The crows are back. My neighbor told me a story recently that sort of shifted my thinking around these annoying, yet smart birds. Apparently, a large neighborhood cat killed one of the younger crows. My neighbor, a nice guy, buried the crow out front, under the telephone wires. He told me that the next day, the crows just lined up on the telephone wires for hours, and made all sorts of noise. We concluded that they were grieving. I mean, I’m sure they’re also freaked out that they could be next, but do crows grieve? Research has shown that a lot of animals do grieve. There are two researchers up in Washington, professor John Marzluff, and one of his graduate students, Kaeili Swift,  who are looking into this idea of a “crow funeral.” If you have 20 minutes, check out this podcast to hear her story.

The scientific term is “cacophonous aggregration,” but the human term is “crow funeral.” Apparently, my neighbor’s experience with the squawking crows was not an isolated one. Whether it’s grief or rage  (is there that much of  a difference between the two?), when a crow dies, the other crows get very vocal. They produce what is called the “scold” call, which is the traditional caw-caw sound that we are familiar with. They make this call consistently, gathering the other crows, until ALL of the crows are making this sound. They go from tree to tree, calling every crow they know, and squawk away, and then suddenly, they just go silent. And they all sit there, on a power line, a tree branch, a roof’s edge, in a prolonged silence. Then, they disperse.

Swift, the dedicated scientist, doesn’t assume what is happening in a crow’s brain is similar to what is happening in a human’s brain.  She thinks when the crows respond this way to another crow’s death it could be just “danger learning,” which is an opportunity for crows to learn more about their environment. What is safe, what is not safe? Who is safe, who is a predator? Her advisor, John Marzluff, is leaning towards the idea that the crows truly are grieving. This summer, he is actually going to scan a crow’s brain while showing the crow a taxidermied crow that appears dead. It is quite possible that the same circuits that humans have around grief will light up in the crow’s brain. So what will that tell us?

What is the difference, really, between “danger learning” and “grief?” When you think about it, death is one of those things that most humans are afraid of. It’s inevitable, yet we don’t like to talk about it. It’s easier to fear it, yet, it’s going to happen to all of us.

The subject of death hit my family this past week. I learned that my nineteen year-old cousin died of a heroin overdose. It’s no coincidence that I waited four paragraphs to mention this. We don’t like to talk about death, remember?

My cousin’s mother, my aunt, texted me on Sunday morning to tell me. I was shocked at the text. I mean, I know that death is inevitable, but we all know that when a young person dies, it just turns our world upside down. I remember when my mother died at the age of 50, my grandmother, a young 70 year-old, just never got over it.

“It’s not natural.” She used to say, over and over again. “It goes against the cycle of nature when the child dies before the parent.”

Without getting into the details, my family has its own dysfunctional quirks, which is why I was the only person in my immediate family who my aunt communicated to about my cousin’s death. I then notified my side of the family, and was happy to hear that one of my brothers drove all the way from Maine to Massachusetts to attend the funeral. Because of the nature of my cousin’s death, my brother expected to see “dopers, lots of tattoos, and chain smoking” at the funeral, but instead, he said in an email, “it looked like a senior prom.”

“Kids were in sport jackets, girls well-dressed – clean cut and well spoken. I thought it was a disconnect. My naivete…”

I wasn’t surprised by my brother’s description. After receiving the text from my aunt, I jumped onto Facebook, and found my cousins’ page. I went into his friends’ pages, and learned more about his death, and frankly, more about his life. He grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Boston. Heroin is all the rage in these communities. So accessible and cheap, and so “hip” to explore.

My cousin and I weren’t close. The last time I saw him was at my grandmother’s funeral five years ago when he was a shy fourteen year-old kid. I specifically remember walking into my grandmother’s house, and seeing him run upstairs to avoid me. I didn’t take it personally. Because it was an old house, the staircase was steep, so he was actually crawling quickly up the stairs on all fours, as if this position would obscure my view of him. He reminded me of a cat –  shy, attentive, protective, aloof. Judging from his friends on Facebook, he was a well-loved young man who just got hooked on drugs at fifteen. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he turned to drugs just a year after my grandmother died. They were very close. She knew him well. I can relate to that. Despite my grandmother’s aloofness, I always felt that she knew me well, and that she never judged me.

Apparently, my cousin’s escape into drugs started with pot, then pills, then crystal meth, then coke, until he eventually  landed in the lion’s den of heroin addiction. I actually don’t think that marijuana is the gateway drug. I think when an addict discovers a way to get high, enough is never enough. And my cousin wanted to escape. He had a challenging life. His father died when he was eight, and it sounds like his new step-father had his own challenges. In the world of Buddhism, we call it karma.

Karma doesn’t mean “you get what you deserve.” It means that we are born into and continue to re-create certain causes and conditions of our lives. It’s when we let these causes and conditions control us that karma is happening. When we have the self-awareness that it’s maybe not the life we want, we *hopefully* create enough change in our life to alter these causes and conditions. That’s when the dharma (the truth, the Buddha’s teachings) is happening. Not as easy at it sounds. Like when I first got sober, I remember my AA sponsor saying to me, “Caren, no worries. You only need to change one thing in your life.”

“Really?” I asked, dumb from sponge brain. “What’s that?”

“Everything.” she said with a smile.

My cousin’s death has been a shock to all of us. For me, it has brought up some painful memories of my mother’s side of her family. I have been thinking about my aunt a lot these past few days. She has had her struggles. Losing a child to a drug overdose can quickly put a parent into overwhelm. The guilt, the shame, the remorse. What will I say to her in my consolation card that I will mail to her this week?

After she texted me the news, she sent me a video of my cousin doing some weird dance in his driveway –  a young lively, quirky teenager, free in his body. I imagine she will spend hours looking at videos and images of him, re-reading his posts on Facebook and Instagram. “Scolding” herself, so to speak, on her own perch of grief.

When I think of all of those young people at my cousin’s funeral, I wonder if any of them, like the crows, are keen to the “danger learning” from my cousin’s death. (There have apparently been six, yes, six deaths to heroin overdose in this small community this year alone). Or will they continue to not think about death, like most teenagers, and continue to live on the edge, forgetting all about my cousin’s death very soon when something more daring and exciting pops up and lures their attention?

It doesn’t shock me that crows make a lot of noise, a “cacophonous aggregration” when one of theirs dies, just like it doesn’t shock me that we humans find a place to go and scream or cry it out of our system. Tears cleanse our bodies; Screaming lets the monsters out.

What I do wonder about is when those crows, after gathering and squawking, then suddenly go into silence, a prolonged silence. Why do the crows do that? Why do they collectively sit in silence? What is going on in those moments? What does that mean for us humans? I know the only time I am silent like that is when I am perched on my meditation cushion every day, committed to just one thing, paying attention to my breath. Of course, that lasts for a few seconds, and then my mind is off and running – into the past, into the future, into a fantasy. Then, the emotions pop up – all of them – and even more that don’t even have names. Then, there are the narratives that arise, “Oh, if this person only did this,” yadda, yadda, yadda. Then, it’s back to my breath, focus, dropping the judgment, back into the moment. Over and over again, day in, day out. Not to seek enlightenment, but simply to feel more connected to my world, more sane. More able to handle a text from an aunt about a cousin’s death.

My guess is crows aren’t seeking enlightenment either. Maybe like us humans, they’re just trying to connect. And maybe like the crows, after the funeral, we humans disperse back into our lives, trying to make sense of things like heroin overdoses and challenging relationships. Life, really. The funeral is the pause to remind us just how precious life really is.

Even crows seem to know that.

James Kimball Carlesen 1995-2015

May you find peace.