Barbara King is writing a scholarly treatment on the question of whether animals experience grief and her findings are being previewed on a NPR discussion forum at the link below.
King argues that “from a combination of observation, evolutionary logic, reading the peer-reviewed science literature, and talking to insightful animal people, I’m convinced that animals may feel deep grief when another animal dies.”
While I disagree with her argument, I admire how she responds to critics and this forum has moments that are the epitome of intelligent discourse. However, in the comments section, we also find that if someone questions those on the pro-grief side of the argument, they become offended as if the character of their pet is being slandered. That’s interesting because it reveals to me an intense investment in the personhood of their pet, i.e. the projection of unresolved emotion onto their pet in order to make it a person. I would ask these people that if their conception of grief in animals is correct, then how could it be ethical to take a puppy or kitty from the loving bosom of its mother and litter mates; wouldn’t that be cruelty of the highest order?
These days the subject of grief is of great concern to researchers because it is thought to demonstrate high cognition in animals. But I believe it demonstrates the workings of a group consciousness and that a full understanding of what we recognize as “grief” in animals reveals something far more sublime than the way it is currently being entertained. It reveals that love is universal, it is not an instinct or a thought. And to address the question of grief in animals we must first draw precise distinctions between instinct, thoughts, feeling and emotion.
In my model there is no such thing as a negative emotion or a bad feeling and so therefore grief cannot be a true feeling because it doesn’t feel good. Rather, what human beings experience as grief is, like the vast majority of emotional experiences, an amalgam of emotion, feeling, instincts, judgments, sensations and most importantly in human beings, thoughts (as in comparing one moment, or one point of view, to another). And if we parse the emotional experience into its various components using this standard of positive-emotion/good-feeling as a benchmark, we can isolate the pure emotion and the true feeling from the instincts, sensations and thoughts, and then determine what aspects of the experience we do indeed share with animals.
On the other hand without such distinctions any argument quickly gets squishy. For example, King commenting on what species are in or are not in the grief club states: “Not all species, to be sure; if spiders and snails are ever found to grieve, I’d be the first to express astonishment. But I do mean more than only the usual suspects, more than the apes, elephants and cetaceans.”
And then in regards to cats: “I’ve concluded that yes, they do grieve. (Not every cat, and not every death; I mean to speak of capacities rather than inevitabilities.)”
So then what is the ratio, why does it vary from species to species, what possible model of animal consciousness can provide for some cats manifesting the capacity but probably not the majority? If a majority of human beings don’t exhibit grief, then is the minority that does, more advanced than the others, is there a super subset within the species? Or, if the proportion is reversed so that many do while some don’t, is there something morally or intellectually deficient in those not exhibiting the capacity? And if the evolutionary logic is compelling, then why doesn’t a coherent model encompassing all forms of life from spiders, snails to primates, and which addresses these central questions, immediately follow from a definitive answer on the nature of grief? Is grief and therefore love trumped by genetic expediency so the lioness who has her cubs killed by an interloper lion, doesn’t grieve for her loss in order so that she can immediately breed with the killer of her cubs and produce even more fit progeny?
I suppose these questions don’t immediately concern King because she may be thinking that once the subject is thrown open for discussion through books such as hers, the research floodgates will open and fully resolve such questions.
King goes on to relate that after her cat “Carson” died: (her other cat) “Willa herself, though, pulled me back to grief as the most satisfactory explanation. She repeatedly searched specific spots in the house that she had shared with her sister: the ottoman in front of the fireplace, a warm space behind the master bed’s pillows. Willa looked there, and not finding the sister that she held firm in her memory, she wailed. Here is what I conclude: That it’s entirely appropriate to attribute love to Willa and Carson, and grief to Willa. Here is what I wonder: Could anyone who has lived with and loved animals doubt that conclusion?”
Yes, I doubt the conclusion because it treats grief as one specific thing, one monolithic emotional experience predicated on a specific reason, i. e. the comprehension of mortality with all its intellectual implications. The mourning processions of elephants are interpreted as being burial rites but if this were wholly true, then surely elephants must also worry about the weather and the prospects for the upcoming season’s growth of vegetation. If they can grieve for their dead then they must be able to fret for the future of their young. What about regret for relationships that didn’t work out (or do they always work out?) or for the path not taken (or do they always take the right path?). I would question King’s use of the term “wail” in regards to her cat (however I do believe her observation that indeed there was something qualitatively different about her cat’s calls.) For example, I’ve had clients tell me that they heard their dog “sobbing” when confined to a crate when of course it was actually whining. Their intellect has put an unconscious spin on the ball.
