There are many symptoms of sadness and bereavement, including leaving sufferers being listless, withdrawn, unable to sleep and physically aching for a lost loved one. These symptoms can last longer than expected in some people and can lead to stress hormones causing the heart to beat irregularly, mimicking a heart attack or causing blood pressure to be raised. So it’s difficult to a purpose for the grieving process.
To determine if grief has a biological purpose, scientists have examined the grief process in animals, although there is still disagreement on their findings. Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, found that animals changed their behaviour in a way that mimicked typical signs of human grief after a death close to them. They became withdrawn, less interested in socialising, restless or unable to eat or sleep. King believes that animals could be compassionate and empathetic and hypothesizes that the reasons animals show signs of grieving is because it’s a necessary process, “One of the suggestions is that grief is the time the body takes to mourn and repair [after a loss].”
Richard Byrne, a cognitive psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland studies the way that animals behave as a way to understand human behavioural traits. He and his colleagues have described how elephants show empathy over a death, but that this doesn’t necessarily mean they feel a particular emotion like grief.
Psychologists have another perspective claiming that sadness and grief are not the same. According to J. John Mann, a psychiatrist from Columbia University, sadness is a part of grief. He views grief as “a deep yearning, and said that sadness is a tool that we use to resolve our immediate bereavement into a more permanent memory of a lost loved one.”
Scienceline is the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program of New York University and the full report may be read here.