tusks so long they touched the ground. When he was alive, Tolstoy had been more than just some random animal. He was a beloved member of a close-knit community filled with colorful personalities.

That is why when he died – the victim of a spear wound inflicted while he had been innocently searching for food — other elephants visited his body to pay their respects. The pachyderm rituals would not have seemed out of place at a human funeral: Some stood in quiet order while observing Tolstoy’s remains, and others gently touched his body with their trunks.

“There was a really strong feminine energy in how we told the stories, how we leaned into the emotions of elephants in a way that’s rarely done in wildlife documentary filmmaking.”

Quiet scenes like this are peppered throughout “Secrets of the Elephants,” a Disney+ series produced by “Avatar” director James Cameron that premieres on Earth Day (April 22). While it is not the first documentary series to profile elephants, it is certainly one of the most visually spectacular. With gorgeous cinematography and the guiding presence of narrator Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, the four-part series travels from the Savannahs of Africa to dense Asian metropolises to chronicle how elephants think, feel and communicate with one another.

Dr. Paula Kahumbu, who is also the CEO of the charitable organization Wildlife Direct, is the secondary star of the series — one of the world’s foremost elephant experts, and an on-the-ground researcher who has spent years studying elephants in the wild. Kahumbu is the kind of elephant authority whose voice fills up with emotion as she describes an individual elephant who she drew to admire almost as a friend; not surprisingly, Kahumbu drops terms like “Big Tusker” and “Super Tusker” quite casually in conversations. (Big Tuskers are elephants so old that their tusks grew all the way to the ground; Super Tuskers have even larger tusks.) Salon spoke with Kahumbu about the filming process, elephant emotions and what she’s learned after observing elephants for decades.

The following interview has been edited for length, clarity and context.

I was very upset when Tolstoy the elephant died. In the show, you observed that his loss would profoundly affect the entire community of elephants, and especially the youth he was mentoring. Can you elaborate a little on who Tolstoy was as an individual and why you felt that way after his passing?

I knew Tolstoy for many, many years and filmed with him. He’s one of the few Big Tuskers that we call a Super Tusker. They are bigger than an ordinary Big Tuskers, which are very large, full-grown adult elephants with very large tusks. His tusks were so long, they grew all the way down to the ground, and it’s very rare for elephants to get to that size. His nature was very calm, very relaxed and very patient and wise. He was an elephant who was always surrounded by other bulls… and that’s because of the role he played in his elephant society. Basically the Super Tuskers are the bulls that younger bulls would hang out with to learn because the Super Tuskers have had so many years of experience and knowledge. They know how to navigate difficult terrain or how to navigate human-dominated landscapes and other dangers and threats to them. He was a bull whose role in the society of elephants was to educate the youngsters, keep them in tow, because young elephants can be very boisterous. They can be very dangerous. And without doing anything that looks outwardly obvious to us, elephants speak in a language that we can’t hear. Tolstoy could manage the other younger bulls and make sure that they don’t do anything troublesome.

How did he communicate with them, though? I’m fascinated by this because you say in the documentary that they talk to each other and what they say clearly has meaning. How can you as an observer discern that meaning?

Elephants have been recorded! You can use infrasonic recorders to capture what they’re saying, the actual sounds that they’re making, and you can actually play them back and you can see how they behave when you play back the sounds. You can also record the sounds and their body language and see what do they do and how they act when they make certain sounds. For example, sometimes elephants will be walking along and then they will all suddenly freeze. They’ll just be all still as statues, and one might wave its ears or something.

What is happening when they stop and they all stand still is they’re all listening. They’ll be listening with their feet. They’ll be listening with their trunks, which they rest on the ground. They’ll be listening with their ears. Then they will rumble. Some of their rumbles we cannot hear because it’s happening in a sound frequency that we cannot detect. The matriarch or the biggest bull will make a decision about what to do next. It could be we’re gonna go left, we’re gonna go to that mountain, or we’re gonna wait. Like, for example, if a baby elephant needs to sleep, the matriarch will make a decision: “Everybody stop! Nobody’s going anywhere. You can stay where you are, feed where you are, but we’re not walking anymore. The baby needs to rest.”

