Mother and baby zebra.jpg

First, a poem. This is Tender Spots, which I wrote for Molly Brown in 2004.

The tongue of my heart
probes the space where you were,
like an empty tooth socket.
And the fingers of my heart
press on that spot over and over,
unconsciously seeking to feel
the bruised tenderness there,
where a thousand times a day
I said to you, “Sweetheart,
sweetheart. . .” Where
there is pain, there is life.
And your death will take
some getting used to.

Grief. This fundamental affect is not easy to name, but you know it when you're in it. Bereft might be the best word to describe it, the sudden panic that drops into a well of sadness, even despair, and it's caused by the loss of an important attachment. The reason why being shunned (as in solitary confinement or the "scarlet letter") is considered the most severe punishment is that this kind of separation pain is a pain like no other. It's the emotional pain that really can kill you.

So let me insert the good news here. Nature—you can use the word evolution or the word God, or just say nature, as I do here—nature wants us connected to other animals, nature wants us in relationship. So we experience lack of relationship as punishing and we experience trusting attachment as highly rewarding. Think of it this way: your ancestors all the way back, over millions of years, left you a legacy of relationship. They want you bonded, they want for the show to go on, and it goes on through relationships. Just as lust, which I blogged about two weeks ago, inspires and compels us to court another, and just as care (last week's blog) makes the warm glow of trust for animals in relationship to each other, so grief works to prohibit separation from relationship.

Baby animals cling to their moms, and they gradually build enough trust to go out and explore the world. See the way the baby zebra (above) seems to ask his mom if whatever is out there—me with a camera—is OK? Who will he ask, how will he know, if she is not there, if her calm continuing to graze is not there to reassure him? The first thing he will do if separated from her is to scream bloody murder. In fact Jaak Panksepp titled his chapter on grief Born to Cry.

Baby with mom (1) Wmark.jpg

Imagine how this baby monkey's expression would change if he were not cradled in his mamma's lap, if he were alone. What would he do? The answer is simple: he would scream. Separation from relationship is one of the most painful experiences possible for most animals. Think breakup. Think divorce. Think death of a loved one. Think being shunned, locked out alone, from a group in which you are currently a member. We have all heard the expression "nearly died of fright," but it is the emotion of grief that actually does kill animals. Panksepp reports on the research that human infants, without secure bonds to others "will pine away and die" (p. 314). And Jane Goodall says the same of this and many other young chimpanzees: "He died of a broken heart; there's nothing else you can say really."

But I must say one more thing. We don't always die of grief, but most often live to integrate the knowledge that it brings to us. Panksepp makes the point that the study of grief teaches us much about love: "when we are once again emotionally enfolded in our secure attachments—we feel a deep sense of comfort and security, probably through the care chemistries, such as endogenous opioids and oxytocin." That is to say, separation causes the most intense emotional suffering we can experience, and only two things can ease that particular pain: love and time. . . .

Returning now to my own big question, can we really understand one another across species boundaries? Can I understand a chimpanzee? Ask the man in the video. It's painfully evident that he suddenly understands that he and the chimpanzee were not just “like brothers,” but emotionally, in their shared bond, they were brothers. When my dog Molly Brown—who was my daily companion, my heart, and remains one of the deepest and closest relationships of my life—died, a well of grief, unfathomable, opened inside me. . . what I eventually learned from grief is the depth of love, that it never dies, even when the other is not there to receive it. 

For all of us mammals, the death of loved one is the greatest emotional challenge we can face. Yes, we can understand this in each other, and we can provide the “second best” bonds that help to sustain the other through grief.