New perspectives on navigating grief for owners of companion animals

The loss of a pet can be difficult, but the latest research suggests we can do better to help owners navigate their way through the grief process.

For many, the pandemic resulted in more time spent in the company of pets while working from home and because of restrictions designed to limit the movement of people. In many cases, pets became key to maintaining a sense of normality, routine and motivation, not to mention providing company during times of social and physical isolation.

Strangely, though, as the research highlights, society has a bias towards supporting certain circumstances of grieving over others.

Hans martens gettyimages 182187704
Many pet owners found comfort and company in their companion animals throughout the pandemic. Credit: Hans-Martens/GettyImages

According to the authors of the review, published in HumanAnimal Interactions, some types of trauma such as the loss of a pet, death by suicide, a lost pregnancy or miscarriage and death from AIDS, can be stigmatic for the bereaved. These types of loss tend to be underacknowledged by others or given less attention or empathy.

“When relationships are not valued by society, individuals are more likely to experience disenfranchised grief after a loss that cannot be resolved and may become complicated grief,” said Colleen Rolland, President and pet loss grief specialist for Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB).

Read more: The science behind man’s best friend: the domestic dog

This stigma can interrupt the natural process of grieving, meaning that pet owners often ‘go it alone’, without social support when dealing with the loss of their companion animal.

Bird flying to the light
Navigating the grief of losing of a pet can often carry social stigma. Credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

“The present review builds on research in the field of pet loss and human bereavement and factors in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human-animal attachment,” says Dr Michelle Crossley, an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College in the US.

“A goal of the present review is to provide counsellors with perspectives to consider in their practice when working with clients who have attachments to their companion animals. It also aims to acknowledge the therapeutic benefits of working through the grief process to resolution as a way to continue the bond with a deceased pet.”

The review presents practical ways in which counsellors can help people grieving the loss of a pet through in-person and online approaches, such as group sessions and web-based chatrooms – “counselling interventions and coping strategies already being used in the therapeutic space,” notes Crossley.

Grief process: picture of dog in frame next to ashes in a box, with collar on top
New perspectives can help owners navigate the grief process and achieve healing. Credit: Claudia Luna/Getty Images

Practical activities such as providing safe spaces and materials to paint, draw or write about their anxieties and fears about loss are effective tools for helping children and adults navigate the grief process.

Pets and People, an online initiative founded by Dr Michael O’Donoghue and Penny Carroll, seeks to provide pet owners with resources and information across a whole host of issues associated with pet loss, including those discussing social stigmas. It also provides links to counsellors with experience in pet loss and lists Australian and New Zealand numbers for the Pet Loss Support Line which connects callers with counsellors.

Please login to favourite this article.