A family pet fills many roles. People acquire pets for protection, camaraderie, security, and, for those who are disabled, even assistance with physical tasks. But pets have become much more than just servants to their masters. They have been woven into the fabric of the family. For people without children, pets can serve as surrogates, providing something to dote on and care for. Many older individuals adopt a pet when they lose their spouses, thus providing companionship and buffering against feelings of loneliness and isolation. Children tend to bond with pets much as they would with their siblings and parents, with an unconditional love that rivals that of any other attachment. Thus, the epithet “man’s best friend” quite accurately describes how beloved and cherished a pet can be. When a pet dies, the sense of grief and loss can be devastating. But, sadly, many people experience what is known as disenfranchised grief when their pets pass away.
Because a pet is an animal and not a human being, the grief that is felt when a pet dies is not always validated as legitimate grief. Similar to the grief experienced when a person commits suicide or dies from AIDS, the grief felt from the loss of a pet is not overtly recognized in society. Because of this, people who mourn the loss of their pet in secret and do not feel permitted to exhibit the depth of their feelings may have unresolved grief.
Millie Cordaro of the Department of Psychology at Texas State University-Round Rock believes it is essential for counselors to acknowledge a client’s grief and help address it. Cordaro suggests that counselors take direction from general grief scales in order to identify whether a client is at risk for disenfranchised grief. She recommends educating clients about this type of grief and why it occurs. “Giving clients such a psycho-educational overview of disenfranchised grief offers an initial opportunity to affirm and normalize the bereavement,” Cordaro said. Having insight into the process that occurs when clients lose a pet will allow counselors to better help clients overcome such a loss.
Cordaro, Millie. Pet loss and disenfranchised grief: Implications for mental health counseling practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling 34.4 (2012): 283-94. Print.
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