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Dr. Stephen Heap

The grief that does not speak

8 minutes read

November 26,2020

There have been numerous reports in recent years about mother dolphins carrying the corpses of dead young [e.g. 1, 2, 3]. Such stories also bring to mind tales of elephants that visit graves of deceased Matriarchs [e.g. 1, 2, 3], or Jane Goodall’s classic account of young chimpanzee Flint, who seemingly died from grief shortly after his mother’s demise [1].

These tales suggest that grieving is not just for humans. It is part of life for many social creatures. The hallmarks of separation anxiety, grief and mourning have been reliably observed in species diverse as dogs, dolphins and ducks. These episodes are characterized by long-term changes in behaviour, often taking the organism far from their healthy state. This includes neglecting food and sleep, isolating from others, and expressing pain, anxiety or lethargy.

But what does it mean to grieve? Turns out, that’s for us to decide.

The survival value of grief

The social dimension of life is a two-edged sword. To begin with, social animals derive huge evolutionary fitness advantages by coming together. They comfort and nurture each other, and they protect each other from threats. But no matter how strong and healthy a social bond can be, eventually, it must end. Companions die, disappear or disperse from our lives, and there’s nothing that can be done but accept the new reality and adjust to it.

By observing how humans and animals respond to death and loss, scientists have proposed at least two complementary evolutionary explanations for grieving. On the one hand, grieving can be seen as a healing process that accommodates the animal to the stress of its injury. For example, withdrawal can give them time to rest, learn and readjust. On the other hand, the suffering of grief can be the ultimate and unavoidable price of attachment. That is, animals exhibit feelings and behaviours that drive them to bond, but when a partner disappears, these compulsions can’t ever be satisfied. For instance, animals can be attracted to closeness and touch; they can be motivated to help and reciprocate. But if there’s nobody on the receiving end, then the result is stress to the body and mind. Thus, grief appears to be both a beneficial healing process and the ultimate cost of being close to someone.

But one thing is apparent under both explanations: the dynamic changes in psychology and behaviour that follow death are a personal means to continue living despite an irreparable loss. Engaging with the process reorients the bereaved to a new world in which their companion is gone, and helps them form a new reality around that void.

The abstract concept of grief

The clearest thing about animal grieving is the apparent pain. The painful part of grief comes down to something called ‘affect’, which is how the nervous system summarizes the overwhelming complexity of the body’s activities and sensations. In essence, affect is the global sense of what the body is doing. It is experienced as feelings of high or low energy, which can take either a pleasant or unpleasant flavour. At least when it comes to mammals, the brain systems that generate affect are shared across all species, and they likely experience affect in similar ways.

By observing grieving events, it becomes clear that animals are suffering from a painful affect even if they can’t use words to explain themselves. However, in one case, a zoo gorilla named Koko lost an adopted kitten under her care. This gorilla could communicate with sign language and told its human handlers that she felt ‘bad-sad-bad’ and ‘frown-cry-frown-sad’. Even so, in most cases, we can’t ask animals how they are feeling when they grieve.

This is important because humans don’t just use language to relate their feelings of affect to one another. They are using language and a shared sense of meaning to build upon their feelings with complex and abstracted emotional concepts. These emotional concepts are used to put affect (e.g. ‘I feel sick’) into a subjective context (‘because my friend died’) and guide behavioural changes (‘so I want to be alone’).

Emotional concepts like grief are social constructs, installed into the brain with language and shared experience. We develop and build these concepts, teach them to our children and share them with our peers. So when humans talk about the emotional experience of ‘grief’, they are not referring to a specific state of mind or body. There is no ‘neural fingerprint’ or ‘circuit’ for grief in the brain. Every experience of grief is a unique mental event. Rather, what these events have in common is their shared interpretation of feelings in relation to the loss of a loved one, and their shared goal in adjusting to the trauma. 

The human concept of grief has been developed over many generations of human experience. It’s a complex and abstract concept that relates the bereaved to existential issues of love and death in a self-reflective way. On one side, the concept relates to the irreversible and unavoidable nature of death. But on the other side, it’s related to the love for a unique and irreplaceable individual. In short, human grief is more than a painful affect experienced in response to loss. Rather, it’s a rich tapestry of meaning applied to the human experience of social bonding and the devastation that occurs when someone loved is lost.

