Personally, this has been a time of loss, a time to grieve, as getting older comes with many significant losses, sometimes close together. As an empath, I thought I understood loss in all its guises, but I’m finding that for me only experience is the true teacher. In addition, the hardships and losses caused by the pandemic seem to have set our earth just slightly off its axis, and we are still reeling.

The Smithsonian reports on a photographic study of human tears by Rose-Lynn Fisher, in which she dried tears, placed them on a slide, then onto a microscope, and took her images. Tears are actually divided into three groups, each made up of different substances depending on the trigger. And the images are vastly different as well, creating a unique art form. Psychic tears are created by extreme emotion, positive or negative; basal tears lubricate the cornea; and reflex tears respond to an irritant. They all contain certain typical substances such as oils, antibodies, and enzymes, but each also contains distinct molecules. For example, emotional tears include hormones with the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, a natural pain killer secreted when the body is under stress. “Tears are the medium of our most primal language, in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger, and as complex as a rite of passage.” Fisher writes. “It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.” 

I begin to wonder about grief in other species — whether long time partners grieve, or mothers, or members of a close knit social group. In many ways, animals and birds may have much greater wisdom and feeling than we realize. Certainly, dolphins are known to have large brains, to live socially, to utilize sonar to learn and communicate, and to express caring for other species, including humans. 

Credit: Frank Peace

In a PBS special on crow recognition of human faces, subjects in a study group of wild birds are tracked. They react aggressively to a face which is associated with danger, but become calm when the researcher dons a mask. Other crows learn these faces as well, including even those in the next generation, which have been taught which faces are a threat. At one point, one of the subject birds is found dead by the side of the road. Slowly, gradually, the group assembles, forming a wide circle around that bird. There is not one ‘caw’ — they attend that lost bird in total silence. Just quiet. In another study, crows were seen to gather in this way, but reacted in a repeated pattern of extremely raucous cries followed by periods of silence. Clearly, we cannot put a name to this behavior, but the impact of death is certainly marked.

Once I witnessed a tiny swanling, newly hatched, drop out of a far, unreachable, floating nest, as did some others. But they all scrabbled back up. This one was painfully trying and trying but was trapped. It was icy cold and wet. A sibling went and sat with that bird for hours. I reluctantly returned the next morning to find the small one had succumbed, and again the sibling came down to sit with it, as if at an avian wake. I read that in these instances, the parents do not help. I said silently to the deceased, “You are not alone.” It was a long time before I went back. 

In my research on Nova about possible animal grief, I read that elephants typically touch the bones and tusks of the deceased member, sometimes for hours, and have been known to cover up the remains, and to shed copious tears. I wonder about the makeup of these tears. These animals also have complex social systems and live in close groups. A friend described looking into an elephant’s eye in Africa, which transported  her to a deep sense of antiquity.

Greenpeace reported a mother orca whale carrying her deceased offspring above the water for 10 days, finally letting it go. And wolves, apes, and dolphins have also been observed performing rituals or expressing ’emotions’ when a group member passes. 

As humans, all we can do is observe and note, and try not to humanize what we witness. I would love to be in the mind of any one of these creatures for just five minutes, to experience what thoughts and emotions, if any, I might discover. For now we are content with our acute observations, and yes, our empathy for what we see.

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  1. When ELSA WRITES, IT’S always from her heart and research, you know what she writes is accurate and nonfiction, the tears, animals and their emotions are all factual part of the circle of life, an emotional and very real part of this life on earth….sadly, this may not be a totally happy nature walk, regardless, it is a walk at the last years of life….and, a very important walk…..thank you, ELSA for an accurate wonderful column……

  2. Thank You Elsa for this enlightening article. I have seen and do believe
    that some animals have emotions like the monkeys, I witnessed in India
    during my childhood, who consoled and kept vigil at one of their
    injured,later dead and then carried him/her away. You have added so much
    depth by recounting other birds and animal species with emotional caring
    for their kind.

  3. I used to argue–very good naturedly–with my late mother, a psychologist and Tufts professor, about this topic. Much earlier in her life, I think she’d been friendly with BF Skinner, and had been influenced by his views. It didn’t occur to me to play the trump card–the family dogs–in the discussion, or I’m sure she would have conceded. It’s so easy to see the emotions in dogs’ faces and in the way they act.
    In the early ’80s, I got very interested in elephants, which have a strong sense of the needs and emotions of their fellows. The mammal curator at the National Zoo told me that in his previous zoo, in Canada, there was a shower in the elephant enclosure, and elephants would pull a string to take a drink. But one elephant, probably due to poor near vision, would stand under the shower, not pulling the string, and when she did that, another elephant would pull it for her, and she’d drink.
    Elephants are smell-brained, rather than visually oriented. The mammal curator brought me in to meet a couple of the elephants. When they give you the once-over, they do it with the tips of their trunks, rather than visually. She went from scalp to feet, lingering longest where the scents are strongest. It’s not for the squeamish.

  4. Thanks Elsa for this lovely article around grief – and thank you even more for laying emphasis on empathy!

  5. As one who has experienced more than her fair share of grief, this article touched me and actually provided some comfort. This came from the heart, Elsa, your heart. Your bravery did not go unnoticed. Thank you from my heart.

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