Elephants hold space for each other’s grief, no matter how long it takes.
A talented author with a gift for weaving together complex themes, Jodi Picoult has written a masterwork about love and loss and elephants and family relationships.
On the surface, Leaving Time is a novel about a teenager trying to solve a crime, as the protagonist searches for clues surrounding an old murder and an unresolved missing persons’ case.
But there is so much more to this story.
Jenna tries to remember the tragic events of the day a long time ago when her mother left. She combs through her mother’s research on elephants in an attempt to learn more about her.
In the process, we learn a lot about the complexity of elephant relationships and how they live together in both the wild and in captivity.
- Jenna’s mother Alice studied elephants in Africa, then moved to the United States to work and live at an elephant sanctuary in New England.
- She went missing under unusual circumstances after a tragic accident at the sanctuary where she was injured and another woman was killed.
Beneath the surface of this many-layered story is a heady mixture of mystery and unresolved questions.
There is a talented psychic, who helps Jenna solve her mystery with the assistance of spirits and guides. There’s also an interesting twist near the end.
Hope Elephants is a sanctuary in Maine, New England and it’s very much like the one in Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult.
It was very small and was devoted to taking care of two retired elephants. The residents had come to be taken care of by an old trainer, who was a veterinarian. The unexpected death of the trainer resulted in elephants being returned to the Endangered Ark Foundation, an elephant care facility in Oklahoma.
“The Endangered Ark Foundation is a private non-profit dedicated to ensuring the future of Asian elephants in North America, providing a retirement ranch for circus elephants, and educating the public about this endangered species.”
In Leaving Time, the author weaves anecdotes about elephants through the text.
We discover their powerful ability to remember past events.
She reveals clues about how they process grief.
- Elephants can remember when a human shows them kindness and they have the capacity to forgive if the human can win them back.
- They also remember mistreatment and will never forget the human that was the source of the injury.
Humans often hold onto the good memories, suppressing memories of a tragedy as a form of self-preservation.
As Jenna searches for her mother she begins to remember events that were repressed due to their traumatic nature.
Slowly she discovers the truth about the fateful day that led to her mother’s disappearance.
The author skillfully intertwines the stories of an elephant’s grief with the grief experienced by the humans at the sanctuary.
Maura, a female elephant delivers a stillborn calf and we see Jenna’s mother acting as her support. Staying with her in her grieving vigil in the same way that a herd would in the wild.
- This creates a strong and lasting bond between them which results in Maura’s protection and loyalty a future tragedy.
- We are reminded of the complexity of human relationships and our struggle with processing grief and loss.
Elephants have complex emotional lives as well, especially females. They grieve the loss of a loved one in a similar way to humans.
Each loss is unique and we all process our grief in our own way.
The loss of an important person in our life is a tragedy on its own. That loss reverberates, changing the layers of our being, from who we see ourselves and how the loss has changed our hopes for the future, our memories, and our roles.
The actions of a herd of elephants can teach us how to support a grieving person.
Elephant herds are made up of females and adolescent males. The group is made of mothers and daughters, aunts and sisters.
When an elephant dies or experiences the loss of a calf, the entire herd mourns, often participating in rituals where they cover the body with branches and dirt.
They will stand in silence, holding space for the memory of the dead one, and in support of the grieving mother as she mourns her loss.
The elephants are patient in their support of the bereaved.
After some time has passed, they begin to leave the mourner, but they continue to return time and time again, never leaving them behind.
They continue to return until the mourning elephant is able to leave their loved one and rejoin the herd.
In that way, they bring them back to the present, back into life, back into the herd.
This is a story of love and loss and memories.
Most of all, it’s a story about keeping the people you love close.
“If you think about someone you’ve loved and lost, you are already with them.” Jodi Picoult, leaving time.
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee takes care of captive elephants who have experienced trauma in the circus or other environments.
They provide individual care, the essential companionship of a herd of elephants and a safe place to live out their lives.
It operates with a similar mission as the elephant sanctuary in Leaving Time. Elephant habitats are closed to the public and any viewing is done remotely.
Public education is another focus. There is a crisis facing elephants in the world, especially around their needs, both in the wild and in captivity. They can be reached at PO Box 393 Hohenwald, TN 38462
The myth of the elephant graveyard
An excerpt from Leaving Time.
“Some people used to believe that there was an elephant graveyard — a place that sick and old elephants would travel to die. They’d slip away from their herds and would lumber across the dusty landscape, like the titans we read about in seventh grade in Greek Mythology. Legend said the spot was in Saudi Arabia; that it was the source of a supernatural force; that it contained a book of spells to bring about world peace.
Explorers who went in search of the graveyard would follow dying elephants for weeks, only to realize they’d been led in circles. Some of these voyagers disappeared completely. Some could not remember what they had seen, and not a single explorer who claimed to find the graveyard could ever locate it again.
Here’s why: The elephant graveyard is a myth.” Jodi Picoult
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Neil and Zulma Scott on Unsplash