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 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 and mentioning Mark Sebba. Thank you


14 Responses to How Chickens helped soothe my Grief

  1. Reply SUSAN HILL,

    My fiance died of one, aged 43,many years ago, His father had, his brother and one sister did, all early, so clearly genetic.Cardiologist I know said chances are even with today’s knowledge and techniques David would llikely not have been saved. I feel for you so deeply… chickens are OK, kept them for years – but coudln’t love them as I love dogs, x

    • Reply Anne Sebba,

      Thanks so much for writing and yes the doctors all say that these things are still unpredictable but, like David, this too was in Mark’s family so perhaps we should have been more prepared. How can one be? and of course i agree with you – chickens can never be as lovable as dogs but somehow i did feel they offered us a way in to discussing life and death. x

  2. Reply Isabel Maxwell,

    What a beautiful and life-affirming and poignant sharing, dear Anne! Thank you and I have donated in Marc’s name to this important research. With love and hugs for your day, Isabel

    • Reply Anne Sebba,

      So kind and sweet of you , dear Isabel. thank you xxx

    • Reply Anne Sebba,

      Thank you so much for replying Rosemary. I really appreciate this.

  3. Reply Kate Lord Brown,

    A beautiful post. I’m so sorry for your loss, Anne. I guess you know Joan Didion’s ‘Year of Magical Thinking’? I found it a comfort, also Julia Samuel’s ‘Grief Works’. Books ever there in a time of need. Much love to you and your family.

    • Reply Anne Sebba,

      thanks so much for this Kate…yes i have Joan Didion’s book by my bedside and Julia Samuel is next! thanks for your kind words of sympathy xx

  4. Reply Elias,

    Dear Anne, I was deeply moved reading your memories.
    Mark was a wonderful person and I had always appreciated his exceptional personality and character. I will always remember Mark with feelings of great sympathy and fondness.

  5. Reply Peter de Havilland,

    Dear Anne,
    I am moved by the frank and unsentimental way you write about your personal grief. This isn’t the place to psychoanalise the role animals can play in the grieving process since loss and one’s response to it is more to do with the heart than the head. My albino Welsh Mountain Pony I was able to livery near my prep school performed the task of pulling me through my dear Father’s death and the proceeding half decade decline of his health. He died when I was twelve but Buzby, my equine pal, was looking like outliving is all until he quit quite suddenly with horse pneumonia. Thank you for sharing your experience with grief. One never gets over those we love and loose. We conform their departure into our lives, where they rest. How we honor their lives is a private, intimate choice. An oath that rebinds us to that person.

    • Reply Anne Sebba,

      Thanks Peter for your thoughtful response. I am so pleased my story found an echo for you.

  6. Reply Sue Quayle,

    Dear Anne
    Just sent you an email but hadn’t read about your loss. I am so sorry.
    My David died 4 years ago, I miss him every day but also thank him for the wonderful Life he gave me and for our Life together. I too have daughters and grandchildren so Life must go on just as he would wish.

    • Reply Anne Sebba,

      So true, however hard it seems we are blessed with our children i do know!

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