In bold type I’ve highlighted some telling elements from the following quote in King’s article.
“The attribution of grief to animals (especially non-apes, non-elephants and non-cetaceans) is controversial because to feel grief requires a memory of the individual who’s missed. Some evolutionary theorists insist that a capacity for sustained remembering is a uniquely human trait. So I asked myself: Could Willa’s mood have been not true grief but instead a sort of felt contagion, picked up from her human caretakers’ own sadness at losing their cat? Or could Willa’s upset primarily have been caused by the change in her own daily routine?”
Before I get to the heart of my argument, I want to repeat that the reason a linear, intellectual explanation for emotional experience will never add up, is because it is attempting to render a yes/no answer on the nature of grief when only a whole and coherent model of animal consciousness can address such a question. A linear approach will always end up with a reductionist treatment because it inevitably focuses on brain chemicals and hormones, the bio-mechanical nuts and bolts of the process, then to be glued together with a complex and convoluted psychology. This tendency is due to our intellectual conception of the “self.” We assume that the animal mind is exactly like the human mind in that it conceptualizes a sense of its self as an aspect of its being separate and detached from its surroundings, rather than understanding that an animals’ sense of self is a function of what it feels attracted to, and then whether or not it feels grounded and emotionally synchronized with the object of its attraction.
So using emotion as a positive “force” of attraction and a true feeling as that which feels good as our standard for analysis, what light does this shed on the question of grief?
Do animals love? Yes.
Do animals carry a long term memory of those they love? Yes.
Do animals feel loss? Yes
Do animals feel grief? No
There’s four essential things we have to understand about animal consciousness in order to put grief into a model.
What do the above points have to do with grief? In the animal mind, and this is true of the animal mind at the heart of the human animal as well, the form of a deceased loved one, not to mention contexts in which the deceased being is intimately affiliated, triggers the physical memory of that specific emotional bond (emotional movement and a state of high emotional capacity). The animal feels the physical memory of motion inspired by the form of their deceased loved one. The animal then tries to “will” the body into motion since it feels motion from the physical memory that the inert body is triggering and wants to be in sync with it. The animal does not comprehend that the loved one is dead which is why it continues to probe its body to induce movement.
Let’s return to the benchmark of a positive emotion and a good feeling in order to parse apart the human experience of grief into its components (emotion, feeling, sensations, instinct, and in human beings, thoughts) and draw a distinction with the animal experience by way of the following scenario. Imagine the person you love leaves your home and travels far away, and for the ease of this hypothetical example let’s reduce the negative influence of thoughts by saying that it’s a wonderful resort destination or an exciting career opportunity. (But maybe not too wonderful or too exciting.)
First of all there is a “force” of attraction commensurate with the strength of the emotional bond and amplified by the distance between you. (Another way of saying this is that the bond is made completely conductive by virtue of the distance between you.) This is the pure emotion and it is positive. Then, there is the feeling of yearning given that the attraction is framed within the sense of it moving away, like hearing that lonesome whistle receding in the distance. Yearning is a true feeling that feels good because the object of attraction is being held in suspension within the body/mind, just as for example we feel when listening to music that moves us. It’s easy to resonate with an object of attraction held in emotional suspension. During the course of the day the feeling of yearning for that person that might trickle into one’s awareness either by a random thought or by the sight or sound of something associated with the loved one and this generates a lifting feeling, it “picks one up.”
For the animal, the physical memory of something absent can be triggered not by a thought but rather by something in the immediate environment. For example, Willa returning to the master’s pillow where Carson used to lay. Willa doesn’t perceive the pillow as a pillow per se, but in terms of emotional conductivity and therefore, indelibly imprinted with the physical memory of Carson. For an animal, the value of every stimulus is emotional and affiliated with an emotional bond.
But then in our hypothetical example, alas, word arrives that your loved one is never coming home. This is a thought because of course it encapsulates the concept of time, mortality, and an if-then….then-that….. kind of conditional positing. This terrible thought then triggers an instinct because that thought collapses the state of suspension held in the heart as yearning, and this collapse is characterized by intense sensations related to falling. The stronger the force of attraction and the deeper the emotional bond, the more catastrophic the sensations of falling. One feels the need to sit down. Concurrent with the collapse is a counterbalancing rushing up of the lump sum physical memory as emergency ballast and this takes the breath away. But just when physical memory has stabilized the body/mind, the thought then immediately collapses this emotional ground as a frame of reference and it is like the floors pancaking in the collapse of a skyscraper, a never ending disintegration of everything that feels familiar. Absolutely every frame of reference summoned forward in awareness collapses.
