Do Animals Grieve for Their Losses Too?

Comparative thanatology, or the study of how non-human species experience loss and grief, is gaining broader research support in the scientific community.
Mario L. Major

Many of us would be surprised to discover that there is a science entirely devoted to the psychological mechanisms we use related to death and dying, or grief in layman's terms. The scientific field is thanatology, and there are even certification courses that prepare individuals for becoming a thanatologist, or becoming an expert in helping people with grief and loss.


Professor at the Department of Psychology at Kyoto University, James Anderson, who is interested in the research areas of primate learning and cognition and animal behavior, is combining this with thanatology theories to look at how the process occurs for various animals.

Even among humans, the depths of grief are so significant that a framework involving five distinct stages was developed: in order, it involves denial, anger, behavior, depression and acceptance. The model was first mentioned by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychologist, in 1969 in her seminal book On Death and Dying. In this way, the question becomes not whether animals experience grief, but how this occurs.

Developing a Research Framework

Professor Anderson approaches animal grief through the lens of comparative thanatology, a discipline which tries to broaden the discipline to cover animals and the endless expressions, and ceremonies, which they experience. The ultimate goal, for him, is to move beyond speculation and develop evidential support, which is challenging. This is understandable, as for many of us, beyond a few rare sightings, or the occasional nature program, we possess limited understanding.

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At Anderson's University, this year marks the second year of a workshop on the subject on the evolution of thanatology: as one would imagine, most of the areas of research covered relate to humans, although there was some focus on one of our closest human relatives, the chimpanzee.  

This is a useful place to begin; however, in order for comparative thanatology to develop, it will be necessary for scientists as well as the general public to witness the entire diversity of animal grief, which means accepting that it may occur in ways which have no connection to our understanding of the ways humans grieve.

A good example is crows. As many have observed, they make alarm sounds when they experience loss, but it goes further than that: some of them also seem to copulate, or mate, with the deceased.

Kaeli Swift, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, has spent many hours in the field documenting the behavior of American crows. She was part of a research study, the details of which can be found in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B peer-review journal, which is one of 18 contributions to a larger research publication titled "Evolutionary thanatology: impacts of the dead on the living in humans and other animals". Studies like this are laying the foundations for opening up research into the relatively new field. 

Speaking about why little research exists on the subject, Swift said: “[T]he possibility that animals might be grieving or sharing some semblance of the human experience was laughable.

“But it’s interesting to see this shift where this has become a legitimate scientific field. These cases help us develop a deeper experience of the natural world, and that’s never a bad thing. No one has ever walked away from that a worse person,” she added.

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