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On Grief and Goshawks

Through a series of fantastic events, I found myself needing to read and put together a program for one of our monthly book clubs. The book, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, was on my to-read list for a while but I hadn’t yet been able to read it. I quickly downloaded the audio version and began to listen to Helen talk about the aftermath of losing her father, Alisdair MacDonald. Using the word “aftermath” seems hyperbolic but it works quite well for this book. Grief is a non-linear personal path that everyone has to take at some point. It is unyielding, uncomfortable and insurpassable at times. Helen takes this path through training an equally unyielding bird, the Goshawk.

Growing up, Helen loved the idea of becoming a falconer. She read all the books she could, went Hawk sighting with her dad and begged her parents to buy her a hawk. She flew many different hawks but had never trained a Goshawk, reported to be the hardest to train. Helen focuses all of her energy on Maybel (the name she chose for her Goshawk) becoming a recluse in the process, trying to work out her grief. She does have help from a few friends but outside of her falconer buddies, she doesn’t see many people. She becomes jumpy and terrified of everyday noises, much like Maybel, she becomes distrusting of everyone with no expectations of it getting any better. Maybel becomes her best friend and her only focus. To be honest, I had trouble not getting frustrated with Helen because she was losing so much of herself in this hawk. She lost her job, had no place to live and I was internally yelling at her to COME ON! YOU HAVE TO KEEP GOING. But I understood her pain.

I found myself struggling through the book because it reminded me of the hard days after my own mother’s passing. Despite it being four years ago (almost to the date) listening to Helen talk about how hard it was to eat, her losing ability to talk to people, her want to stay away and be alone echoed past experiences of my own. It is shocking when a parent passes and you realize that the world doesn’t stop. That the person at the coffee store, the co-worker who asks you to do a task, the guy who cuts you off on the bridge, aren’t affected. I think that adds to the loss. Not only have you lost a loved one, but you’ve lost the ability to connect. It makes you feel so immensely alone in the world. Her ability to share her personal grief was like nothing I’ve read before. Honestly I’ve stayed away from most books of this nature for fear of that path, but Helen’s was surprising and beautiful. I appreciated her ability to share such a terrible event and recommend reading her memoir if you’ve experienced grief. Even if you haven’t its well written and Helen herself reads the audio version which only makes it that much more tangible.

A note to those who have lost loved ones.
When my mom first got sick, a phrase that became the battle cry of our family was “One bite at a time.” Which is what we tried to do every day with each difficulty of her illness. After her passing a year later, that phrase became “Keep moving forward” from one of her favorite animated movies. So I now say this to you. Although it’s hard, and it looks like an endless dark tunnel, just remember you are loved and to Keep Moving Forward.

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