Death is a horrible thing, both for the person experiencing death and the people grieving the loss of that life. As a way of coping with the pain of loss humans often perform rituals in the name of the deceased. These rituals vary from place to place, culture to culture, and even person to person. In most cases though, these rituals are done as a way of both celebrating the life that the deceased lived, as well as serving as a gathering place for all those who wish to grieve in the comfort of loved ones. This is a way of reducing the pain of loss, by sharing the memories of the deceased with those who are also grieving and seeking comfort.
But humans are not the only animals that experience grief at the loss of loved ones. Many animals, from all over the world have been observed showing signs of grief. I’d like to draw attention to three animals in particular, and show how their grieving can be similar and/or different to our own.
Elephants have been observed mourning the loss of loved ones by doing things like gathering in groups around the body of the deceased as well as touching the remains. This is similar to the behavior humans have in the case of a “viewing” ritual performed during a funeral service. Loved ones will often gather around the coffin of the deceased loved one and sometimes even touch their hands on the body or coffin.
A mother’s loss of a child can be devastating and Sea Lions might just know that pain better than any other mammal. There are times when a Sea Lion’s natural predator, the Killer Whale, will be fast enough to catch the Sea Lions cubs but not fast enough to catch the mother. In this terrible case, Sea Lion mothers have been observed squealing and wailing into the ocean with grief over their lost children.
Finally, we have cases of orphaned gorillas being left traumatized at the loss of their parents. An experience that is far too sad for any child to bear. It’s been described that all light in the children’s eyes fade away, and some even pass away from the grief they suffer.
As sad and terrible as it is, death is a part of life. All animals seem to know this, however, grief seems to be a trait found mostly in mammals and other animals that spend time caring, teaching, and bonding with their young. I think we experience grief as a way of incentivizing us to look out for the health and safety of those around us. After all, humans thrive when they are together with other people and animals. As someone who has lost loved ones in the past, it both wounds and comforts me knowing that humans are not the only animals on the planet that understand that kind of pain.