The important distinction here is that grief can be broken down into two levels. The first is the embodied experience of a painful affect related to the loss of a close social partner. Many social mammals share this quality. However, humans build upon this layer with abstract concepts unique to their experience. They then use these concepts to explain their feelings to themselves and others. Thus, animals don’t have the same perceptions of grief that humans do, even though they share the same underlying pains.

So, Koko could perceive her affective state and relate this to her human handlers. These handlers could then apply their concept of grief to Koko’s experience. But could Koko perceive her own experience as grief? Could she perceive grief occurring in someone else? Probably not. This is not to discount Koko’s experience, as she was clearly suffering. It’s just to say that it’s us humans who interpret her suffering as grief. Koko interprets it in her own way.

The work of grief

Integrating and resolving grief is an active process, not a passive one. Mental health practitioners talk about the ‘work of grief’ that follows a massive loss. They recognize that coming to terms with the loss of close ones demands physical and emotional energy before health is restored. Apparently, this is true for animals as much as it is for humans.

The animals teach us that the painful affect of grief is part of basic functioning in social life. It’s something uncomfortable, but discomfort is the prime motivator for action. By responding to painful feedback, animals are able to readjust themselves to a new environment that accounts for their loss. However, we still don’t know how animals psychologically integrate pain and loss into their lives. We can only observe that they seem capable of returning to normal following a period of chronic distress.

Cases of animal grieving also teach us humans that we are not alone in our pains. We can see that animals suffer in much the same way even if they perceive it differently. This recognition has important implications for animal rights and welfare. Denying animals their grief can produce similar kinds of psychological and physical distress that humans experience. For example, the systematic separation of milk-cows from their calves causes a pain that any parent could comprehend. Thus, as beings capable of perceiving grief, we are accountable for our actions that impose it on others.

But we are also accountable for how we conceive grief to ourselves. Grief, as humans perceive it, is a social construct that integrates inescapable realities of living within our minds. We not only have to deal with loss and its pains but relate these to our concepts of love and mortality in a self-reflective way. The way we choose to think and talk about grief has real-world consequences in whether it guides someone into a new life, or traps them in a painful emotional wasteland.

Animals teach us the survival value of grief, but it is our responsibility to encode that value into our abstract conceptions. If we forget the function of grief as a guide to continue living, we miss its purpose and dissolve its ultimate meaning. It puts us at risk of dulling the pains with drugs, denying realities by ‘being tough’, or subverting the process with a premature return to normalcy.

Death and loss is a universal reality of being alive, human or otherwise. The pains we experience in relation to loss are part of our animal lives. But how we make sense of those pains is how we shape our humanity. Do we choose to think of grief as an ending or as a beginning? Do we choose to think of it as an illness or as a survival guide? Either way, a full acknowledgement and appreciation of grief extends far beyond our experiences as individuals and even beyond our collective experience as humans. If we’re not taking all this into account, we’re kind of missing the point.

  1. Animals Matter: A Biologist Explains Why We Should Treat Animals with Compassion. Mark Bekoff. Shambhala, 2007.
  2. The grieving animal: Grief as a foundational emotion. Brinkmann S. Theory and Psychology 28:193–207, 2018.
  3. How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Lisa Feldman Barrett. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
  4. What Defines Us: An Analysis of Grieving Behavior in Non-Human Primates as a Potential Evolutionary Adaptation. Robin Fiore (Thesis). University of Colorado, Boulder, 2013.
  5. How Animals Grieve. Barbara J. King. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  6. When Animals Mourn. Barbara J. King. Scientific American 63, 2013.
  7. Koko’s Kitten. Patterson, F. Woodside, CA: The Gorilla Foundation, 1985.
Written By
Dr. Stephen Heap

Dr. Stephen Heap’s research origins considered social evolution, communication and information use in all manner of subjects, from tiny microbes to human civilizations. But he's since turned freelance to bridge science with popular culture (for fun) and perform technical writing (for profit). You can find more at

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