There are words associated with pet bereavement that you may want clarified or perhaps you will be able to identify with a certain type of grief. Although we would not recommend self diagnosis please use the following as a reference to the type of grief you may be experiencing.
Unfortunately it is commonly experienced by the majority of pet carers. Pet bereavement falls under the banner of disenfranchised grief – the definition: a grief that is not openly acknowledged or accepted by society or worthy of grieving for. Pet carers can experience disenfranchised grief throughout the period of bereavement, and for many years after, leaving them feeling isolated, ashamed, vulnerable and often too embarrassed to talk of their loss.
Pet carers experience the effects of disenfranchised grief due to the reaction from family, friends, work colleagues and acquaintances. Pet bereavement counsellors should always be aware of the effects of disenfranchised grief on the pet carer as it has proved to be a barrier for many pet carers reaching out for support during bereavement resulting in prolonged, complex and cumulative grief.
When we speak of grief it is in reference to a death in the past, whereas anticipatory grief is associated with a death in the future i.e. the death is anticipated. Grieving begins prior to the death of a pet, for example when a vet tells the pet carer that their pet is terminally ill or that they should consider euthanasia to prevent or end suffering. Pet carers involved in their pets’ palliative care suffer from anticipatory grief, which can result in the pet carer being overwhelmed physically and emotionally throughout this period. Living in a state of limbo, the pet carer may experience many of the symptoms associated with grieving.
Grieving is a perfectly normal and natural reaction to loss or death, manifesting in a number of ways both physically and emotionally, for anyone (or pet), that we have an emotional attachment to. Pet carers experience a range of emotions and physical reactions as they move forward through bereavement, before accepting their loss and adjusting to a new life without their pet. They may recognise the signs and symptoms of grief, accept them for what they are without additional or further complications in their lives that may impact the natural process. After the initial 2 or 3 months of bereavement, a pet carer can experience bouts of grief for up to a year after their pets death, due to memorable dates or anniversaries associated with their pet. It is widely accepted that for some pet carers after a period of grieving, their sadness will ease naturally and they can move forward.
Intuitive grieving is easily identified as the emotional reactions we usually associate with grieving. It is where the pet carer will express how they are feeling and openly display emotion - especially crying.
The pet carer may focus on the more practical aspects of dealing with bereavement, and show little, if any emotion, and be thinking about how their life will be affected in the future. This type of grieving may come across as uncaring and indifferent, none of which is true.
In days gone by, it was accepted by society that the reaction a man or woman had to death could be identified as intuitive or instrumental. However, this is simply not true, gender has no bearing whatsoever on how someone will grieve.
There are many theories as to what constitutes complex grieving – time, external influences, the manner of death, being overwhelmed by emotions, the bond, support a pet carer has around them by way of family & friends, coping capabilities of the pet carer and so on. As a rule of thumb, you will find that most pet carers who seek out pet bereavement counselling generally have other, often stressful, issues occurring in their life.
At the time their pet died they may or may not be aware that those issues can and do affect their grieving. Those most at risk are those who live alone with little or no support by way of family or friends, elderly, those with financial worries, the loss of an assistance dog, those already diagnosed with clinical depression, or those who have recently suffered job loss/redundancy, divorce or have housing problems.
Cumulative grief is exactly what it says – it is one loss after another or multiple losses in a relatively short period of time, resulting in the pet carer having to suppress emotions from one loss, whilst dealing with the emotions of the current loss. It is not uncommon for a pet carer to suffer from cumulative grief because it does not just apply to the loss of companion animals it includes the loss of humans.
For many pet carers all grief is traumatic, however for the purposes of definition we are defining traumatic grief in relation to a sudden death for example if a pet is killed in a road traffic accident, or dies suddenly (heart attack or kidney failure) with or without prior history of illness. The emotions a pet carer experiences, if left unaddressed, can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can only be diagnosed by a qualified practitioner.
Prolonged or Unresolved Grief
When someone is suffering from prolonged grief they are not accepting of their loss or are consumed with thoughts of their pet often many years after the death. Prolonged grief is different from depression. They may have been ‘trapped’ in a particular aspect of their grief and without the appropriate support or counselling have been unable to find acceptance of their loss or adjust to a new ‘normal’ way of life without their pet.
Ambiguous loss is the term used when supporting someone who’s pet is missing or stolen. When a pet is missing or stolen there may be no conclusion, they do not know if their pet is dead or alive. This is often thought to be the most difficult loss to come to terms with.
Dawn Murray's new book 'An Introduction to Pet Bereavement Counselling' is now available to buy on Amazon. This is a must have reference book for anyone who supports or counsels others through pet bereavement.