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Pet Loss and Complicated Grief Response

Why is it those who experience the death of a companion animal are at an increased risk for experiencing a Complicated Grief Response?

So what exactly is a Complicated Grief Response?

Clinically speaking, Complicated Grief Response (CGR) is a persistent and on-going form of intense grief in which maladaptive thoughts and dysfunctional behaviors are present along with continued yearning, longing, sadness and preoccupation with thoughts and memories of the deceased that continues well beyond what is considered "normal and expected". In Complicated Grief, the bereaved remains interminably in a state of grief without progression of the mourning process towards completion and involves processes that do not move towards assimilation or accommodation but, instead, lead to stereotyped repetitions or extensive interruptions of healing (Horowitz, 1980).

In my clinical practice a statistically significant number of clients seeking therapy for pet bereavement scored high on the Inventory of Complicated Grief (ICG). This finding in a clinical setting points to a positive correlation between the death of a pet and increase risk for Complicated Grief Response and is confirmed by my academic research on the Human-Canine Bond and Grief Response in which 95% of research participants scored high on the ICG.

Because the death of a companion animal is disenfranchised and not a readily accepted loss in our culture, it is not always taken with serious intention and is disregarded as being trivial. Being cut off and marginalized from universal supports typically available after the loss of a human is a fertile breeding ground for Complicated Grief Response. Although symptoms common to normal grief diminish over time, with brief episodes triggered by anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and sensory reminders, a person who has normal grief is aware of the reality of the death and can perform day-to-day tasks. This is not so for the bereaved pet owner experiencing a Complicated Grief Response whereby the grief symptoms are intensified, do not get better over time but get worse and protracted. Symptoms of Complicated Grief that are common to bereaved pet owners include:

  • a significant decline in global functioning

  • feeling shame and embarrassment over their grief

  • fear the event/trauma will be repeated

  • hypervigilance towards the circumstances that caused the death

  • difficulty accepting the death even after a long period of time

  • irrational thoughts that the deceased might reappear

  • intense grief triggers by minor events

  • preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased

  • feelings of guilt

  • intrusive images of their animal dying

  • extreme reactions to anniversaries that does not lessen but may get worse over time

  • severe depression and feeling life has no meaning or purpose

  • difficulty carrying out normal daily activities and routines

  • withdrawal from social activities and isolating behaviors

There are several factors associated with an intense grief response and potential for development of complicated grief after the death of a companion animal such as:

  • the degree of attachment and nature of the bond

  • the circumstances surrounding the death (euthanasia, unexpected, traumatic, off time line etc.)

  • lack of understanding, support and validation from family, friends, community and mental health professionals

  • the companion animal having helped the bereaved through difficult times and life transitions

  • rescuing the companion animal from death or near death

  • having invested extensive time, effort, or financial resources towards medical and health care

  • having relied on the companion animal as the main source of support

  • experiencing the companion animals as a symbolic link to significant people who are no longer in their lives

While there is a collective shift in our culture regarding increased awareness and sensitivity of the grieving process associated with the death of a companion animal, there is still much work to be done. The death of a companion animal remains a marginalized and disenfranchised loss, leaving many bereaved owners without the support, understanding and validation offered after human loss and necessary for healing. It is important to note that these painful emotions may exceed the duration and intensity commonly experienced in losses that are not disenfranchised, requiring awareness and sensitivity on behalf of the mourner.

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