And then as these multitudes of shocks subsides there arrives the feeling of a void, (this a true feeling) an emptiness that has become associated with loss, and in humans this triggers its own morbid range of thoughts and coping instincts. Without an emotional ground the thoughts are like an epileptic seizure, an incessant cascade of mental sensations endlessly reverberating and ricocheting against themselves to render an incoherent maelstrom of misery since there is no emotional ground available to calm them. All this psychic energy disconnected from the emotional drive train, the body/mind becomes a hollow chamber, ones’ mind seems completely unhinged. Without a ground the void is emptiness, no way out since consciousness is a dynamic process predicated on a sense of momentum. I believe that recovering the body of the deceased is an attempt to return to some state of grounding.
Intermittently the true feeling of a yearning resurfaces as when someone says, “Remember that time when Joe did such and such….? And everyone smiles and laughs. Sometimes the feeling of resonance grows so strong that it can be hard to remember that the person has died and the intrusion of such a thought then jolts one back to reality.
Now in terms of the emotional model, when the void is reached and physical memory rushes in in order to sustain a frame of reference, there are two possibilities.
1) As mentioned above, the void can be tantamount to disconnection/isolation and in this case physical memories are processed qualitatively, i.e. in terms of resistance, stress, fear, habituated frames of reference, and we perceive our plight as if something is being done to us. Anger might emerge.
2) On the other hand, the feeling of a void can be associated with potential energy, and this is when physical memory supplies the feeling of a ground and this reconstitutes an internal sense of body tension from which a release can be experienced, and which rekindles the feeling of flow. This is physical memory in the quantitative sense, in other words, in toto as a lump sum pure emotional ballast. In this modality it serves as an emotional counterbalance and the body/mind perceives its complementary polarity, even if it isn’t materially present. This can return one to the feeling of being in suspension, and in this context the void is perceived not as the absence of that which is familiar, but as potential energy. For example, when a dog is rolling on the ground it is achieving resonance with a void that it is perceiving as potential energy, a void that could have been triggered by fresh dew, prey object, snow etc, even the appetitive response to an internal tension. In human beings thoughts can indeed smoothly interweave with the state of body/mind as void and help one feel resonance with the sense of a greater force beyond. And at the end of the grieving process, life can appear to be fresh anew, a new beginning.
This distinction between the two ways of apprehending the void is important because it helps us understand why most animals don’t appear to grieve and yet they’re not missing anything or are morally deficient in some way. In fact, there’s nothing fundamentally different between those that do manifest what we interpret as grief and those that don’t. And so with this distinction in mind, let’s return to King’s comment about a “felt contagion.”
I have never owned a cat or dog that grieved for another pet of ours that died and this makes me happy because it’s only in my human mind that our beloved Harras, Fee, Illo, Barley, Pepe, Boone, is dead and gone after I’ve wrapped their lifeless bodies in a blanket and lowered them into their grave, watered with my tears. Because dogs go by feel, my other dogs still feel the missing pet in the physical memories of places, dogs, people and objects around our home and they feel that their buddy is still present. And I’m glad that the deceased dog doesn’t represent a hole in their temperament so that they can go on focusing on that which makes them feel grounded. That night they’re just as excited about their dinner as always.
For this reason, were I to give someone my dog, and then were they to trigger the feeling of flow within him, then as far as my dog can know, I’m still around since he has indelibly associated me with the feeling of flow. When he’s feeling happy, he’s feeling me. I’m not gone, it’s just as if I’m there. It’s only in our human mind that I am missing from his life because he will quickly achieve alignment and synchronization with his new owner and so the new owner has become me. I wouldn’t want my dog to pine for me because that means that 100% wholeness wasn’t part of the emotional bond we had together. As I say to clients after I’ve elicited a rush of flow in their dog so that he then follows me blithely down the trail into the woods as they turn to leave: “Congratulations, the ‘good’ ones don’t look back.”
So what many pet owners observe is that their pets are feeling a loss, however, without the comprehension of death or permanent absence, because they are indeed reliving the physical memory of their emotional counterbalance, a veritable part of their very being, and yet they are not receiving any tactile, physical grounding, hence the feeling of a void and therefore the feeling of yearning, and so Willa the cat calls to Carson in an especially plaintive moan. The feeling is especially poignant in her absence. And this also speaks of unresolved emotion in the group.