We are Not Alone: Animals Also Experience Grief

By Norma Spencer

Posted: May 21, 2020

Humans are unusual creatures. We have this bizarre sense of self-worth about us that no other animals seem to possess. And, though it’s a positive thing, it also inspires a certain amount of arrogance.

When I use that word, a lot of people will jump to defend themselves, dismissing the possibility that they could fall into that category because they don’t feel like they look down on their peers or try to dismiss others who haven’t achieved as much.

But that’s not the sort of arrogance I’m talking about here. We have an arrogance as a species. An arrogance in the sense that we often don’t acknowledge the vast number of similarities between us and the other sentient beings that we share the planet with.

Sure, we don’t deny the fact that all of those other beings are alive like we are, that we share similar body systems and bone structures, that we all have a drive to reproduce, and are aware of our surroundings in a similar way.

There’s no argument that the physical differences between humans and animals are not really all that significant. We share nearly 100% of our DNA with our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, and even our most distant relatives aren’t much farther off than that.

But it’s not the physicality of humans and animals that leads us to our arrogance, it’s something else entirely. In fact, most of us would consider ourselves to be physically inferior to most animals.

We’re not particularly fast, we’re not particularly strong, we can’t produce anywhere near as many offspring, nor can we do it as quickly, and we’re not great hunters unless we bring along a weapon.

No, where we excel is in our ability to use our minds and our intelligence. We view ourselves as being mentally and emotionally superior to our animal counterparts.

There are things that we consider to be distinctly ‘human’. Our compassion, our empathy, our ability to love, and our ability to understand each other on the deepest level imaginable are all ways in which we define humanity.

We might on some level extend these traits to dogs, and maybe cats if we’re feeling generous, but you think ‘human’ when you think of those characteristics. And with love and compassion, unfortunately, comes grief.

We are the most emotionally versatile creatures in the world and we experience love with all of our hearts. But with love comes loss. Like everything else, we are destined to die and to see the ones we love die. 

And it hurts us. It hurts us so much that we hold rituals to try and process our pain. We write poems about it, make films about it, and do anything to help us face these feelings head-on and try to overcome them.

Only then do we look to animals and feel envy for their lack of emotional capacity. But are we wrong about that, too? It certainly seems to be the case that we are. If we look a little deeper, and we think a little harder, we can see that many animals exhibit the symptoms of grief, too.

In studying the behavior of animals, grief is very obvious among some of them. Perhaps the most interesting example can be witnessed in elephants. Fully-grown elephants have intelligence that’s comparable to that of a 12-year old human and the most telling indicator of their emotional intelligence is how they react to a death in their family

Elephants will gather around a recently deceased body and will act as if they’re offering respect and saying goodbye. They go silent, they examine the body with their trunks, but carefully and gently. 

And often, when a mother elephant loses her child, she will become slow and lethargic. While we can’t fully know what the thought process of these creatures is, it’s clear that they recognize what’s happened and are affected, and often stressed by it.

We’ve also seen it in chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives. Chimps have been observed checking the body of a recently deceased family member for signs of life as if in hopes that they can help.  They’ve been seen cleaning the body once it becomes clear that the deceased can no longer do it for themselves. They’ve even avoided the area in which their companion died for several days afterward as if it’s tainted for them now. 

From our closest animal relatives to our closest animal companions, dogs appear to grieve, too. This isn’t surprising, considering how much love dogs feel, but it’s interesting to observe.

Dogs have been seen grieving other dogs in a wide variety of ways, ranging from a lack of appetite to withdrawal from humans or other animals to unusual vocalizations and even in some cases, uncharacteristic aggression or destructive tendencies.

Grief is not exclusive to mammals either.  Birds have been observed burying their dead or grouping together and vocalizing almost in a similar fashion to a human funeral.

So what’s the consensus on this? Well there isn’t a concrete one. Because it’s impossible for us to know if any of this is truly grief in the same way that we experience it. But perhaps we don’t need to know for sure.

What we do know is that many animals will alter their behavior in response to death. And while it may not be exactly the same as the way that humans do it, does that really mean we can dismiss it?

Humans don’t all react to grief in the same way. Some of us cry, some of us get angry, some of us just act out in bizarre ways that confuse everyone around us. But we all do it when we’re hurt by loss.

And it looks like it’s the same for a lot of animals. 

Norma Spencer

About the author

Norma fully enjoys her editor career living an RV life with her family. She's a devoted copywriter with a Ph.D. in Business Administration (Management). In the moment of writing this bio, Norma is in Germany, planning to spend at least a few more years in Europe in the coming years :)

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