Max Porter

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

“I sat alone in the living room wondering what to do. Shuffling around, waiting for shock to give way, waiting for any kind of structured feeling to emerge from the organizational fakery of my days.”

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is a prose poem from English author Max Porter (b. 1981) about a crow that moves in with a family following the death of their mother and wife.1 (It would have to be a crow, wouldn’t it?) The crow announces he’s there to stay. He is not, however, nurturing. He’s not “Mom.” (What is mom, anyway?)

I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling. Feathers. There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast. Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.


And this is what he said: I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.

Photograph of crow. Featured in Max Porter's "Grief is a Thing With Feathers" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Of course, the crow is like grief. That thing greater than ourselves, that thing that takes over. Grief is the tumbling headfirst into abstraction. Nothing makes sense: time, space, names, and certainly not life.

Certainly not a home without its mother.

Two-bed upstairs flat, spit-level, slight barbed error, snuck in easy through the wall and up the attic bedroom to see those cotton boys silently sleeping, intoxicating hum of innocent children, lint, flack, gack-pack-nack, the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief. Down the dead Mum stairs, plinkty plink curled claws whisper, down to Daddy’s recently Mum-and-Dad bedroom.

In the story, the writer-father is struggling to create a book about the controversial but highly influential Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes.2 The father and the sons are unnamed, but the narration moves between their thoughts and the crow’s, and thus we develop a sense of their needs, personalities and individual devastation.3

There is one line from the crow that sticks with me: “He didn’t see me against the blackness of his trauma.” Indeed, the senses fold, don’t they? It’s a cruel trick of light, grief; even a giant crow in the entryway could seem normal. Touch is quite present, however, constant.

We hold on, literally.

Photograph of crow. Featured in Max Porter's "Grief is a Thing With Feathers" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Porter’s tale is not about finding a substitute because no one lost can be substituted. It’s about a transcending grief’s abstraction, kicking us back to a new, sustainable normal. Crow makes himself at home, invades the boys and Dad’s space, finally finds a reason to leave, Dad regains hope.

We went to a place she loved. I told them in the car on the way that I realised I had been an unusual dad since Mum died. They told me not to worry. I told them that all the nonsense about Crow was over, I was going to get a bit more teaching work and stop thinking about Ted Hughes. They told me not to worry.

The beauty of this prose/poem is a renewed love between the sons. The boys fill the gap where the mom used to be, and together they absorb each other’s pain through small kindnesses.

Grief is so individual, so independent to our own consciousness.

And yet, commonalities of experience abound. Both Joan Didion and C.S. Lewis mournfully wondered where the dead go. I explore post-death existence in Do Things Exist Where They Are Buried? Writers Doris Lessing and Lydia Davis (her poignant story below) wrote about the echos that reverberated in the space once occupied by those just gone.

Lydia Davis' "The Dog Hair" from Can't & Won't in the Examined Life Library.
“The Dog Hair” by Lydia Davis. “Where goes he now, that little dark dog? asked Mary Oliver in her melodious Dog Songs.

Death has more questions than answers—maybe we all need a house-guest crow. Or bird of a sort. Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, a stunning story of the precious minutia of owning and training a goshawk, the repeated act of which elevated Macdonald from the stupor of grief.


Examined Life