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Helping Clients Heal After the Loss of a Beloved Animal

By J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW

For Joyce, one of the hardest times after the death of her Golden retriever Zeke was when she arrived home after work. For months, coming back to an empty house rarely failed to evoke feelings of sadness. "He'd always been there to greet me. People told me I should be over it; he was just a dog, but for me it was like losing my best friend in the entire world."

Relationships with animals can be every bit as important and meaningful as with humans. When people talk about their pets they often use words such as unconditional love, loyalty, and affection. Amid the often pressurized interactions we have with others in which communication may be strained and agendas in conflict, people often report feeling completely safe and accepted when with their animals. In a world full of stress and responsibilities, pets may be a primary source of spontaneity, playfulness, and joy. Touch is often central in our interactions with animals and physical expressions of affections and gestures embodying love may fill a deep need in a way that is profound and unique.

Not surprisingly, when a beloved animal dies the grief is often intense. Yet, many find themselves grieving in isolation with few opportunities to process or memorialize the loss. Those who attempt to express their grief are sometimes met with impatience or insensitivity.

"In general, we are not a culture that is comfortable with grief," says Mitzi Quint, MSW, LCSW, a bereavement counselor at Transitions LifeCare. This discomfort often leads to social norms that value avoidance and which encourage a "stiff upper lip" among the bereaved and a rapid reintegration back into routines after a loss, rather than seeing grief as a process that takes time. When the death involves an animal, these broader cultural tendencies often combine with an implicit, sometimes explicit, message that the death of an animal is just not important.

Social workers who understand the importance animals play in clients' lives can be an important source of support and assistance for those who have experienced a loss. "Social workers should remember that animals are part of the human biopsychosocial landscape," says Jeanine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, social worker at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. "We are not fully serving our clients if we are not willing to ask about, and explore, the roles animals play in peoples' lives. I've encountered many folks over the years who have had their relationships with animals dismissed or diminished by mental health providers and that, to me, is a missed opportunity on many levels."

Value of Support

The value of good social support for those who are grieving is well known. Such support provides the bereaved with opportunities to connect with others who empathize and care. It allows them to share and process thoughts and feeling and to honor and talk about their loved one as they struggle to integrate the meaning of their loss. When a human dies, families typically come together for mutual support and to participate in communal or personal rituals. Many workplaces recognize the significance of the loss and offer time away. Some even offer counseling support through EAP programs.

Although two-thirds of households across the nation have at least one pet as part of their family systems, such support opportunities are scarce when the death involves an animal. Those grieving the death of a pet may be met with statements dismissing the importance of the loss—"She was only a cat"; "Why are you so sad? He had a long life for a horse"; or "Why don't you just get the kids another dog? I bet they'd love a new puppy." Though such comments may be well intentioned, they send the message that a relationship with a dog, cat, or other significant animal is less important, the death less painful, than relationships with humans.

According to Moga, "Those who have been through animal loss often comment that it is both different and more challenging than they thought it would be." She notes that people are often "surprised by the lack of understanding in their family and social networks."

In his landmark book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Kenneth Doka, PhD, coined the term "disenfranchised grief" to describe situations like this, in which the significance of a loss is unrecognized, dismissed, or unacknowledged by others and for which there is no social sanction or matrix of relationships within which to grieve.

Moga believes that, "the loss of an animal often results in disenfranchised grief because there is still less acknowledgement, understanding, and support available for those who are grieving an animal than is available for those who are grieving a human."

One of the complications of disenfranchised grief is that opportunities for processing the loss through reflection, reminiscence, venting, and storytelling may be nonexistent. "With any profound loss, healing comes through communicating about our loss to sympathetic others, the telling of the story," says Harrison Grey, PhD, bereavement counselor with Tidelands Hospice and author of Journey to the Borderlands: Searching the Hidden Regions of Your Grief for the Door to Peace that Lies There. "There are many venues for doing this. We can do it with family members and friends. We can do it in either a support group or counseling session. We can do it in a public rite of passage such as a funeral or celebration of life. Sadly, these opportunities are more limited when we lose a pet, even though that pet may have been both a valuable family member and dear friend. There can be a subtle judgment expressed toward someone who treats the death of an animal 'as though it were a human.'" This pressure may leave grievers feeling isolated and put them at risk for "prolonged grief and a vague sense of dissociation."

Fewer Rites of Passage

Moga notes that rituals and rites of passage for animals are less common because "When there is less social support and engagement around a loss, peoples' options for memorialization and commemoration are reduced and grievers are left to find their way through with less guidance than they would otherwise have." Grey points out that these rituals need not be elaborate and can even be encouraged in informal settings, "such as a word of prayer in the veterinary office before euthanization, or a backyard gathering with neighbors to bury a pet."

From Moga's perspective, "What makes the loss of animals different from the loss of people is that we relate to animals on so many different levels." She finds that animals often serve multiple important roles such as friend, surrogate child, link to the outside world, confidante, source of income, or protector. Sometimes they fill roles within a family system such as being providers or receivers of affection or buffers from underlying stressors or tensions. "Our relationships with animals are inherently more tactile and sometimes more intimate than many of our relationships with humans. As such, we may permit them into conversations and spaces that are not always open to other humans."

In the absence of a social context within which to absorb and share the loss, grieving humans may try to repress or minimize their grief, especially if friends and workplaces send messages encouraging them to do so. Some even internalize negative social messages: "I must really be a basket case, still crying over a cat"; "How can I be so weak?"; "I really need to get my act together."

