Grief, Interrupted

How to support a loved one through bereavement

Posted Oct 11, 2018

This post is dedicated to my sweet baby girl Peanut. Thank you for fifteen beautiful, marvelous years. You are missed. 

Jennifer Verdolin
Peanut
Source: Jennifer Verdolin

When you lose a loved one it's an overwhelming, stressful and heartbreaking time. When someone you love is experiencing a painful loss, it is difficult to know what to do. Perhaps you utter some familiar platitudes that feel hollow and empty. Perhaps you try to fix their pain by encouraging them not to dwell on it. Or, perhaps you avoid them because witnessing their anguish is too much to take. All of these things can interfere with the grieving process and disrupt healing for the person that is suffering. As the orca mother, Tahlequah, revealed to us, there are no quick fixes and experiencing our grief fully and completely with the love and support of others can ultimately help us accept the loss, let go, and move forward. We know that the love we feel for our furry companions is similar to the love we experience toward our fellow humans. That is why the loss of a pet is traumatic and we experience a level of heartache similar to when we lose a human loved one. Often this grief is compounded, like it was for me, by having to make the difficult decision to end their lives.

Even without this added burden, the anguish that accompanies loss can be overwhelming and sometimes life-threatening. So deep is the bond in geese that when a partner dies, the one left behind cries out mournfully, puffing up its feathers and ceasing to eat. This grief can go on for months, and occasionally the mourning partner will die. Geese are so devoted that they will stand over the body of their fallen partner. In humans, we call this “broken heart syndrome” where, due to sudden and intense grief, the heart becomes physically damaged. 

By USFWS Mountain-Prairie - Canada Goose Pair Seedskadee NWR, Public Domain
Source: By USFWS Mountain-Prairie - Canada Goose Pair Seedskadee NWR, Public Domain

Now that some time has passed since Peanut died, I can reflect on my own grief, how those around me responded, and whether their actions eased or obstructed my experience. I am struck by a few things. First, there is no “right” way to grieve. For the goose who steadfastly refuses to leave its fallen mate, for the emperor penguin who wails desperately hoping that her cries will rouse the frozen chick lying at her feet, or for the elephants that return year after year and caress the bones of the dearly departed, each individual experiences and expresses their grief differently. It is a deeply intimate and personal emotion. By definition that creates a barrier to sharing it with others.  No one else can truly know your pain. 

Keeping that in mind, a second observation I made is that, as humans, we often feel compelled to interfere with or interrupt our own or another’s processing of loss. Our compulsion applies to animals as well, as many well-intentioned people, truly concerned for Tahlequah’s well-being, debated forcibly removing her calf. Fortunately, this didn’t happen. She was in the midst of her process. I suspect the drive to interfere was more about the anguish over witnessing her grief. It’s uncomfortable. That’s because pain is uncomfortable and we do everything we can to avoid it. When we lose a loved one, it is as though pain is a sledgehammer striking us in the chest. It is hard to escape, though many try. While this might sound strange, the beauty of witnessing her grief is that it shows us what it means to sit with the pain, to embrace it, experience it fully, and when ready, release it. The fullness with which other species mourn, though heartbreaking to watch, helped me embrace the depth of my grief. 

The third observation is that we do need support while we are in the midst of our greatest sorrow. But we don’t need interference. It can be overwhelming to establish emotional boundaries with others while coping with loss. Many other species, including baboons, may experience depression, experience elevated stress hormones, and turn to others for comfort. It can take many weeks for individuals to recover and return to some state of “normal”. Other baboons aren’t running around trying to force another to “get over it already”. So, for those who want to provide support or comfort, animals teach us an important lesson: Imposing your process on another is harmful to the person grieving. Be there, but do so without interfering. 

Linda Hartong CC BY 2.0
Source: Linda Hartong CC BY 2.0

How can you be there? One ritual in human culture is to provide food. This may be because many animals, including humans, stop eating when they are grieving. From the goose that refuses to leave its partner to Flint, a young chimpanzee observed by Jane Goodall, who stopped eating after his mother died and later died himself, disrupted sleep, eating habits, and other everyday routines fall by the wayside. I couldn’t eat for three days. I couldn’t find the motivation, energy, or interest to cook meals. I could, however, eat a little bit if I was in the company of a friend who wasn’t trying to force me to eat, but simply eating and offering me food. Another friend invited me to come and help her feed her menagerie of animals, from horses to turtles. Somehow the act of feeding them made eating a small snack more palatable. I’m pretty sure that was her intention, but it was incredibly subtle.

The landscape of grief is also a series of hills and valleys. Like other species, rituals can be an important part of the healing process. But even though the body is gone and the ritual has passed, grief has not vanished. With Tahlequah, all we now know is that she released the body, we do not know her mind. It can reappear, unexpectedly, around a familiar corner, with the whiff of a memorable scent, or picking up the phone to call and forgetting they are no longer there. In these times, repeat the lessons outlined above to support and comfort those dealing with loss rather than wonder why they haven’t moved passed their grief. After all, grief becomes woven into the fabric of our lives, integrated with who we are. 

A recap:

1)   There is no “right” way to grieve. It is personal, intimate, and unique to each person and the specific relationship with the loved one. 

2)   Don't interfere with the grief process. While, out of compassion and good intentions, you may feel compelled to fix mourning with platitudes, suggestions, interfering with or directing another’s process is harmful. Instead, help them sit with the pain, embrace it, experience it fully, and when ready, release it.

3)   Provide the support they need. Whether it is keeping them company, inviting them for a meal, or joining them for a meal you prepared, find ways to encourage or motive them to engage with everyday self-care routines. 

4)   Keep doing 1-3 as long as necessary

For more on grief in other species, Anthropologist and author, Barbara J King, details the emotional experience of grief in animals that echoes the pain we feel in her wonderful book, How Animals Grieve. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in knowing more about the deep emotional lives of other animals.  Dr. Marc Bekoff also has an extensive article detailing grief in animals