That reminds me of the episode in the African desert. A baby fell asleep, and the mother and aunt stayed behind to protect it while the other elephants in the pack moved forward. Why did that happen, given what you just explained?

The matriarch is also making a decision for the whole family, and the mother is having to make a decision for her baby, her newborn baby. The matriarch is having to make really difficult choices. The family has to move. They have to keep moving. The mother, who is a a new young mother, hasn’t had the experience of waking up her baby on time. The matriarch is simply trying to survive. She is making sure that everybody moves, and the female who got left behind — I’ve seen that a lot, even in Kenya — sometimes elephants will be left behind two or three kilometers, but because they have this phenomenal ability to listen and hear several kilometers apart, you might look at elephants and think that they’re disconnected and they’re scattered across the landscape, but they’re actually really together because they’re still talking to each other. So I think that what happened in that episode is the family moved on. She said, “I’ll just wait for my baby.” She waited too long and then she lost track of the family, although she did find them.

“When they do die, you can clearly see that it affects the whole family… They will act as if they are so traumatized and sad about that incident.”

One of the scenes that affected me the most personally — and it’s because I have a disability and I suffer from disability-related issues — was the elephant with the shortened trunk who couldn’t feed himself, and one of the other elephants gave him food out of kindness. How often do you see that kind of behavior with elephants?

It’s probably something that happens from time to time. We’ve seen it with that baby elephant with a shortened trunk. I’ve seen it myself in other elephants. So it’s something that if you’re a scientist and you’re really observing carefully, you might witness it, but it’s not something that all elephants would do because they don’t always need to be helped. The ability to capture that moment is another amazing thing about this particular crew. They went out to find those situations where an elephant would need help and where you’re likely to see that kind of behavior.

We have even seen elephants showing kindness to other animals. They’ll go down to a water hole, they’ll see a turtle or a tortoise close to the water, and they won’t step on it. They will just nudge it aside carefully with their foot. They won’t step on, they won’t hurt other animals if they don’t need to.

I’m going back to when Tolstoy died, but there was the scene where you see the other elephants approach his body. For all intents and purposes, it appears that they are mourning, and in your dialogue, you refer to it as a ritual. What do we know for sure about how elephants grieve the loss of other elephants?

Well, that’s a really great question. We actually don’t know very much at all. All we know that they have an incredible sense of smell. And elephants can know each other from their individual smells. They can tell who’s who from their dung. They can literally sniff the dung and know who it was, who passed here, a little bit like a dog, but even better because their sense of smell is many times greater than that of a dog. So they can also detect the identity of an elephant that has died. And they often, for some reason, show a lot of interest in the tusks of dead elephants. And they will repeatedly return to dead elephants or relatives, dead relatives, and they will come towards them. They will touch them, feel them. If an elephant has recently died or is dying, they will even try to raise it, or they will stand around and just be with a dying elephant.

Once an elephant has died, they will sometimes even cover it up with bushes. It’s a really peculiar thing. We don’t really understand it, to be honest. It’s not something that you see every day because elephants live for a very long time, so you don’t see a lot of dead elephants out there. But when they do die, you can clearly see that it affects the whole family. It affects all the relatives and the friends of that elephant. I’ve seen elephants standing around dead elephants, and they will stand there sometimes for days. They will act as if they are so traumatized and sad about that incident.

What memories of your own individual encounters with elephants do you cherish the most? What are your favorite emotional memories of your experiences with elephants?

I studied elephants for my PhD, which was incredible. I worked with elephants in the field. I think the most amazing thing with elephants is when they begin to trust you. When years and years later, I started filming elephants and I was filming Big Tuskers, including Tolstoy and his nephew Tim who was another Super Tusker they were all hanging out together with a big group of bulls. And I could see that they were tired, it was hot, it was a very humid afternoon. They’d clearly been up for hours and they needed to sleep. And mostly elephants will sleep standing up, and they will go and stand in the shade. They will basically hide out or conceal themselves somehow in the bush.

These elephants did something so unusual. They came out of the bush close to our vehicles — literally, I’m talking about two or three meters — and then they lay down in front of our vehicles and they went to sleep and they snored for two hours in front of us. And that trust that they had in us… I mean, if I was a poacher, I could have taken out eight or 10 elephants in that two hours. They just lay down, went to sleep, snored their heads off, and then later on woke up and continued grazing. It was really a very moving experience. They trusted us enough to go to sleep with us right there.

