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Therapist equates owner grief to family member loss


Albuquerque, N.M.-Pet loss takes an emotional backseat to bereavement for a family member or friend.

Albuquerque, N.M.-Pet loss takes an emotional backseat to bereavement for a family member or friend.

While that's a typical stance among mental health professionals, it's often inaccurate, psychiatric forensic nurse Paul Clements claims.

The recent commentary "Support for Bereaved Owners of Pets" authored by Clements, Ph.D., RN, BC, Kathleen Benasuitti, MCAT, MPH, LPC, and Andy Carmone, MPH, RN, suggests that although society tends to trivialize bereavement of animals, grief surrounding pets missing or found dead often is severe. The article, published in Perspectives of Psychiatric Care, indicates pet-related grief is an area of mental healthcare the counseling profession and medical insurance companies largely ignore.

"My research comes from my work as a therapist dealing with sudden traumatic death and violent loss," Clements says. "The victims aren't always human. Grief is grief. I can say that how family members respond to missing children who are found dead and the responses of people dealing with the death of their animals are not much different."

While it's clear owners and their pets have become increasingly attached, this fact has yet to be integrated into widespread protocols for grief and bereavement, the article says. The media, psychiatrists and veterinarians offer anecdotal reports of grief reactions following the death or disappearance of pets, yet there is a paucity of research on reactions related to pet deaths and even less literature on the topic, Clements says.

Lack of literature

"Most of the literature we found came from the veterinary profession, not the therapeutic arena," he says. "This points directly to society's lack of understanding."

If ignored, grief can become latent and re-emerge years after a pet's death when prompted by family member's death or other traumatic event, Clements says.

Flashback risks

"I'm hearing about this from physicians and counselors," he says. "Children especially get disrupted when another traumatic situation arises and they start to bring up memories of pets that have died or were found dead. Child psychologists are seeing more and more of this."

Such flashbacks, he says, are signs of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by unresolved feelings of depression and anxiety.

"Pets are a parallel for the issue of life or death for kids," Clements says. "Their deaths can be disturbing and prompt tremendous guilt."

The first step to supporting bereaved owners is providing a foundation of acceptance for experiencing grief related to the loss of an animal. Much can be done to increase sensitivity when it comes to the death of a beloved pet, such as offering loss-related literature and a quiet room in the veterinary clinic for owners to grieve. This gives the bereaved license to explore the pet's emotional significance and the bond they shared, thereby starting some of the difficult work that comes with integrating a loss, Clements says.

The veterinarian's role

Normalization is of utmost importance in establishing a therapeutic relationship with a bereaved pet owner, he adds. Minimizing the severity of the loss because the family member is an animal can be catastrophic and damaging, possibly derailing grief and adaptive coping, the commentary says.

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