Disenfranchised grief: Why pet owners aren’t allowed to mourn
Veterinary team members wield the ability to smoothly guide pet owners through the grieving process of losing a pet. Here is how.
When a client is grieving the loss of their companion animal, veterinary professionals are often the first point of contact. This puts veterinary teams on the frontline of dealing with this agonizing pain clients experience after the loss of a beloved pet.
What the research shows
Research from the Australian Veterinary Journal states that “In addition to attending to the death of an animal patient, contemporary veterinarians must manage emotionally distraught clients [as well].”1 Although caring for human clients is not something the staff signed up for, providing support and reassurance during the grieving process is often a large part of the job. The psychological impact of this heavy burden on veterinary teams is well documented.1
To further complicate the emotional firestorm, the grief reaction can become amplified when the support does not meet the client's expectations.2,3 Within the greater scope of a society that does not completely understand or accept the grief of the pet owner, this can further exacerbate responses,2 leading clients to lash out at clinics, veterinarians, and their staff. It can also put these distraught clients at risk of experiencing complicated grief which can negatively impact their mental and physical health.3,4
So, what can be done to help navigate the heightened emotional storm that brews after a companion animal dies? To understand the ‘what,’ one must first understand the ‘whys’—why is the bond between a person and their pet so important, and why is disenfranchised grief experienced? Only then, can we explore what can be done to alleviate the situation.
Put simply, the human-animal bond is unique. Pet owners experience unconditional love emanating from their companion animal; without judgment, and full of complete acceptance. Many clients and staff can be heard uttering, “I like animals more than people,” as they walk around the hospital (if you haven’t heard it, maybe you have said it). Clients and staff alike refer to these animals as “fur babies.” With more and more clients living alone, these fur babies play an even more important role in their owner’s life.
Research has also investigated the role of owner attachment style in the severity of grief experienced; clients with anxious/avoidant attachment styles experiencing more severe grief responses.3 The human-animal bond exists in a pressure cooker of intense love. One in which the owner is solely responsible for life/death decisions concerning the wellbeing of their pet. The ethical dilemma experienced by pet owners is a major complicating factor that is not present when experiencing human death and can add guilt upon an already emotional owner.2,3
For example, when a pet owner who had a significant bond with their pet makes the difficult decision to euthanize, unlike experienced in human death, the owner is not provided with any accepted rituals to memorize their pet, nor is their grief legitimized by society. Thus, leaving them to flounder in what is referred to as disenfranchised grief.2 To help them better navigate the situation, they often turn towards the veterinarian and staff who may not always be in the best position to render aid due to lack of training, physical and mental exhaustion, and in extreme cases, burnout.1,2
What should be done about it?
Monitor your staff for signs of fatigue and burnout
This cannot be stressed enough. A veterinarian, technician, or assistant cannot give what they do not have. If your team member is experiencing the signs of burnout please find or encourage help for them. They will be unable to recognize and attend to the client’s needs in that state.
Train your staff to provide appropriate support
- Inform clients about their pet’s final destination. Research has demonstrated that when clients are afforded compassionately delivered information regarding the euthanasia and burial process prior to the euthanasia of their pet, they experience less dissatisfaction with the euthanasia procedure.2 Increased satisfaction leads to decreased anger directed towards veterinarians and their staff.
- Discuss the loss of the pet with the client. Take the time to discuss grief with the client. Let them know that it is normal to experience many different emotions and to even question whether they made the right decision. Reports2 demonstrate that your client may experience a variety of negative emotions following the loss of their pet, but they may also experience positive emotions such as empowerment and happiness; validate all emotions (positive and negative) as appropriate. Take a moment to ask your client the role their pet has played in their life (this will help you with your third task).
- Discuss grief management strategies. Having an outlet to tell a chronological story of the pet’s illness, euthanasia and loss can be helpful to pet owners.2 This story can take part in a conversation or in a support group, which can be recommended to pet owners who seem to be experiencing more intense grief. Clients can also be given ideas regarding pet memorialization to help cope with the loss of their pet.
Learn to identify signs that a client may be at risk for complicated grief and need mental health assistance
- When a client seems more intensely attached to their pet, begin the discussion of grief and support early in the process (ie, at the early signs of the pet’s illness rather than during euthanasia).
- Create longer appointment slots for these clients and take the time to discuss options with them and echo back the decisions you hear them making.
- Normalize the difficult choice they are making by explaining your understanding of the unique bond they share with their beloved companion.
- Gently suggest and normalize they reach out for additional support (eg, mental health providers) and provide any resources you have on hand if they decide they need it.
Develop a partnership with your local mental health/counseling centers and find out what they offer. Suggest that they add a pet loss support group to their services to legitimize grief from pet loss.
Normalize your client’s responses
I once assisted on a euthanasia where a client, who’s pet was on early cognitive decline, said, “I love my pet but I don’t want to get to the point where I don’t like them, so I would like to euthanize now.” I was taken aback at first by the brutal honesty, but this owner knew what they were experiencing. I later was able to share that anecdote with another client who felt relief that someone else “felt the way I am feeling now.”
Perhaps steer your client to some excellent resources on pet bereavement where they can read about the complicated grief they may experience. Normalizing those feelings further can reduce the trauma those feelings often cause. One great resource can be found at https://www.pet-loss.net/handouts.shtml.
Talk about grief from pet loss. The more the profession discusses it, the more it is given legitimacy in society. As this kind of grief is legitimized, proper memorial practices will be in play. Reading and implementing the suggestions within this article and the research incorporated in it is a strong start.
The bottom line
At the end of the day, it is about empathy-based communication with another human being regarding their beloved companion. It is about recognizing the deep pain that is experienced by the person and not looking away but rather acknowledging it. It is about helping them find a path through that pain. Seeing the client and taking the time to communicate with them will help to alleviate negative impacts on both clients and staff members alike.1
Julie Mullins, MA, LPCA, spent 10 years in veterinary medicine before going back to school to complete her education. She received a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and a Masters's degree in Professional Counseling at Liberty University. She has observed the power of the human-animal bond while in the veterinary field and has further witnessed the power of the presence of her own dog, Ed, in the counseling sessions she conducts. Mullins is also a grandmother, runner, business owner, photographer, and a lover of coffee, chocolate, wine, and water.
- Dow MQ, Chur-Hansen A, Hamood W, Edwards S. Impact of dealing with bereaved clients on the psychological wellbeing of veterinarians. Aust Vet J. 2019 Oct;97(10):382-389. doi: 10.1111/avj.12842.
- Remillard LW, Meehan MP, Kelton DF, Coe JB. Exploring the grief experience among callers to a pet loss support hotline. Anthrozoos. 2017 Feb;30(1), 149-191, doi: 10.1080/8927936.20171270600
- Barnard-Nguyen S, Breit M, Anderson KA, Nielsen J. Pet loss and grief: Identifying at-risk pet owners during the euthanasia process. Anthrozoos. 2017 Aug;29(3), 421-430, doi: 10.1080/8927936.2016.1181362
- Spain B, O’Dwyer LA, Moston S. Pet loss: Understanding disenfranchised grief, memorial use, and posttraumatic growth. Anthrozoos. 2019 July;32(4), 555-568, doi: 10/1080/08927936.2019.1621545