“We have even seen elephants showing kindness to other animals. They’ll go down to a water hole, they’ll see a turtle or a tortoise close to the water, and they won’t step on it. They will just nudge it aside carefully with their foot.”

I’m empathizing with the elephants because I have sleep apnea. I’m just trying to imagine the size and design of a CPAP for a snoring elephant.

(laughing) How would they get the mask over the trunk?

You and I should corner the market on elephant CPAPs.

They make a lot of noise! What’s interesting also, when they sleep like that and even when they sleep standing up, they’re usually touching each other. There’s very touchy-feely animals. They love and they seem to have a need to be in physical contact with each other. So one elephant will lie down and the next one will lie down, but its feet or its trunk will be touching the next elephant. When they get up, they will touch each other just very softly with their foot, almost like gently waking up someone the way you would with your hand. It’s really fascinating that how gentle they are with each other.

This documentary was executive produced by James Cameron, maker of the “Avatar” movies, and I thought I could feel his influence in the cinematography. The visuals, the clarity of detail in the images was amazing. For instance, with the elephant’s skin in scenes where they’re walking along landscapes, you can catch every detail. I know that you’ve been studying elephants for decades, but have worked with filmmakers like James Cameron for decades? If not, how was that experience unique for you?

I’d never worked with James Cameron directly, but I’d worked with many different filmmakers on documentaries — only maybe a little bit of animation, but nothing like “Avatar.” “Avatar” is extraordinary. I think they did an amazing job in the sequel of making those sea animals appear to be so much like maybe a marriage of an elephant and a whale. They seem to resonate with us. You could imagine a real animal. Working with filmmakers has been extraordinary. I’m blown away by, particularly in this series, the crews were not just people who are on a job and have got five days to do something. These are crews who committed months of their year to spend time in some of the most inhospitable places.

“While I thought Kenyan elephants were in trouble, I found that they’re in much more trouble in other places.”

I mean, in the deserts of Namibia, they’re sleeping in a tent. It’s extremely hot. There is no water, and you have to get up very early and you’ve gotta be out on the road searching for those elephants all day long. It’s physically hard. It’s also emotionally draining because you’re away from everybody for months at a time in the Congo. You are being eaten alive by insects. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. It was one of the most difficult physical environments to work in, but these crews didn’t ever complain. I was blown away. And when we did see the elephants in the Namibian episode in the desert elephant episode in particular, there was such a sense of celebration that we had. We could find these elephants even though they’re very difficult to find. This joy and appreciation of elephants among the crew made it a very special film to work on. I hadn’t expected that.

I thought I’m the only one who really cares about elephants and I’m crazy about elephants. But I met people who really share that. And it comes out very clearly in the way that the film was shot. I don’t know if you know that quite a few of the producers — every single episode had a different producer — three of them were women, and the overall producer of the whole series was a woman. There was a really strong feminine energy in how we told the stories, how we leaned into the emotions of elephants in a way that’s rarely done in wildlife documentary filmmaking. And for me that was also such a joy to do. It was really incredible.

Is there anything that you would like to discuss that I have not broached so far through my questions?

I studied elephants in Kenya, where I’ve spent my lifetime fighting to save elephants, to stop the poaching, to keep their lands open, keep their migratory corridors open and all that kind of stuff. It sometimes feels like a thankless job because it’s quite hard. Human populations are growing. Elephants are encountering people increasingly. The challenges keep me very busy in Kenya. But this film forced me to go way beyond Kenya into many other countries of Africa and Asia. And what I found was that elephants are in peril everywhere. While I thought Kenyan elephants were in trouble, I found that they’re in much more trouble in other places. There are only 1,500 pygmy elephants left in the Namibian desert, only 150 desert elephants remaining in the Congo. The elephants have been so persecuted by people that they’re terrified and dangerous because some feel that they must retaliate against all humans. They don’t have a sense that any humans are good humans. I really feel that that’s a message we need to use this film, to help the people around the world to understand how amazing elephants are and that we have a big job ahead of us to save them — not not just for us, but for future generations.

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