Monday, May 11, 2020

Pet Loss: When Social Support Is Lacking

[Reviewed and updated January 15, 2023]

We don't heal in isolation, but in community. 
~ S. Kelley Harrell

A reader writes:  As one who loves my companion animal and thinks of him as a family member, I am especially interested in the issue of moral/social support. If my husband were to be diagnosed with leukemia, I would be flooded with cards, flowers, and casseroles from family and friends. But if my cat is diagnosed with feline leukemia, it would hardly register a blip on the consciousness of even my closest friends and family members.
A dear friend of mine is enduring criticism from her boss because she needs several Tuesdays off in a row to arrange for her dog's chemotherapy treatments. How can pet parents handle this lack of support? What do you think we should do in the face of outright criticism or hostility?

My response: It is unfortunate that oftentimes animal lovers must deal not only with the difficulties of caring for their sick pets but also with the ignorant, sometimes cruel reactions of others who treat their concerns as invalid, insignificant and even dysfunctional ("it's just a dog" or "it's only a cat" or "you can always get another pet").

If someone needs time off to care for a sick cat or dog or whatever the animal may be, I would suggest that when they make the request, they refer to their pet instead as "a close family member" or "dear friend" without giving any further details.

When people encounter this sort of ignorance or outright hostility from others, I encourage them to seek the support they need elsewhere, from those they already know will respect and understand their attachment to their pets. When you're in need of support and understanding, there's no sense trying to explain to a non-animal person why you are so attached to your pet.

By nature, humans are social beings, and mourning is an interpersonal process.  When death touches someone we love, whether that is a person or a cherished animal companion, we naturally feel a need to be with others who understand because their experiences are similar to our own, and we feel a need to tell our stories of loss. Unfortunately, we still live in a death-denying culture, and most of us have grown up with little if any exposure to death and dying (most people still die in hospitals and nursing homes, and their remains are whisked off to funeral homes ~ it all takes place somewhere other than at home), and we've had little experience and training in how to manage grief.

We don't live in tribes, villages or small towns anymore (where everyone knew everyone else and we knew what was going on in one another's lives), and if we don't live near extended family, we may not have people around us who know enough about us to be with us in our losses. When someone close to us dies, the people we encounter every day (at work, at the cleaners, the grocery store, the post office, etc.) know little or nothing about us and our losses, or what the deceased pet or person meant to us ~ so they don't know what we need or how to respond to us.

I think this is why support groups appeal to us and why they can be so helpful to so many when we're grieving. It's also true that most bereavement support groups are designed to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible (i.e., offered at no cost, and at times and locations that are convenient), so they cut across social boundaries. Today more organizations than ever before are offering support groups: hospices, mortuaries, churches, etc., so there are more available now than ever before. And then there is the Internet, which offers all kinds of information, comfort and support to those who are grieving very specific types of losses (loss of a spouse, partner, parent/grandparent, child/grandchild, sibling, pet, etc.) in the form of websites, chat rooms, discussion groups, grief forums and message boards. Internet groups are limited to those with access to computers and those who are connected to the world wide web, but still this is a whole other social system that didn't even exist just a few years ago. Having grown by leaps and bounds, it enables grieving individuals to obtain information, compare experiences with others and get needed validation without even having to leave home to go to a group.

Groups offer grieving people a place to tell their stories of loss, to discuss their reactions and frustrations, to learn what normal grief looks and feels like, to discover new coping skills, to consider their changing identities, to discover what they have in common, to be with and feel supported by other people, to learn social skills they may have forgotten or not used in a very long time, to share information, resources and problem-solving techniques, and to be encouraged and inspired by seeing others cope.

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH 

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