Learning from Giants

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When my grandmother was 69 and I was a freshman in high school, she suffered a massive stroke that left her unable to speak, write, or drive. My grandmother and I were extremely close and I recall many hours spent sitting on her bed in a local rehabilitation center trying to help her learn to speak again. My mother would drive me to see my grandmother after school and I would sit across from her on the bed, the food tray acting as a desk between us, the itchy blanket touching my sun-tanned legs and the smells of hospital food, commercial disinfectant, and urine making me want to run away. The look on my grandmother’s face staring back at me with sadness and stubbornness made me stay put. More than anything, the experience of watching and assisting my grandmother recover from this stroke taught me never to take for granted the importance of having a voice, the power of one’s written word, and the significance of the fighting spirit she embodied. Within a few short years, Grandma Teddy was driving her 1980s model white Ford Taurus again. If one did not know, one could not tell that she had suffered a stroke, though her right arm sagged a little and when she ate, the smallest amount of drool would pool in the right corner of her mouth. She was tenacious as can be, a fighter until the end. She lived until she was 83 and in the last few weeks of her life, we learned that the stroke she suffered when she was 69 was far worse than any of us knew.

My grandmother loved elephants. During her stay in the rehabilitation center, our family bought her a gray stuffed elephant with a note taped to its ear. The elephant stayed with her through her entire stay and subsequently accompanied every family member through every hospital stay or major illness since then. It was with Grandma Teddy on the day she died in 2011. It was with me the following year, 3000 miles away when I was in labor with my son.

After her death, I carried on Grandma’s love for elephants. Friends, family, colleagues, students, and fellow survivors have learned about my love and connection to these gentle giants. My office is adorned with elephant trinkets that others have gifted me. A male survivor bought an elephant scarf in Laos, a female student purchased a small elephant trinket in Uganda. I purchased one in my travels to Tasmania. The list goes on – there are over 100 elephant replicas on my bookshelf. They represent the importance of connection.

Elephants are one of the smartest animals on the planet. More importantly, they exhibit empathy, compassion, grief, and altruism. They take care of one another in times of need, they comfort each other in times of fear and they mourn their dead. They have incredibly strong bonds to other elephants. And an elephant never forgets!

These magnificent creatures have enthralled me for years and I believe we can learn so much from them.

Elephants symbolize everything that is important about healing in all realms, but specifically in cases of sexual violence. Healing from intimate harm requires connection – connection that is often lacking. People don’t know what to say when someone discloses, or they fear they will say the wrong thing. Anniversaries of assaults, holidays, and trips back to childhood homes can be alienating and triggering for survivors. Simple gestures from loved ones can make these moments a little less painful. As human beings, we are so caught up in our own busy lives that we forget the importance of connection.

When someone is sexually violated, they often disconnect from themselves and from others. We disconnect from our bodies, our families, our stories. While experiences of sexual violence are heartbreaking, the aftermath of silence and disconnection remains the hardest.

In the Torah, we read "Lo ta'amod al dam rei-echa—Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds." (Leviticus 19:16).

My interpretation of this verse is that we must not be complicit. We must not stand by when our loved ones are hurting. We might not know what to say, but the important thing to remember is that sometimes saying nothing and just being is what we need. Saying, “You are not alone and I am here with you,” speaks volumes.

Elephants get that. In fact, researchers from Emory University found that elephants use vocal tones and physical closeness to comfort one another in times of distress.

We can learn a lot from these gentle giants.

Do you have questions about how to best comfort a loved one who has disclosed sexual abuse?

Let’s continue the conversation together.