By Norman Fried

Last week, the internet and newspapers across Europe and America posted pictures of an 11-year-old gorilla named Gana clutching the corpse of her 3-month-old baby Claudio for days before surrendering his lifeless body to zookeepers.  As Gana persisted in cradling her baby, questions by primatologists, psychologists and other social scientists arose.  Do animals have a cognitive appreciation of their own mortality? Do they grieve as adult humans do? Or are they simply confused?

In her September 2nd article in The New York Times, Natalie Angier presents data by scientists that suggest another theory: that elaborate displays of primate maternal grief, like those of Gana toward her son, reveal less about our shared awareness of death than they do about our shared impulse to act as if death never happened.

Indeed, for many of us, a common mode of coping with death is denial, and this system of denial rests on one of two major premises: We are either personally inviolable to death (“This can’t happen to me”), or we are protected eternally by an ultimate deity or rescuer. Coined by Otto Rank as a “death fear,” our anxiety of separation, loss and lack of connectedness causes us to employ either one of these two fundamental defenses.

“The mind blanks at the glare,” wrote the British poet Philip Larkin in  his famous poem entitled “Aubade,” as he contemplated the “dread of dying and being dead.”

Grieving, and the strength needed to endure suffering, is not a linear process. It more resembles a spiral staircase on which are recapitulated themes of loss, anger, disbelief, and the hope for eventual repair (credit tyler). Like Gana holding her dead baby Gorilla in her arms, we humans require time to wrap ourselves in our grief. We require attention and respect, and the freedom to express disbelief, anger, and confusion, until — like Gana surrending Claudio — we give up our denial and accept the fact of death.

Norman Fried

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Norman Fried

Norman Fried

Norman J. Fried, Ph.D., is director of psycho-social services for the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Winthrop University on Long Island, New York. A clinical psychologist with graduate degrees from Emory University, he has also taught in the medical schools of New York University and St. John's University, and has been a fellow in clinical and pediatric psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Fried is a Disaster Mental Health Specialist for The American Red Cross of Greater New York, and he has a private practice in grief and bereavement counseling on Long Island. He is married with three sons and lives in Roslyn, New York.

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