Paradoxically, those attempting to minimize painful thoughts, beliefs, and feeling may find that they actually become amplified, displaced, or laced with self-judgment. It's a vicious circle which Moga describes this way: "People whose grief is disenfranchised are often left to wonder if they are grieving the wrong way, even asking themselves, 'Is something wrong with me that I'm this upset over a dog?'" Such doubts may lead to shame and a sense of stigmatization, causing "many folks to not reach out for support and guidance—particularly from mental health professionals." Grey agrees and adds that for those feeling pressured to dismiss their grief, there "may be a sense of guilt if one fails to fully acknowledge the death of a beloved pet. To live with the thought 'I should have done more to acknowledge Buddy's death' might weigh on the mind."

Quint points out that, in addition to its psychological and emotional impact, grief also affects people on physical, behavioral, and spiritual dimensions. She often suggests to clients that in addition to paying attention to thoughts and feelings they also "pay attention to how the body is grieving." Such attunement often reveals somatic issues like digestive distress, tightness around the chest, or globalized fatigue, which have gone unrecognized as related to grief. She notes that common behavioral manifestations include alterations in social engagement, including withdrawal.

Many somatic and behavioral expressions may also indicate depression (eg, loss of appetite, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, decreased social engagement). Studies have found that people who have experienced the recent death of a pet are at an elevated risk of becoming depressed. This may particularly be the case in clients with existing histories of depression, those with concurrent stressors, and those for whom the animal had been an important source of coping and self-soothing when faced with stress.

Difficult Decisions

Other factors can further complicate the grief picture. Moga reports that "People often comment that they feel uniquely responsible for preventing bad things from happening to their pets, much like parents feel about children." When things inevitably happen from which pets cannot be protected, humans cannot have conventional conversations to explain the situation and engage in collaborative decision-making with sick or injured pets. In the absence of such conversations, humans are left to make what are often agonizing decisions on behalf of their pets. When an animal has suffered and/or been euthanized, those grieving in isolation afterward may second-guess themselves and struggle with guilt or a sense of having let their animal family member down.

Another source of guilt may stem from the fact that making timely and accurate diagnoses on a pet can be difficult. Animals "are often quite stoic," says Moga, "and diseases can progress in their bodies before they start to show overt signs of illness. Add to that the significant expense of veterinary diagnosis and treatment, and people can be faced with animal losses complicated by unknown causation, questions of 'Why didn't I see it?' and worries that they've somehow failed to take adequate care of their companions."

In the case of euthanasia, even though ending suffering may have been the core intention, Moga says that this is still experienced as "a huge responsibility, and often a tremendously troubling choice that is both spiritually and morally charged." When such decisions have been influenced, as is often the case, by issues such as lack of financial resources, the caregiver's physical and emotional functioning, level of social support, and ability to implement follow-up medical care at home, "Guilt, rumination, and second-guessing are often a part of the grief picture."

Some populations may be at an elevated risk of complicated bereavement following the loss of an animal. According to Moga, these groups include grievers for whom the animal: was a primary source of social and emotional support; died under traumatic circumstances; or served multiple roles or served as a "linking object" to significant persons or personal history. She adds that special sensitivity should be used working with people who have lost animals (particularly through euthanasia) due to unresolvable behavioral issues, and for animal care workers who may be dealing with cumulative grief compounded by secondary trauma, such as zookeepers, animal welfare workers, and veterinary professionals.

Other groups include those who have lost a service dog, clients with existing mental health issues, and clients for whom the death of an animal has triggered and brought to the surface previously unresolved grief or trauma. Children for whom the death of a pet is one of the first significant losses may also need help understanding and processing the death of a pet, as well as death in general.

Social workers who understand the power of the human-animal bond and the potential complexity when an animal dies are in position to both recognize and validate the importance of the loss, and foster a safe place to explore the impact and help clients identify internal and external resources. Just as importantly, they may be able to identify needs and see connections others are missing. An example is an older woman living alone, whose contact with neighbors and physical functioning is diminishing after the loss of a pet—whose daily rituals of feeding and walking had been a central part of her life. Or, the teen suddenly struggling with challenges focusing and staying motivated at school after losing a cat that had been part of her family since before she was born.

Increasing Awareness

The good news is that awareness is increasing. In many areas of the country home-based veterinary palliative services (often referred to as 'hospice for pets') including in-home euthanasia are available. Such services focus on an animal's comfort and strive to allow for a death in circumstances in which the potential for guilt and regret is reduced. Many provide referrals for grief counseling and options for memorialization.

More local organizations offer counseling and support groups for the bereaved. There are websites, hotlines, professional trainings, and books focusing on animal loss. Across the country social workers are increasingly found in veterinary settings. Social work schools at the University of Tennessee and Michigan State University offer specialized training in veterinary social work for students who want to learn about the human-animal bond.

Though these are good signs, Moga is quick to add that we still have a long way to go and that there remains a "very real stigma attached to seeking help when the presenting problem is pet loss."

Quint says social workers should always remember that at the heart of any grief, whether for a human or an animal, is the loss of an important relationship. "Some people may feel the loss of a special bond when a parent or spouse dies, but that person who just lost a dog may be grieving the loss of the only source of unconditional love in their life." Absorbing, processing, and assimilating the meaning of such a loss is "an unfolding process that occurs over time, and deserves our full respect and attention."

— J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW, had been a hospice social worker for 20 years but is currently a private practice social worker in Hillsborough, NC. He authored the book The Dawn Is Never Far Away: Stories of Loss, Resilience, and the Human Journey.

ASPCA pet loss hotline (24/7 and professionally staffed); 1-877-GRIEF-10; www.pet-loss.net  

Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement; www.aplb.org.