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This is a classic example of mass-media authors, editors, and publishers
unintentionally misleading the public on healthy grief. See my comments after the
article. The links and hilights below
are mine. -
Peter Gerlach, MSW
+ + +
while observing a troop of Barbary macaques for behavioral research,
I was surprised to see a new mother holding on to her obviously
stillborn baby. She clutched the corpse to her chest and made soft
cooing sounds, obviously in distress.
More remarkable, she held on to that dead baby for more than a week
as it began to decompose.
Eventually, the mother showed up alone, but then it got even sadder.
She began to haunt other mothers, those with live babies. She would
sit close to them and try to grab those babies and hug them, as if
to make up for her loss.
I was clearly witnessing a mother in deep grief, and I felt great
After all, she had been stuck in an evolutionarily dilemma that all
of us, at one time or another, experience.
Monkey, apes, humans and all other social animals are born to attach to others because those
connections help keep us alive and up the chances of passing on
genes. But at the same time, we pay dearly for that advantage when
our loved ones leave.
Those of us who have lost a spouse, parent, sibling, child or
friend, are familiar with that monkey's heart.
As described by
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, grief includes anger, denial, bargaining,
depression, and eventually acceptance, emotions felt in no special
order or sometimes skipped over. But all of them are low moods,
often paralyzing moods, and so why would evolution give us this
punch in the stomach, especially when death and loss are so common
over a lifetime?
University of Michigan evolutionary psychiatrist Randolph Nesse has
suggested that there might in fact be reasons beyond the usual
argument that grief is the price we pay for love. According to his
theory, grief itself may have been selected because those feelings
can have evolutionary advantages.
For example, when someone is lost, we expend energy looking for
them, trying to get them back. Under the great duress of grief,
people usually protect themselves from further losses, which must be
a good thing. We also warn our kin and turn to them for kindness and
protection, thereby binding our genes as we come together in
And then we reach out. For some, grief is the first time they have
asked for solace or help, and that opens up whole new social
networks that might be crucial down the road.
Eventually, with acceptance, evolution pushes us to leave the house,
maybe look for a replacement, or at least go forward with life.
In other words, the roller coaster emotions of grief can actually
make a new, sometimes safer, life for the bereaved, a life where
genes are protected and passed on in the aftermath of loss.
Although that sounds like a reasonable scenario for the evolution of
grief, the best intentions of biology don’t, of course, always work
Jane Goodall reported that after an elderly female chimpanzee named
Flo died her young son, Flint, exhibited all the classic signs of
human grief, and he eventually wasted away and died. And
are just as unable to cope with their crippling grief, and they,
too, get sick and die of a broken heart.
The rest of us swimming through a great loss have to cling to the
notion that although evolution has brought us these painful
emotions, it has also brought us the means to move on.
Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is
also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture
Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent;
Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness."
Mass-media information on losses and
healthy grief is scarce and often misleading. This brief news item illustrates how
the media promotes the myth that grief is only
associated with death, rather than a broad spectrum of losses of prized places,
things, rituals, ideas, relationships, and abilities. The author's being a veteran University anthropologist adds
authority to this misconception.
The author notes that "many people are just
unable to cope with ...grief...," (i.e. to fully accept major losses (broken
bonds) and their impacts) - but she offers no ideas on why this is.
The article also promotes the widespread
illusion that the grieving process has only five emotional phases, instead of
two or three
levels each with several
phases. These popular myths and illusions are part of the
that stresses our families and society. This unawareness increase the prevalence
of unfinished grief in kids and adults, which can promote physiological and
psychological stress in people and families.
Lesson 3 in this non-profit Website presents ideas on bonding, losses, healthy grief,
grieving policies, requisites for "good grief,"and suggests how
wounds + unawareness
can hinder the natural mourning progress. To see if you could benefit from
studying Lesson 3, take this free online quiz.