The day after Alex came home from the hospital, they found a crow on the floor.
It was a warm day in mid-June in Montana. The school year is finally over – 10th grade for Alex and 6th for Talia.
It was in early March of 2019 when Alex was admitted to home treatment for contemplating suicide and self-harm. Although the winters were relatively mild in Montana, snow covered the ground. On every weekend trip we took from Missoula to the state capital Helena to see Alex, we wore our oversized coats.
On some weekends, Alex was allowed to check out for a few hours. We’d get pizza, stroll up and down Helena’s little downtown, or explore the ceramic figurines and broken teacups strewn around the grounds at Archie Bray Studios. These were the things we did on the weekends when the nurses said Alex was stable enough for short walks. However, on many weekends the nurses would wear a red wristband on Alex. This means that outings were forbidden.
I wanted to visit every day of the week but as a single parent I only got there every weekend. This weighs heavily on me. I wanted, more than anything, for Alex to know that I was there and that I would do anything to help them recover and heal. I also wanted to feel less alone. I wanted someone to tell me that everything would be fine.
Now that Alex is home, they marvel at the sun, the birds are singing, and the grass is green. They talked about how confusing they were to stay inside for so long that they missed the change of seasons.
They spoke next for a walk into the park, but were back in only 15 minutes.
“my mom!” Alex said: He panted and cried. “There is a wounded crow on the sidewalk. We think it is a child.”
Alex has always loved animals very much. At the age of five, they became vegetarians, which is a choice they took hold. So the injured animal has always been a major concern.
I put on my shoes and followed my kids across the street. The crow was on the sidewalk opposite the sidewalk. Lying on her back, twinkle at us. We stared back. Alex and Talia were crying. “Mama, can’t we help her?!”
The children wanted her to put her in a box and feed her with water and worms. Alex reached toward the crow with their tattered arms, and showed me how they would be able to gently hold him, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to further my injury by moving it. I sent a message to my friend Lauren who knew a lot about birds. She said there might not be much we could do and sent a link from the local Audubon community with instructions to consider: “If you find an orphaned bird, the first step is to determine if it is really an orphan. … Chicks often have poor flight muscles And the parents can feed on it for a few days outside the nest.”
Adult crows hovered around the head of newborn Alex every time the children approached. “They are sad,” Alex said, and their mirror faces at what they imagined the adult crows to feel. Then they swerved again, as the crows rushed towards them.
I didn’t say that what sometimes looks like an attack can be a desperate attempt at protection. I was hoping the presence of adult crows would be a good sign. Perhaps the adult crows knew if the baby was okay or not. Perhaps they were better at figuring out the kinds of things humans miss.
I missed signs of how severe Alex’s depression was for months before they were taken to the hospital. I knew they were struggling in school, but I knew nothing of the wound and suicidal ideation. I wasn’t sure how to help or what to say. I desperately wished that a parent would talk, someone I could find solutions to. I also felt very ashamed. How could I have missed the tags?
Now that they’re home, I’m terrified to take care of them on my own. I didn’t sleep much the night they got home and didn’t know if and when I would be able to sleep soundly again. Is Alex okay now? What if I miss important signs again? I was afraid of making some kind of fatal mistake. I wish I had a whole flock of adults around me to help me keep an eye on.
When I had texted my ex-husband and his wife while Alex was in residential treatment asking them to reach out to Alex, they responded coldly, telling me I should empower Alex instead of asking for support. I have long since given up any hope of true parenting, but this response has been overwhelming. Alex deserved more than that. Alex deserves the full love and support of both of their parents.
The children were skeptical about leaving the crow on the ground. They wanted to take him to an animal rescue shelter. Lauren’s advice was shared. Most places accommodate only birds of prey such as eagles and hawks. Crows were often considered too common to care for.
Alex and Talia watched the crow all day long. By evening the little bird had fumbled all the way across the street and was lying on the sidewalk, only two doors from our house. I took her motion as a sign that he was going to be fine. Adult crows, huddled in trees above the fledgling, protect them from predators.
The next morning, as soon as Talia woke up, I ran out to see the crow.
She cries again. She said, “Mama.” “The little crow is dead!”
I tried to console her, to tell her that even if we put it in a box, we probably wouldn’t be able to save it. As soon as Alex heard the news, the kids rushed together. Full-sized crows were still sitting in the branches above the little bird. They pounced on the children over and over, and we croaked loudly.
