I was recently struck by a post in the New Yorker: an interview between the neurologist Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science and animal behaviorist (who is also autistic). Grandin, at one point in the interview, describes for Sacks why the cows at a particular farm are "bellowing"; she deduces that it's because the mother cows were separated from their calves that morning:
"'They must have separated the calves from the cows this morning,' Temple said. 'That's one sad, unhappy, upset cow. She wants her baby. Bellowing for it, hunting for it. She'll forget for a while, then start again. It's like grieving, mourning-- not much written about it. People don't like to allow them thoughts or feelings.'"
As a NICU mom, the image in my mind of a mother feeling bereft in being separated from their baby couldn't help but drum up images of the morning I was discharged from the hospital, leaving my tiny boys behind. The grief of the NICU is tangible for parents, even when you haven't lost your child. Loss is loss (I wrote an article about NICU grief for Hand to Hold that you can read here). Grief is real. And unfortunately, our culture doesn't have a lot of practices within it to guide us through the pain. Perhaps even more striking is that in the recently released DSM V, the definition of "normative" grief has been relegated to a mere two weeks, suggesting that anyone who feels their loss for longer than two weeks to cope with the additional notion and stigma that they are clinically "depressed", in need of medication, or "different" from the "healthy" individuals who were able to "get over" their loss in a more timely manner. They even developed a clever title for it: Prolonged Grief Disorder (as if the bereaved or those coping with loss didn't have enough to shoulder-- now their grief is considered "disordered").
Anthropologist Barbara J. King described the mourning practices in animals of different species in a 2013 Scientific American article titled "When Animals Mourn" (she also published a book on the subject). It seems since Grandin made her statement about the lack of research into animal mourning practices, more scientists have looked into it.
In a culture saturated with behavioral theories about why and how people feel, oftentimes based on over-simplified notions of the way our brains work, it's only recently that we've started to realize the importance of the limbic, emotional system of the brain not only in our own functioning, but in that of the vertebrates around us. King theorized that perhaps the function of mourning is intrinsically tied to the amount of love and attachment we felt for the individual or (in the case of NICU parents) the ideas about or hopes for the future that we lost. "What is adaptive, then, may not be grief itself but instead the strong positive emotions experienced before grief comes into the picture, shared between two or more living animals whose level of cooperation in nurturing or resource-acquisition tasks is enhanced by these feelings," she wrote, suggesting that perhaps love, happiness and attachment benefit our survival so enormously that it's important to grieve in order to move forward, to acknowledge the importance of what was lost, and to thrive.
Why is it important to know that animals grieve too?
Because in the face of a world that sometimes pathologizes grief, it's important to know, and to embrace, the idea that grief is a normative experience. Instead of being silenced in our grief, it's important for us to speak to it, and to connect with others who may be going through similar pain. It's important for us to overturn the idea that experiencing crisis and coping with it does not make us "mentally ill" or different from others, but rather opens our world to an experience that is incredibly difficult and challenging to navigate. In Western Culture, many of the historic rituals around death have been deconstructed or done away with, perhaps with the hope of keeping the fear of death, loss or grief at bay. With the knowledge that we as a species aren't alone in our grief, maybe we can reconstruct ways of talking about, honoring and integrating our grief, accepting it on a level that doesn't make it taboo, but rather, creates the possibility through which experienced individuals may be able to provide guidance for people just beginning their journey through loss.