I was reading through my Facebook feed yesterday and I came across a post asking the question if animals experience what we perceive as grief when they lose there animal or human friends. Reading the comments, it was a resounding yes. The post, accompanied by videos of dogs, cats, and elephants grieving over their own who had died, was difficult to watch and really got to me.
That’s when I lost it.
The tears starting pouring down my face thinking we, as humans, have so much arrogance to think these creatures don’t feel anything. Of course they grieve. There were so many stories in the comments about dogs who died of broken hearts when the their companion (dog or human) passed away. One was about a horse who knew he was going to die and walked by all the stalls to say goodbye to his friends and died out in the horse ring. His horse friends wouldn’t go out there for a year they grieved so hard. Elephants and dolphins apparently have a high emotional intelligence that feels grief. An elephant herd who loses a baby on a long trek will stop and touch the body/bones on the way back and pay respect. When Lawrence Anthony, known as the Elephant Whisperer, passed away in 2009, the herd of elephants he took in and rescued trekked miles to come stand vigil at his sanctuary. How they knew he had passed, we humans have no idea. Yet, they grieved and paid respect to the man who kept them from being slaughtered. Humans seem to forget we are actually animals and just because we have evolved and live at the top of the food chain, doesn’t mean the rest of the animal kingdom doesn’t experience what we consider emotions. Sometimes I believe dogs, horses, elephants, dolphins, cats, and monkeys have higher intelligence than we do. They can hear at different levels, practically predict earthquakes and other natural disasters, and they can love unconditionally. Do we humans love anything unconditionally? Maybe our children of course, but even our children cause stress. Babies love their mothers unconditionally but we don’t remember being that young.
Grief is so deeply personal and every heartbeat experiences it in a different way. Yes, there are the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance and every situation moves a person or animal through the situation differently. When a loved one passes away after a long, wonderful life and dies of old age, we tend to find acceptance a lot sooner…as do our animal friends. Facing a death unexpectedly tends to move us slower through the stages–we feel cheated and wronged. Sometimes people and animals never get to the acceptance stage and die of “a broken heart.”
We had two yellow labs when I was in college and in my twenties. First we adopted Bronson as a puppy. We bred him four years later and adopted Bailey, the runt of his litter. Bronson’s personality was sweet, kind, and affectionate, although he had a very stubborn and obstinate side. He could sneak out of house so quietly we wouldn’t even know he was gone and would find him an hour later down the road going through garbage cans. Bailey, the beta dog, would just follow him along. He didn’t care as long as he was with his dad. However, there were times even Bailey didn’t know Bronson got out and would wait on the porch for his dad to come home. He would not do anything on his own–he had severe separation anxiety (since he was a puppy) and he was a scaredy cat. The two dogs always slept together in the garage in their crates unless it was too cold outside. As Bronson aged, my parents allowed them both to sleep in the house full time. At breakfast time, it wasn’t unusual for one of the dogs to wake them or me, if I was home visiting, for food.
It was my dad who found Bronson the morning he passed away.
When he awoke and walked into the kitchen, neither dog got up to greet him for their food. They were laying in the family room–Bailey next to Bronson with his head and paw on his dad. It didn’t take my dad long to know what happened when he softly called to Bronson and there was no response–not even a tail wag. Bailey whined a little bit but wouldn’t get up when my dad called to him. Bronson had passed peacefully during the night. It was Bailey who wouldn’t let go at that moment. He cried and growled when my dad tried to pick Bronson up off the floor. Bailey grieved with sadness and low energy over the next few weeks along with my parents. He didn’t eat much and he couldn’t be left alone because of his separation anxiety. As time passed, he picked up and my parents could leave him alone for short periods of time. Soon, his alpha personality started coming out and he turned into not only one of the most loving pups, but he was such a clown and liked attention from everyone. He could even be left alone for a few hours. He never, ever, snuck out of the house and we could leave him off leash in the front yard while we washed cars or hung out. Unlike his dad, he would come back when we called him. Bronson died naturally next to Bailey and I know Bailey understood that somehow. Animals seem to understand when its time to go. He went through the grieving process naturally and quicker than we anticipated. Had Bronson been hit by a car or something unnatural, it might have taken Bailey a lot longer and he might not have come through it. In the meantime, my family went through the grief for a long time, missing the energy of two dogs and when Bailey passed four years later from cancer at the same age as his dad, it was grief all over again. We had to put him to sleep, unfortunately, and that felt incredibly wrong and unnatural. That was so much harder to get over. It doesn’t feel right taking the life of your pet even though you know its better for them. It makes grief that much worse. Even now, 10 years later, I grieve a little more for Bailey than I do for Bronson because I feel he didn’t get to live out his natural life.
My question is this–knowing the animal kingdom experiences grief, is it the same for every animal? What about reptiles? Fish? Is grief just for those animals that have a heartbeat and/brain? Regardless, watching that video and seeing dogs and cats miss their companions just broke my heart. I now look at my cat differently and wonder how much he actually feels when it comes to happiness and sadness. He certainly knows when he is in trouble, he does get embarrassed if he throws up where shouldn’t or accidentally goes outside of the litter box, he starts meowing when he hears my garage door go up knowing I’m coming inside soon, and he always needs attention and love from me. I truly am his mother. I do wonder how it would be for him if I were to disappear suddenly. I’m sure he would find a new home and adapt, but how long would it take if he knew I passed away versus just giving him away to a new household. I see some of the cats that are turned into the shelters because their human passed away and they seem so sad and lonely. I want to adopt all of them.
I still miss my cat, Piper, who I had to put down because of a stroke that paralyzed her. I was devastated. It took me so much longer to get over losing her than it did when I watched my childhood cat, Sootie, die of old age. I just felt Piper, at the age of 8, should have lived another 8 years. Sootie died at 18. I grieved so hard for Piper, missing that other heartbeat in the house that I had to adopt another cat sooner than I expected. That’s how I was able to deal with grief…but I still miss all the animals in my life who’ve passed.