Essays

Courtney Ellis – Looking Up [Essay]

What Birds Taught Me About Grief
 
An Essay by

Courtney Ellis, author of
Looking Up: A Birder’s Guide to Hope Through Grief

Paperback: IVP, 2024
Buy Now: [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]


Courtney Ellis’s book was released last month, and she’s shared this essay with us…

My grandfather died in the middle of Holy Week in 2022. As a pastor married to a pastor, the two of us raising three young children whose spring break often falls during Holy Week, these days can be quite challenging.

Yet when I got the call that he’d been taken to the emergency room, I knew I needed to get on a plane.

“We will figure it out,” my husband told me, his hands deep in the soil of our California backyard. “If you need to go, you need to go.”

I made it back to the Midwest in time for a final goodbye, those tenderest of moments where the veil between the finite and the eternal is stretched to translucence. Then, as I waited in the security line for my flight home, I received a text from my father saying, simply, “He’s gone.”

Grief is a funny thing. It hits us in obvious ways—the tears, the ache, the flood of memories—but it creeps in more subtly, too. I found myself feeling like I was watching my life in slow motion, all its vibrancy muted and distant, as if on the other end of a long tunnel. As I stood before my congregation on Good Friday and proclaimed the death of Jesus on the cross, I wept. 

My grandfather was a person of few words and fewer pleasantries. A Korean War veteran, in his later years he was very nearly a hermit, residing with my grandmother in the northern woods of Wisconsin where he rarely left the house. 

I carry with me many things with me from his quiet life, a red bandana, a carved wooden cross, a love for silence and solitude. Still, one that is helping me move most comfortably through this haunting new landscape has been surprising:

It’s birds.

Constantly at war with the squirrels that stole his birdseed, my grandfather ordered contraptions out of catalogs that promised victory but never delivered. Still, birds brought him consistent sparks of joy. When I called, the quiet would stretch long and loud between us until I’d ask what he’d seen in the yard. Then I’d hear his voice, rich with warmth.

The birds tether me to him and to the things of God as well. On days I struggle to pray, lifting my eyes skyward reminds me that I am seen and loved. When words fail, birdsong fills in the blanks. And weeks when the hard edge of grief is too sharp to share, I take it into the hills, hiking long trails around marshes and meadows, each bird a reminder that the grand story will go on.

Here are three simple things birds have taught me about grief.

Keep building

Mourning Doves build notoriously shoddy nests. Usually no more than a handful of sticks hastily thrown together, they are at the mercy of wind and weather. They fall apart often. Still, when faced with the destruction of their handiwork, the doves give it a brief side-eye and set to work once again.

I love how Margaret Renkl puts it in her beautiful book The Comfort of Crows, Take your cue from the bluebirds, who have no faith in the future but who build the future nevertheless…” We do not continue to build because our next steps are certain and secure. While Scripture tells us how the story will ultimately end, the winding road to glory is riddled with pitfalls. None of us will escape the pain, the loss, the grief.

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Our backyard is filled with Mourning Doves and it is nesting season once again. A pair of them built one right outside our neighbor’s front door. He owns two rambunctious dogs and threw up his hands when he saw the nest, already askew from their morning walk.

“What were they thinking?” he asked. I smiled. 

“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll rebuild.”

Lean on one another

I see my grandfather’s introversion echoed in my life. After preaching I come home and nap like it’s the end of the world, not due to the challenges of public speaking but because of the hundred or so mini-conversations I had with newcomers and founding members, elders and deacons, staff and children. I come home feeling, as Eugene Peterson once described it, like “I have no skin on.” But while much of grief work must be done alone, we cannot remain isolated.

California Quail are communal birds. They live in loose flocks that can number in the dozens, one or two keeping watch while the others forage, raise young, and take their daily dust baths. Studies have shown that quail who stick together like this live longer.

The day my grandfather died, a friend who lives on the other side of the country texted to ask how I was doing.

“It’s hard,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll feel it all for a while. I could use a hug.”

“Sending you one,” she said, and by the time I arrived home from the airport, a soft blue blanket was waiting on my porch.

Ministry professionals tend to struggle to accept help from others. We can balk at letting our wounds show. There is a time and place for privacy, of course, but as I watch the quail, their soft Chi-ca-go calls echoing from one side of the trail to the next, I remember why God sets us in families, both born and chosen.

Keep looking up

Spring migration peaks in southern California in late April and early May, just a few weeks after the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Seasonal changes bring fresh grief, the blossoming trees reminding me of where I was when I got the call, heard the news, booked the flight. But the gifts of migration are many—new species, wandering vagrants, rarities just passing through.

I can no longer look forward to visits to my grandfather, but the overlap of remembering his final days with the return of longed-for migrants is a balm. As Heidi Barr writes in her book 12 Tiny Things, A walk through the woods probably won’t change what’s wrong, but it can change how we respond to it.”

When I think of looking up, it’s not blind optimism or a reminder to “chin up!” It’s an invitation from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel to look at the birds, remembering that the same God who cares for them is present to me, too.

Fernando Ortega once shared with me the story of losing a beloved mentor during Covid. He couldn’t fly out to attend the funeral, so he sat at his kitchen table that night trying to put together a eulogy to be delivered virtually. He felt so alone. He had no words. Then he looked out his window.

Perched on his birdfeeder, where he’d forgotten to turn off the porch light, was a tiny Western Screech Owl. I asked if he felt seen by God.

“It was like that,” he said.

The gentle gifts of the birds continue to minister to me in my grief. Perhaps there’s an invitation for you there, too.

Courtney Ellis

Courtney Ellis is a pastor at the Presbyterian Church of the Master in Mission Viejo, California. She is the author of Looking Up: A Birder's Guide to Hope Through Grief. She also hosts The Thing with Feathers, a podcast about birds and hope. She lives in Orange County, California, with her husband and three children.

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