Often times we look to human loss as a way to understand and validate the grief we feel when we lose a beloved companion animal. While we know the grief following the loss of a companion animal follows a pattern similar to human loss, published research has shown that there are variables that set companion animal loss apart from human loss. It’s the differences (not similarities) which can make the loss more difficult then human loss (Corbin, 2006). One such difference is the loss of a companion animal falls under the category of a “Disenfranchised” loss; which is any type of grief or loss not acknowledged by society as being significant of mourning and one that cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.
Our grief becomes disenfranchised when we lose a beloved companion animal because the relationship and bond is not always recognized by society as being significant enough to warrant grieving. There is a false assumption that closeness and love can exist and thrive only between humans, but as a collective group of companion animal lovers we know this couldn’t be further from the truth! People who do not understand the unique bond between a human and companion animal fail to recognize the emotional, psychological and spiritual bonding that occurs and the implications when those bonds are broken through death or other finalities. This failure by family and friends to understand the significance of the relationship leads to marginalizing and isolating bereaved pet owners from psychological supports (typically available after human loss) that serve to help process the loss and facilitate healing. Considering the lack of understanding from society, their are fewer opportunities to openly express and resolve one’s feelings with friends, family and the community which can further alienate those grieving the loss of a companion animal from social interactions and emotional support. This lack of empathy and validation can make us feel shameful or embarrassed about expressing our grief and as a result we may suppress our true feelings and engage in unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope.
Another important difference between grieving the loss of a companion animal and the loss of a human is that grieving pet owners do not have a formal way to publicly memorialize and mourn the loss. Because of this, many grieving pet owners do not think to engage in commemorative services such as; funerals, wakes, life celebrations, memorial services, visitations etc. Having the opportunity to engage in some form of ritual to remember the deceased is a necessary component to the grieving process as it offers the opportunity to; express affection and gratitude to the deceased, provides emotional comfort, is an opportunity to share sorrow, talk about the loss, get sympathy and support from others, serves to concretize the loss, and helps to facilitate the grieving process. Because the healing aspect of memorializing our companion animals is not readily available, there can be serious implications on accepting the finality of the death and serves to create a sense of isolation and loneliness that is not typically experienced during human loss or at least not to the same degree.
While by no means an exhaustive list, the factors discussed above differentiate companion animal loss from human loss and answers the question of why the grieving process can be extremely difficult for some. Though we may find ourselves processing through similar “stages” of grief as we would for human loss, it is the disenfranchised nature of the relationship, bond, loss, and mourning which gives rise to increased emotional and psychological difficulties.
A Phenomenological Study of Canine Loss and Grief Response: Clinical and Depth Psychological Implications (Corbin, J. 2006).
And I Love You Still…A Thoughtful Guide and Remembrance Journal for Healing the Loss of a Pet (Corbin, J., 2020).