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How Chickens helped soothe my Grief

One thing I never thought I would be doing this summer was mucking out a smelly chicken coop. I’m fond enough of animals (well, dogs) but nobody would describe me as the rustic type.

But then I also never thought I would be saying goodbye to my beloved life partner and husband of 43 years. The two are not unconnected.

Death is a fact of life we all know we will face eventually but on July 23 it jumped up and hit me before I was remotely ready. My husband Mark https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mark-sebba-obituary-f0jcnthh2 was a youthful 69, we were planning several activities to celebrate his 70th birthday later this year including a trip to St Petersburg, the city where his father had been born just before the revolution. We had a party planned, having missed the 60th (too busy). But in the meantime we were going to spend the summer in Crete, at a house we had created together in his retirement as a way of discovering and enjoying the grandchildren.

God laughs when men make plans, we often joked before this laughter struck us loud and clear. This year we had built at the bottom of the garden a chicken coop, made out of recycled wooden shutters for five or six hens to live in at night. The idea was that they would roam free in the day time as, we were reassured, there are no foxes in Crete. This, we thought, would be a wonderful experience for small children to understand about caring for animals, what their needs are, as well as learning about the food cycle, where food comes from and to value it as something precious, not to be wasted, and not necessarily bought in plastic boxes from supermarkets.

But, less than a month after the chickens arrived, and just a day after they produced our first egg, my husband had a sudden heart attack and died. Prophetically his last Instagram post was a picture of this egg, something that gave us great excitement but also (and how could we have realised it then) so much hope for the future. A promise of something unknown inside the shell. It was also of course an intimation of the cycle of life. I cannot begin to describe here the appalling sense of shock, grief and loss that our family has experienced but we have always believed, whenever setbacks have hit in the past, that life for those who are left must go on. And so the summer holidays continued, as far as was possible, as we had planned them.

The grandchildren (ages from 2-11) were immediately captivated by the chickens, only a few months old when they first arrived and nervous. But soon they became confident and, joined by a 6th, a rooster, spent most of the day outside, pecking at scraps and seeking shelter in the shady scrubland underneath a clutch of carob trees. They began to tease us when it was time to put them back into the safety of their coop at night and tried to elude us by staying out. Just like small children who refuse to go to bed when it’s long past their bedtime. Even though we all had a hand in trying to make their nesting box as comfortable as possible, providing fresh straw and cleaning it out, the chickens still seemed to prefer egg laying in the undergrowth. We learned that independence comes in many forms and each chicken has its own character, too.

The hens have not exactly hit their stride as far as egg laying is concerned. But most mornings this summer there was at least one, albeit small, egg awaiting us as the children fought over who was the first one to go down, let them out and feed them their leftover scraps (watermelon rinds and corn on the cob husks their favourite) and the one who could have a totally fresh egg for breakfast in return.

My daughter and I, as we contemplated our incalculable loss, spent hours mesmerised by watching the still unnamed chickens. Their water has to be changed, the dirty house scrubbed out and new pellets and grain provided in the chicken food dispenser. At first we resented the amount of time we had to spend cleaning the smelly coop, a deeply unpleasant activity especially in such intense heat. Yet they asked for so little and are prepared to provide us with so much. Of course six chickens cannot assuage the pain of losing a devoted husband and father. But it is hard to discuss death with small children and these creatures made it easier for us to talk about the grandfather they loved, the pleasure he derived from this spot in the garden, as well as the facts of life and the food chain.

Saying goodbye to them until next year was especially painful because this was one of ‘Grandpa’s last plans’. We hope, when we see them again next year, our grief will be less raw and they may be laying bigger eggs.  

If this article has stirred you I would be so happy if you wanted to donate to Cardiac Risk in the Young, which helps detect those at risk of suffering a sudden heart attack like Mark. You can either write a charity cheque payable to Cardiac Risk in the Young (reg charity number 1050845) and send it to CRY Head Office, Unit 1140B,The Axis Centre Cleeve Road, Leatherhead KT22 7RD . Please write in memory of Mark Sebba on the back of the cheque. Or donate online using the following link https://www.c-r-y.org.uk/donations/custom-donation-amount/ and mentioning Mark Sebba. Thank you