What animals can teach us about grieving and loss

Animals may not understand the reasons behind loss, but like us, they mourn, and show us that recovery is possible.

Sadaf Ahsan 6 minute read July 16, 2021
animal grief

Some species of animals are psychologically and emotionally capable of grieving. Getty

It has been a relentless theme of the pandemic: loss. Heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, life-altering loss. From the tremendous grief of losing friends and family, to the realization that life as we knew it will never be the same, we have been thrown into a tailspin of change and emotional upheaval.

But as humans, we aren’t the only living things who feel it and have the capacity to grieve deeply. Animals also feel sadness and exhibit behaviours that mirror human mourning traditions. They also remind us that despite the depth of our despair, recovery is possible.

For years, simply assessing whether animals have a conscience has been a matter of debate. Certainly, we humans have a tendency to project our own habits and emotions onto animals as they cannot verbalize what they might be feeling. But in his 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin studied patterns of love, joy and grief in birds, domestic animals and primates as compared to humans, and felt all of our mental capacities weren’t all that different. Research in recent years has suggested he may have been right all along.

According to James Russell Anderson, a psychology professor at Kyoto University who spent years studying the social and cognitive processes in monkeys, the capacity to experience the pain of loss is absolutely a thing in the animal kingdom.

“There’s little doubt that some species of animals are psychologically and emotionally capable of grieving,” he says. “This reaction occurs especially in mammals, in particular those that form closed personal relationships with other individuals in their group, such as family, long-term partners, etc.”

The triggering event is typically the death of a family member or a partner, which sets off hormonal responses that indicate stress, and behavioural changes that indicate emotional disturbance, which we can see reflected in their general activity, sleep and social interactions.

Or in other, far more traumatic ways. In the summer of 2018, a female killer whale known as J-35 carried the body of her dead newborn calf for 17 days in the waters off the west coast, which scientists labelled “a tour of grief.” As it turns out, in cetaceans (aquatic mammals) and many primates, females whose infant has died often continue to transport and care for the infant’s corpse, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, and might even travel with little more than a piece of dried skin or part of a skeleton while in mourning.

There is also the infamous story of Eleanor, the elderly matriarch of an elephant family living on Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. In her 2013 book How Animals Grieve, anthropologist Barbara J. King reported how, in Eleanor’s last hours, she collapsed. After several minutes, the matriarch of another family used her trunk to get Eleanor back up, but she collapsed again out of weakness. King wrote that the other matriarch grew “visibly distressed” by Eleanor’s condition, stayed by her side while pushing at her body. Once Eleanor eventually died, elephants from five other families visited her body, rocking it and touching, whilst “clearly involved grief.”

“Stress hormones in bereaved primate mothers are at higher levels than normal, and these only return to pre-bereavement levels with time, and as the mother engages in more social interactions with other members of the group,” says Anderson. “If the infant or juvenile hasn’t been eaten by the predator who killed it, or by cannibalistic members of the infant’s own species, the mother will gradually abandon the corpse for increasingly long periods, and eventually permanently. These interactions with others appear to compensate or at least play a role in helping the mother to recover from the loss.”

We see this in a 2020 study where a group of chimpanzees were seen exhibiting “heightened expressions of species-typical reassurance behaviours”  towards a chimpanzee mother following the loss of her presumed stillborn infant. Other grieving animals are known more commonly to eat the corpse, abandon it or even try to interact with it through poking, sniffing, grooming or aggression. According to Anderson, the variation occurs in relation to factors such as age of the deceased, the context of the death, the species involved, and pre-death social relationships.

When it comes to companion animals, he says, the type and degree of grief experienced depends on few factors.

“[Type of grief] will depend on the nature of the emotional bond between [pet and owner], and also the availability of compensatory figures that might help buffer against the loss,” he says. “Of course, in most cases, humans know that death is the reason for the loss, but companion animals have no such knowledge; there is simply an abrupt and unexplained absence of an attachment figure.”

Observed signs of mourning in companion animals can include decreased appetite, decreased energy level, increases or decreases in sleep, and/or increased affection or attachment for remaining owner, which is often interpreted as clinginess.

According to Dr. Erin Katribe, medical director of the Utah-based animal sanctuary Best Friends Animal Society, pet owners report signs of mourning most commonly when either a human or other companion animal is lost through death or other means.

“Certainly, some of the alteration in behaviour may be their response to their owner’s grieving and any changes in routine,” she says. “But this response, in itself, could also be considered a form of grieving for the loss.”

Katribe also notes that since these behaviours in response to loss so closely resemble the those we observe in ourselves, it stands to reason that pets do indeed mourn the loss of their companions, “even if they don’t fully comprehend the reason or the permanence behind the loss.”

That tragedy is only amplified when a pet is left behind with no one to care for it and its routine is upended, possibly even its home. Katribe advises all pet owners to ensure there is a plan in place in the event of unexpected circumstances rendering us unable to care for them. (She also encourages fostering and adoption, as while the world reopens, many shelters have been experiencing a rise in intake levels and pets in need of a home.)

For sure, it’s heartbreaking to watch animals mourn. Take the story of Baby Dog, for example, who laid on his dead owner’s chest for days in freezing conditions after his car got stuck in snow. A neighbour who knew the dog had to visit the scene to convince him to leave his owner so rescue crews could move the body. But as difficult — and heartbreaking — as these stories are, there is an important message here about resilience and recovery.

“We had a pair of ducks and, when the male died, the female called and looked for him for about two weeks,” says Carl Safina, professor of nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, and president of The Safina Center, a non-profit nature conservation and environmental organization based in Setauket, New York. “Eventually she just had to get back to living and joined up with our chickens. Even in humans, it varies. Some people never get over a shattering loss — others go to a wake and cry for a minute and go to work the next day.”

“But all of us have the capacity to recover — including animals.”

This story is part of Healthing.ca’s series on grief. Read Why are people dying alone in our hospitalsA psychotherapist’s guide to surviving grief, and learn about the psychology of grief in Your Brain on Grief. Also check out our ‘As Told To’ series: a daughter’s story about losing her father in ‘The last time I saw him, he was on a ventilator,‘ a father’s story about losing his son, ‘He was the guy you would go to if you were in trouble,‘ and the peace that comes with being able to say goodbye.

Sadaf Ahsan is a Toronto-based culture writer, editor and stereotypical middle child. She can be reached here.

 

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