Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Love and Despair

In the abyss 
I saw how love held bound
Into one volume all the lives whose flight
Is scattered through the universe around;
How substance, accident, and mode unite,
Fused, so to speak, together in such wise
That this I tell is one simple light.

-Dante, from the Divine Comedy

Love, or what Bowlby would call attachment, is a phenomenon unique to humans. Or is it? There is neuroscientific evidence to demonstrate that animals display some type of attachment behaviors, most often observed between mothers and their offspring, in the animal kingdom.

And where there is love, there is grief.

Many animals, from cows to dogs to baboons, exhibit fierce grief responses when separated from their mothers. They first enter a phase of protest, pacing back-and-forth, searching and yearning for the object of their affection.  Some mothers, in response to the separation from their babies, begin self-harming behaviors, such as chewing their own limbs or intentionally injuring themselves.  A puppy separated from his mother will "let out a piteous whine, high-pitched and grating as every aspect of his behavior broadcasts his distress" (Lewis & Amini, 2000).   This behavior is even observed in rats.  

Mammalian protests in the animal kingdom mirror human physiologic responses to loss. During protest,  hearts palpate, catecholamines and cortisol flourish, and the body is on high alert and arousal.  High levels of chronic cortisol, the stress hormone, can compromise the immune system, interrupting important processes for the body. In sum, intense disequilibrium to the homeostatic condition can occur- very dangerous, not just psychologically, but biologically too.

This is the state of despair.  The anchored weight of grief turned inward. Apathy, lack of focus, anhedonism, bleakness...hopeless and helpless...alone in the world.   

If separating animals from their offspring can cause disruption, just imagine- in the human relationship- the depth of emotional responses to such separation. The architecture of attachment is complex, particularly the attachment between a human mother and her child. Woven into the relationship are generations of evolutionary adaptations tailor-suited to accommodate the unique relationship that will require bonding like no other relationship on the planet. What happens when that bond is prematurely broken? Despair. A state of despair.

Yet, human beings also have the capacity to help one another. Studies suggest that connectedness with like others has powerful effects on the brain- mainly, the limbic system- as well as our experiences of loss. Being helped by and helping others is a powerful healer. No, it isn't magic- there is no panacea- no voodoo that can cure a mother's grieving heart. But both social support and social outreach have powerful effects on a person.  

The MISS Foundation  provides a safe place for grieving families in despair.  It's a place to first find help, then later to provide hope to another. Family and friends- communities- should also strive to provide a safety net to help. Something so unspeakable- something so tragic- should never be endured alone.

Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, 
hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.
- Elie Wiesel

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The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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