Australia has one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world, sharing our homes with over 29 million pets (Animal Medicines Australia, 2019), more recently termed our “companion animals”. This term is preferred, instead of “pet”, in order to recognise that Australians increasingly regard their non-human companions as part of the family, like a “child”, and consider themselves the non-human companions’ “parent” (White, 2009).
Reasons for choosing to include a companion animal in a household overwhelmingly include “company”, and “security” (particularly for dogs). Indeed, recently published literature demonstrate the benefits of animal companionship, including offering vital support to people experiencing the CoVid-19 pandemic and associated stressors (Hoy-Gerlach, Rauktis, & Newhill, 2020).
Given the position of non-human members of our families being companion animals, it is thus not uncommon for Australians to experience the loss of a companion animal. However, the resultant grief from losing a companion animal is still considered “not as serious” compared to losing a human family member (McAndrew, 2017). As quoted in the article by McAndrew (2017), “its all a bit of an overreaction; after all, its ‘just a dog'” (p. 1).
When a grief experience is undervalued by onlookers, or even not recognised, this is termed disenfranchised grief, and the sufferer is generally left unsupported, and given the messages that their grief is unacknowledged or unworthy (Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, 2015).
The mental health sequelae of disenfranchised grief as a result of animal companion loss is the subject of an article by Cordaro (2012), available here for download. Cordaro (2012) refers to three common models of grief, usually reserved for the experience of loss of each other, and examines how these common models of grief can equally be applied to the experience of grief following animal companion loss. An outline of Cordaro’s (2012) argument is summarised below.
Kubler-Ross (1969) theorised that grief progresses in stages to eventual acceptance (denial,
anger, bargaining, depression, through to eventual acceptance). Although initially conceptualised as linear, recent scholars have advised that this model of grief is better understood as a model of the various stages observed in the grief process, and the stages can occur in any order, with some stages being experienced more than others (and some may even be skipped).
Figure 1. Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle
According to Cordaro (2012), those grieving the loss of a companion animal can be observed to experience similar stages, but the anger stage can be complicated due to the grief being disenfranchised due to the fact that they are unable to fully express their anger. In regard to the depression stage, those who have lost a companion animal can also display symptoms that mimic clinical depression, including sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, and intense sadness.
Unlike the Kubler-Ross model, the DPM model of grief is nonlinear, and conceptualises coping
with the stress associated with grief as dealing with two stressors: loss orientated coping (coping with both positive and negative feelings concurrently, e.g, relief and yearning) and restoration oriented coping (adjusting to changes brought on by the death).
Figure 2. DPM model of grief
Similar to the model above, researchers have also observed animal companion loss within this model. It has been documented that in the loss orientation phase, animal companion owners have been known to “seek out” the deceased companion, and experience numbness and disbelief. Further, the restoration orientation phase has also been observed in those suffering companion animal loss, including continuing on in major life roles despite the death of the animal companion, and trying to distract themselves.
According to Cordaro (2012), due to the grief of animal companion loss being disenfranchised, the normal oscillating between these two orientations is disrupted, with grievers feeling the pressure to engage primarily with restoration oriented coping (at the expense at the loss oriented coping). Counsellors are advised to create a safe space for the grieving person to spend time in the loss orientation phase.
A third model of grieving, the adaptive grieving styles, Marin and Doka (2000) describe three different styles of grieving that fall on a continuum: intuitive, instrumental, and intuitive-instrumental. Intuitive grievers experience grief at an affective level (feelings). Instrumental grievers experience grief cognitively or physically (processing thoughts, or exercising). Finally, intuitive-instrumental grievers are blended in their coping, but one style may be more pronounced.
When dealing with animal companion loss, Cordaro (2012) writes that intuitive grievers may not have an outlet, so a counsellor is advised to create a safe space for emotions related to the lost companion to be expressed. Instrumental grievers are likely to engage in behaviours such as exercising. Counsellors are advised to give space to these grievers to discuss their feelings (as they are not inclined to do this). Finally, those who are blended in their coping would benefit from a variety of strategies to allow the full grieving process to occur.
Figure 3. Adaptive Grieving Styles
Counsellors, given their person-centred framework, are well positioned to allow those grieving the loss of a companion animal, to create a safe space for the griever to journey through the grief in an accepting, non-judgemental manner, allowing the journey to unfold and come to its natural conclusion. Cordana (2012) recommends the following:
|Encourage clients to talk about the deceased companion animal, the circumstances surrounding the loss, and adjustment to daily activities without the companion animal.|
|Help clients identify grief triggers and create a range of coping strategies|
If a client is having difficulty discussing the experience of grief for their lost companion animal, the counsellor could:
|Construct a memory book of the companion animal|
|Ask the client to journal about the grief (including favourite memories or unique characteristics)|
|Prescribe self-help books on dealing with the grief of a lost companion animal|
|Encourage a memorial pet walk, conduct an at-home memorial balloon release, or donate money for a pet memorial to humane societies or local animal shelters|
|Encourage clients to be around loved ones and get social support|
|Refer to community self help groups (if no social support is immediate)|
Finally, Australian resources that can be shared with clients include:
Animal Medicines Australia (2019). Pet Ownership in Australia. https://animalmedicinesaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ANIM001-Pet-Survey-Report19_v1.7_WEB_high-res.pdf
White, S. (2009). Companion Animals: Members of the Family or Legally Discarded Objects? UNSWLawJl, 32(3). https://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/UNSWLJ/2009/42.html
McAndrew (2017). Why Losing a dog can be harder than losing a relative or friend .The conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-losing-a-dog-can-be-harder-than-losing-a-relative-or-friend-68207
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (2015). Disenfranchised Grief. https://www.grief.org.au/uploads/uploads/Rosemary-Branch-Autumn-2015.pdf
Hoy-Gerlach, J., Rauktis, M., & Newhill, C (2020). (Non-human) animal companionship: a Crucial suport for people duing the covid-19 pandemic. Society Register, 4, 109-120. doi: 10.14746/sr.2020.r.2.08
Cordaro, M (2012). Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief: Implications for Mental Health Counseling Practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 34, 283-294.