Anyone who has truly loved a pet will understand the utter heartbreak that comes with their loss, it’s a keen sting and a grief that unfortunately, is not generally acceptable by wider society, even though in over 85% of cases pet owners regard their pets as family members (Cohen, 2002) . In recent times there was scorn when celebrity couple publicly mourned the loss of their pet dog and held a memorial for her. Some scorned them for valuing the life of a pet more than human life, some speculated that celebrities just ‘feel things differently’, to me it is simple, it was two people grieving the loss of a loved one and trying as best they could to navigate and process this loss. The pets in our lives are loved, they embody home, safety, comfort and love and for many people the emotional ties to our pets is powerful.
What pets offer
Pets, depending on the type of animal lover you are, are generally with us for their whole lives. Their loss is felt sharply and the grief that comes with this loss is all too real a pain. Pets offer affection, intimacy and unconditional love, all of which are qualities that are essential for emotional health and well being for people (Wilkes, 2009). Pets can serve as silent counsellors, best friends and even children (Sirois, n.d.). They interact constantly and are deeply intertwined people’s daily routines offering unconditional love, nonthreatening physical contact and friendship. There are habits that both human and pet develop together, and some pet owners may even report feeling closer to their dogs than to any human family member (Barker & Barker, 1988). Having pets also has a massive impact on our physical health, a recent study discovered that dog and cat owners have decreased cardiovascular measures compared with non-pet owners, thus demonstrating that having a pet is also good for our health (Barker and Barker, 2015). Further to this, it was found that these pet owners have decreased cardiac reactivity when performing stressful tasks in the presence of their pets compared with doing the same tasks in the presence of their spouses (Allen et al., 2002). Studies have also shown that the children in the homes of pets are more emphatic than those without pets (Messon, 2003).
Pets have been used in many circumstances to improve the lives of people. Some through their strict training, such as guide dogs, and some through just being present during illness, It is always important to consider that pets can and do contribute to a client’s resources and give them support and through presence facilitate comfort and company (Pointon, 2006). Equine-therapy has been used very successfully in working with children with physical disabilities ranging from Cerebral Palsy to Acquired Brain Injury, Cognitive Difficulties, Mental Illness, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Sensory Processing Disorder, Developmental Delay and Social / Emotional Disorders have all responded positively to equine facilitated activity (Gabriels et al, 2015).
Part of the family
When looking at family systems it has been postulated that pets are integral in the communication connection within a family and have the capacity to ease tensions and serve as emotional barometers in a house and are instrumental in maintaining emotional and relational equilibrium (Heiman, 1995). There have some recent studies completed on where we see pets fitting into our family constellations. Barker and Barker (2015) suggest “there were no significant differences between self-canine, self-closest family member, and self-average family member distances for either typical dog owners or enthusiasts, suggesting that the dog may be perceived as being as close as one’s spouse, child, or parent.”
The impact of loss
There is limited research on the impact of a pet bereavement, however, any grief or loss of family and friends may have immediate and long-lasting consequences including depression, anxiety, social withdrawal and behavioural disturbances. Society does not always acknowledge the significance of pet bereavement, which can result in unresolved grief (Packman, Field, Carmack, & Ronen, 2011). However, Barker and Barker (2015) postulate that the bereavement process following the loss of a pet has been found to closely approximate the grief process experienced as a result of human deaths. Pet bereavement is no less important than the loss of a person because the pet is often considered a member of the family, and it has been demonstrated that the strength of the bond between pet and human has direct correlation to the depth and complexity of grief experienced (Packman, Field, Carmack, & Ronen, 2011). Archer and Winchester (1994) completed a study which postulated that whilst depression and anxiety are experienced during pet bereavement there is a decreased severity compared to bereavement for humans. However, there is been other research completed that reviewed the variables, including the degree of attachment to the pet, suddenness of the death and previous experiences with grief and loss (Cordaro, 2012).
It is important to note that bereavement, in any form, can have a long-lasting impact on all in the family, but can leave children vulnerable to other complications. In bereaved children, childhood psychiatric disorders are increased five-fold when compared with the general population (Rutter, 1966). Without appropriate support, bereaved children may develop complicated grief (Kirwin & Hamrin, 2005). In the event of limited bond with an animal, decision regarding health and demise might be governed by financial considerations. It has been suggestion that in this type of scenario children have little to no inclusion in the decision-making process, this may lead to lifelong resentment (Sirois, n.d.).