I wondered if I had made the wrong decision. Were you heartless? Very cautious? I thought about how my children would feel if they put the little bird in a box and found it dead the next morning. Will they blame themselves? It was hard for me to invest the energy to save the fledgling. Trying to save my child felt like a futile undertaking.
I was so glad Alex was home. But I knew our journey wasn’t over yet. I secured a place for Alex at a new school where they would have smaller classes and more support and I found Alex a new counsellor. I also scheduled a trip for us to go camping and look at the college I thought Alex might be interested in. I knew that while Alex was now stable enough to go home, we would have to work hard to maintain that stability so that Alex could heal and start imagining the different possibilities for their future.
In June of 2019, we were still nine months away from the pandemic, when teenage suicidal thoughts would increase and many parents would go through what I lived through. No parent should witness a child so miserable that he sees no way forward. Single parents, in particular, need support in coping with this trauma. As Alex’s only caregiver, the support I have received or not received has been shown in how much I can or cannot give. Somehow, I experienced adrenaline, fear, determination, and love. But I needed so much more.
“We’re going to bury her properly,” Alex declared. It was a beautiful sunday. Father’s Day. Alex’s father had not visited them during his three and a half months in residence. I thought that choice had more to do with his disdain for me than anything else, but it was a choice I was hard-pressed to explain to Alex or myself. Alex was not interested in Father’s Day. It was the day the crow was buried.
I retrieved gardening gloves and a bin from the garage and put a shovel in the backyard. Alex gently wrapped the little one in the box and the children carried him together. Their faces were sad and stained with tears.
The children chose a spot shaded by shrubs in the corner of the yard. They took turns digging as I watched them from a few meters away. When the hole was big enough, Alex lowered into the ruthless crow’s body. Both children gently covered it with dirt. The children decided she needed a tombstone. They found the perfect flat rock. Talia ran inside looking for a black sharpie. Alex leaned over the tombstone and wrote in fine letters: “In memory of the newborn crow we couldn’t rescue inside. Rest in peace little one.”
The scars on Alex’s forearms were raised and pink. They weren’t sure if they wanted to use the vitamin E cream they gave them when they unpacked. Alex told me they wanted to keep their scars as a reminder of what they went through. I flinched inwardly at their words, now upon seeing inch-long lines strewn across both arms. Although I knew Alex wanted me to see Survival, it was hard to get past the pain and wonder if there was more I could have done.
The children placed marigolds – one orange and one scarlet – on the tombstone and circled the stone with bright yellow dandelion heads. Then they asked me to join them in silence while they honored the life of the crow. The adult crows had moved into the trees in our backyard and added insight into the quiet morning. I had a lot of support while Alex was in the hospital, but even so, I envied the crows being so close together. They moved as a group and searched for the little ones together. Now, they seem to be in mourning together. I longed for that kind of community.
I watched the faces of my children sitting on the dirt next to the grave of the little one. I didn’t know if the crow was sick or if it failed to launch, succumbing to grievous and fatal wounds instead of descending to the sky. I really wish I could help my kids fly. So far it seems to be touch and go. Obviously, I was alone. There was no co-parenting, no support, and no check-in.
When Alex and Talia got up, I hugged them, feeling their bony limbs pressing on me. I said, “I’m so sorry.” I resisted my tears, thinking of the little flies stiffening on the concrete, the flies circling around his eyes. The roaring mourning of adult crows is above our heads. It was unbearable to imagine the grief of losing a child.
I wondered if my children’s tears that day included the hardship we’ve all been through in recent months. I wondered if, somewhere deep down in me, they felt the sadness that comes with realizing that you left the branch before you tested your strength.
Note from the author: In my experience, the only way to remove the stigma about suicide and suicidal ideation is to talk about it openly with friends, family members, and/or mental health professionals. Hotlines can be an important tool, but they shouldn’t be the only one. I was afraid that asking my child about suicide would show it, but it actually made him feel a little lonely. Check in with your loved one about how they are feeling and be sure to review your feelings regularly as well. If you see someone struggling, ask them if they feel suicidal or if they have a plan to commit suicide. Asking people if they have a suicide plan is often a way to understand how serious their suicidal thoughts are and whether they need more support or resources — such as hospital treatment. As a friend says, “We will never get through the darkness alone. We need each other.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organizations may be able to help.
In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Line is 1-800-273-8255.
Also, in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, call the Samaritans at 116123 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those killed by suicide in the UK, contact Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.
In Australia, Lifeline Crisis Support is 13 11 14.
Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org