02/28/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

All Creatures Great and Small: A Lesson in Mourning

Many of you may have read about the life of the legendary "Elephant Whisperer," conservationist and author Lawrence Anthony, who established (and lived on) the vast 5,000-acre Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa. However, I've only heard about him recently.

Anthony rescued herds of violent, human-hating elephants that were destined to be shot as pests. These traumatized animals had seen some of their own family exterminated right in front of them. It was only by staying with the elephants day and night, feeding them, talking to them, and calming them, that Anthony slowly earned their trust and became one of them.

As amazing as Anthony's life story is, it is his death that acquainted me with him. Many newspapers and online sites reported the story of the aftermath of his sudden death from a heart attack on March 2, 2012. For 12 hours, the wild elephants began a solemn procession through the vast Zululand bush until they reached Anthony's rural compound on the opposite edge of the reserve.

For days, the elephants lingered at the home of their protector. A phenomenon that prompted one commentator, Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Ph.D. to state, "A man's heart stops, and hundreds of elephants' hearts are grieving. This man's oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they came to pay loving homage to their friend."

Elephants have long been known to mourn their dead, but how did they know their human friend had died?

I've written many blogs about the importance of mourning for human beings (see my earlier blog, "Counting My People"), so why wouldn't animals need to mourn as well? My grandfather, about whom I've begun a series of blogs, was the man who developed the science of tree surgery around the turn of the 20th century. He did more to spread the word to people that trees are living things, and to stop their widespread destruction, than any other human being ever did. Passionate about nature, birds, and animals, he passed this feeling down through the generations. He believed wholeheartedly in the interconnectedness of all living things (

In fact, our family has our own particular story that demonstrates this.

My mother lived in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina where I grew up. She spent her last 20 years in a lovely retirement community in an apartment overlooking a pond below, where a large group of wild ducks frolicked. She had the best view in the entire building. Every day, year after year, without fail, my mother went out to feed the ducks. They would all come rushing to greet my mother, who had names for them all. Waddling or swimming, they came from all around the pond, loudly squawking and furiously begging. It was a joyous spectacle to behold.

Eventually, having suddenly lost most of her sight to macular degeneration when she was 91, and then most of her hearing, my very active mother could no longer drive, read, or watch television. More importantly, she was no longer able to carry out the acts of kindness toward others that had always brought her joy. One day one of her caregivers asked her, "What is your idea of heaven?" Without hesitation, my mother said, "It's a place where I can help people." That was my mother.

But still, every single day, she would have her caregivers wheel her out to the pond. There she would sit and commune with the ducks, so happy to be able to do something for them. Gazing at the ducks from her living room, even though she could barely see them, helped my mother wile away the long hours as she became less able to function. I'm sure that because of them, she could feel that she was still part of the world.

It was 2.5 years ago that my brother, sister, and I lost our mother. She was 96 years and six days old and wanted to die. On her birthday, Sept. 26, 2011, she began refusing to eat or drink. She'd had round-the-clock caregivers for several years, but during her last few weeks, a lovely nurse, Teresa, whom my mother adored, would stay with her after midnight. Teresa would lie down with my mother, saying "Jeannette, I'm going to share your pillow with you," and would cradle her in her arms. And whenever Teresa felt drowsy, she would wake herself up and stand gazing out my mother's bedroom window. The pond and its creatures were always silently peaceful.

However, about 4 a.m. on the sixth night after my mother stopped eating or drinking, Teresa sensed that something was different. She once again arose from the bed, and saw something that took her breath away. There -- lined up in a row -- were all the ducks, silently staring up at my mother's window.

Teresa turned to my mother and thought, "Oh, you're going to leave us tonight, aren't you, Jeannette?" And sure enough, one hour later my mother peacefully slipped away. My mother's friends -- the ducks -- somehow knew and came to honor their devoted friend.

Which brings me back to Lawrence Anthony, and the countless stories that have come down through the years about the deep emotional bond between humans and animals, reinforcing my grandfather's belief in the interconnectedness of all living things.