Disenfranchised grief, where the loss or grief is not recognised by another. The circumstance of the person needs to be considered, if someone is part of a family grieving the loss of a pet there is a social support to help the process, this is different for those that might live alone with their pet (Archer and Winchester, 1994). There is still an attitude of ‘it’s only a pet’, ‘you will get over it’, ‘get another pet’, none of these are anyway helpful when listening to or engaging with people who have a lost a pet, the first step should always be to gauge the magnitude of the loss and what this means to someone (Pointon, 2006). There have been changes in veterinary school to be more focused on the pet-human bond, and counselling for pet loss has been recognised as a need and being brought into vet services (Barker and Barker, 2015). Veterinary schools have also started to increase curriculum time focusing on the human-canine bond (McCulloch, 1985).
A pet bereavement, depending on the reliance and enmeshment of the pet and pet owner, could spark an existential crisis, this is more relevant in the case of elderly people or those living alone with their pet. Weeks et al (2001) suggest each of us assigns narrative to all relationships in our lives, the pet-human relationship in included in this, they go further and state to understand the meaning of the relationship it’s imperative that the narrative, and the assigned meaning of the narrative is understood.
Many therapists are ill-equipped to deal with the devastating impact of the loss of an animal companion, pet bereavement is a very specific type of loss (Pointon, 2006). It is important to refer to the pet as an individual, this is reflective of how the client see’s their pet and will ensure an emphatic appreciation has been achieved (Sirois, n.d.). Societal norms do not always permit the appropriate expression of grief over the loss of the pet (Hall et al., 2004). Due to not generally being acceptable pet bereavement can be supressed, only to re-surface when working to process another loss or trauma, such as the loss of job, a parent or a divorce as these or seen as more socially acceptable (Pointon, 2006; Walsh, 2009). Clients can be assisted by offering way to memorialise and honour their pet and assisted through funerals and burial ceremonies (Sirois, n.d.). Psychotherapists who “acknowledge and validate the implication of pet loss will help to re-enfranchise and undervalued fried” (Cordaro, 2012).
Death, whilst it can be traumatic, may be the beginning of the greatest growth through understanding, love and faith (Kubler-Ross, 1995). Throughout Kubler-Ross’s writings, she maintains that death is a part of life; it is a stage of great potential growth. Kubler-Ross posited that dying, and accepting death, underwent five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The five-stage model was introduced as a paradigm of how the dying grieved, however this was later amended to included grieving the loss of another noting that families of the dead went through a similar grieving process as the departed (O’Rourke 2010). The five-stage model, also known as the grief cycle (Chapman, 2013), was never meant to be a rigid mode for which people excel through grief, instead it is a journey.
To successfully come to terms with pet death and bereavement Kubler-Ross recognised that people needed to pass through the stages in their own way, and at their own pace (Chapman, 2013). According to (Kubler-Ross & Kessler, 2014) the stages merely allow us to frame and identify what we are feeling through the process of stage. Each of the stages can be for a brief or extended period; they can also be interchangeable and not happen in a linear fashion (Pass, 2006). There are similarities between Bowlby’s stages of bereavement and Kubler-Ross’s five-stage model. Bowlby’s interpretation outlines Numbing as stage one, then as stage two yearning, searching and anger and stages three and four disorganisation and despair: Reorganisation (Holmes, 2014). Through identifying our own attachment style we may be able to get a greater understanding of our grief when we lose a pet.
Throughout this article I refer to the ‘pet ownership’, this is done respectfully but I am aware of the difference between owning a car/house and a pet. Pets are seen, by and large, as extensions of the family ergo, the grief and loss are not the same for a pet as it is for a car etc (Archer and Winchester, 1994). It is important that everyone who is facing the loss of a pet is allowed to use their voice to share their own experience, meaning and impact of the loss they are facing. As therapist, and as people, it is our jobs to be kind, to listen and if we can, to help people in their hour of need.
In short the loss of a pet hits many areas of our lives, our routine is disputed, our hearts are broken, our need for love and belonging is shattered. The loss of a pet cannot be underestimated, and whilst society has not yet caught up with this ‘new’ family we will get to the point where sharing this grief will be more acceptable, tolerated and supported so that those facing this loss feel less isolated and are assisted in their grief.
For more information on the Pet Bereavement Support group please click HERE
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