Why is the death of a companion animal one of the most difficult losses for some people?
Having worked with both human loss and pet loss I have seen a great divide in terms of who gets to own the greatest grief ever. Is it the death of a spouse, sibling, child, friend, pet, etc.? As a clinician it is my job to hold clinical neutrality alongside of an empathic stance. I am to bracket, to the best of my ability, any preconceived prejudices and assumptions when dealing with my clients; to be an effective Therapist I must meet each client where they are emotionally in attempt to understand the essence of his or her phenomenological experience. Over my 20 years of working with bereaved clients what I have learned is that the most difficult grief is the one you are currently experiencing and no one has the right to judge its net worth but you, the bereaved. I have worked with clients who have lost children and I have worked with clients who have lost animal companions and while there is a slight difference to the process , generally speaking the grieving process is the same. However, I do not like to compare one loss to another because every loss is different for every person with so many variables setting the stage for the process that follows. In my research and clinical work, I looked for themes and patterns to emerge specific to Pet Loss that would help define the experience and answer the question posed above. I have worked with grown men who have lost family members and claim to never had cried a single tear in their lives, only to break down into a thousand pieces at the death of a pet. The grief is real, the grief is life changing and, for many, is latent with guilt for feeling such intense sadness over the death of a pet. In attempts to understand why the death of a companion animal can be one of the most difficult losses for many people a full analysis of the human-animal bond is necessary but beyond the scope of this blog. Instead I will focus on one aspect which helps us understand why the loss is irreconcilable for some.
What is disenfranchised grief and why is the loss of a beloved companion animal disenfranchised?
Disenfranchised grief is any type of grief or loss that is not acknowledged by society as being significant and the type of grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned. In my research, A Phenomenological Study of Canine Loss and Grief Response: Clinical and Depth Psychological Implications (2006), 95% of participants as well as a significant number of clients in my Psychotherapy practice described experiences that meet the criteria for a disenfranchised loss. The death of a companion animal falls under the category of a disenfranchised loss because;
• The relationship between humans and their pets is not always acknowledged and recognized by society as being relevant or significant (though there is a shift towards that end) and there is a false assumption that closeness and love can exist and thrive only between humans. This results in the bereaved pet owner being cut off from societal supports typically available after human loss. Individuals who do not understand the unique bond between a human and animal fail to realize the emotional, psychological and spiritual bonding that often occurs and what it is like for the bereaved when those bonds are broken through death. Because of this, the grieving process is minimized by others which may result in the bereaved feeling a sense of shame when expressing their grief. We have all heard the well-meaning yet hurtful statements, “it was just a dog /cat” or “just go get another one” in response to the loss of a pet. This failure by family and friends to recognize the relationship between a human and pet as being worthy of grieving leads to marginalizing and isolating bereaved pet owners from supports that help to process the loss and facilitate healing.
• The loss of a companion animal is not always viewed as being worthy of grieving and therefore is minimized by others. The lack of empathy and validation from others can lead to feelings of embarrassment about expressing grief which in turn can result in the bereaved suppressing their emotions and engaging in isolating and maladaptive behaviors as a way to cope. Because of the way society views the death of a companion animal, the bereaved have fewer opportunities to openly express and resolve their feelings with friends, family and the community which can leave many bereaved pet owners feeling alienated from their community and resources. All of these factors can result in an increased risk for emotional and psychological difficulties.
• After the death of a companion animal there is no formal way to memorialize or opportunity to publicly mourn the loss and as a result many bereaved do not engage in commemorative services typically seen after human loss. This is a critical component to the grieving process in that a funeral/memorial service offers the opportunity to; express affection and gratitude to the deceased, provides emotional comfort, is an opportunity to share sorrow, talk about the loss, get sympathy and support from others, serves to concretize the loss, and assists in facilitating the grieving process. However, after the death of a beloved companion animal the healing aspect of memorializing are denied to the bereaved pet owner and this can have serious consequences on one's ability to accept the finality of the death, further marginalizes the bereaved and creates a sense of isolation and aloneness that may not be experienced during human loss.
In summary, because the relationship, the loss and the bereaved are disenfranchised and marginalized from commonly available social supports, there are fewer opportunities to express and resolve one's grief. This experience of alienation from community support and resources sets the stage for a host of emotional and psychological symptoms associated with prolonged or Complicated Grief as discussed in my book; Beyond the Horizon: A Remembrance Journal for Healing the Loss of a Pet (2018).
Additional information on this topic can be found in my recently published book: Beyond the Horizon: A Remembrance Journal for Healing the Loss of a Pet