Animals grieve too.

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. 

Coping with the "Zen" of the NICU: A Breathing Exercise

Being in the NICU is a swift baptism into a world in which nothing is predictable. My feeling was that once we were used to one circumstance, when the words started to make sense or we felt stable, as soon as we started to feel that sweet pang of familiarity, it quickly vanished into the NICU mire and another difficult circumstance would present itself.

My least favorite phrase of all-time, "it's a rollercoaster" felt like some kind of a sick mockery of the groundless world we had suddenly found ourselves floating in. The first time I heard that phrase was the morning after my son Elliott had had a pulmonary hemorrhage and had to be ventilated. His brother William was found to have a grade four bilateral brain bleed and severe infection, and it was related to us that "the 'honeymoon period' [was] over." Welcome to the NICU.

However apt the rollercoaster analogy, it's incredibly difficult to become accustomed to the monumental shifts and surprises, both bad and good, that happen on a fleeting and frequent basis in the NICU. After some time living in that unpredictable world, I realized that the momentary nature of it, the way that it forces one to be "present" and mindful of each breath that you or your little one(s) take in, has this zen-like quality to it. After all, when your baby is in the NICU you can't allow yourself to think one day ahead, even three hours ahead, without making the mistake of creating a false security that can be shattered with one bad blood draw, one bradycardia event, one bad test result. This ability to be "present in the moment", or mindful, is considered something to strive for in Buddhist meditation and mindfulness theory. The challenge is that it is very difficult to stay present emotionally, especially in easier times, when it's simple to distract your mind with the entertainment and interest of day to day life. The NICU, for what it is worth, oftentimes forces the ability to be present in the moment upon its patients and their parents.  

...the human experience is an experience of nothing to hang on to, nothing that’s set once and for all. Reality is always falling apart. In this fleeting situation, the only thing that makes sense is for us to reach out to one another.
— Pema Chodron, "Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change"

One author whose work spoke to me whilst our family was in the NICU was Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun whose books about coping with suffering proved to be incredibly useful in living through the experience. Her books "When Things Fall Apart" and "Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change" speak to the notion of losing your grounding in the world, and how in losing that, one can find incredible strength in learning how to face your fears, embrace the unpredictable nature of the world around you, grow spiritually, and find commonality with others that face the pain in their lives. In "Living Beautifully..." she wrote, "...the human experience is an experience of nothing to hang on to, nothing that's set once and for all. Reality is always falling apart. In this fleeting situation, the only thing that makes sense is for us to reach out to one another."

Here is a simple breathing exercise/meditation that can help promote calmness, even in difficult times. It is designed to help you learn how to ground yourself, even in times of intense stress. The practice can be useful for NICU parents facing the stress of the hospital, but can also be implemented by anyone facing a traumatic circumstance who feels the need for grounding or feels overwhelmed by their anxiety or suffering. I used to love doing it while I held Elliott skin-to-skin in the hospital, and got so used to the practice that I implemented it at home long after he was discharged. At this point I consider it a tool that I have in facing any kind of stress, and use it whenever I feel a sense of anxiety or overwhelm.

Note: Before beginning, check-in with yourself that you're able to safely do a breathing exercise. Be mindful of how you are feeling, especially towards yourself. It's important to approach a stance of forgiveness and self-love in participating in this exercise. If at any point during this breathing exercise you feel triggered or overwhelmed, stop immediately and take notice of the things around you. Call a nurse, your partner, a family member or a friend and tell them how you are feeling. 

  • Sit comfortably, with both feet on the ground and your back against a supportive chair. Close your eyes. Allow your arms to relax. Allow your body to relax. Become aware of your breath, how it feels. Breathe in to the count of six, and breathe out to the count of six. Count as slowly as you can, and breathe in as deeply as possible and out as slowly as possible. Feel your breath in your lungs, notice it. Relax into your breath.

 

  • Once you have established a slow and steady breathing pattern, if you'd like, you can discontinue counting as you inhale/exhale. Notice your breath, how it feels in your body. If your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath and focus on it. Treat the thoughts that enter your mind as passing. If it's useful, you can name them as thoughts or feelings, notice them, let them pass, and return to concentrate on your breath. Connect with how you feel physically in this very moment. Be present with your breathing.

 

  •  Continue in this manner for as long as you'd (reasonably) like to, but for at least 3-5 minutes. When you stop, notice how you feel. Are there any parts of your body that are particularly noticeable in this moment?  Were there any parts of your body that felt particularly stressed? Were there any thoughts dominating your ability to let go of thinking?

 

  • As you accustom yourself to taking time for this meditation, try to delineate more time for it each day. If you'd like, you can even try doing it while holding your baby. As I said before, I think skin-to-skin contact is preferable just due to the closeness it provides, but it's ok if you hold them swaddled. Make sure that you have the ability to sit comfortably and safely hold your baby. Relax into your chair with them snuggled close to you, breathe in their beautiful scent, and find grounding/love/compassion, even in the groundlessness.

Breathing exercises, as simple as they may seem, have the profound ability to induce calmness and presence, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Although at first it may be challenging to let go of thoughts and stresses, with practice, breathing exercises can promote your ability to be present even in fearful times, can provide you with a sense of connection not only with your baby, but with other parents going through similar circumstances, and can make clear what it is that you can hold onto, even in times where it feels like there isn't anything, that you're floating far away from the shore.

For more relaxation techniques and exercises, check out this PDF from the Trauma Center, or go to their website for this and other resources in coping with trauma.