Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief: Implications for Mental Health Counseling Practice

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief: Implications for Mental Health Counseling Practice

Article excerpt

Counselors who acknowledge and validate the implications of pet loss will help to re-enfranchise an undervalued grief. In the article, pet loss is conceptualized using both a traditional model of grief, Kubler-Ross's stages of grief, and two contemporary models of loss adaptation, the dual process model and adaptive grieving. General grief reactions to pet loss are discussed, along with the negative impact of disenfranchised grief for pet bereavement. Finally, I address the use of grief counseling, sell-help, and community resources for bereaved pet owners.


On average, 80 million American households (34.8%) own one or more pet cats or dogs (American Veterinary Medical Association [AVMA], 2007). Pet owners bond closely with their pets (Bonas, McNichols, & Collis, 2000); in fact, in a recent study, college students with high levels of attachment reported a closeness to their pet dogs that equaled the emotional bond to their mothers, best friends, siblings, and significant others (Kurdek, 2008). The attachment bond between people and companion pets can be salient, folding the pet into a family member role (Raup, 1999) or in some cases making them surrogates for children (Cohen, 2002). As with human bonds, attachment to pets can foster a sense of security and well-being and be a buffer against the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression (Doherty & Feeney, 2004; Sable, 1995; Watson & Weinstein, 1993).

Millions of pet owners cope with the inevitable loss of a pet due to death. Given the vital role of pets within family systems (Bowen, 1978; Triebenbacher, 2000), that loss can evoke significant bereavement in pet owners. While the emotional bond forged between companion pets and their owners is increasingly recognized (Sharkin & Knox, 2003) and is reflected by consumer trends (AVMA, 2007), counseling has overlooked pet bereavement--an undervalued grief within society generally (Packman, Field, Carmack, & Ronen, 2011). The purpose of this article is to elucidate (a) the process of coping with grief as experienced by bereaved pet owners; (b) the negative impact of disenfranchised grief on pet bereavement; and (c) the use of grief counseling and other resources for pet loss. While some may dismiss the topic, this article is essentially a call to practitioners to consider pet loss as a normative bereavement process that carries an additional layer of complexity, because societal attitudes toward the death of a pet discourage bereaved pet owners from openly grieving the loss of a beloved companion.


It has been demonstrated that tile strength of attachment to a pet is a predictor of the severity of grief symptoms when the pet dies (Field, Orsini, Gavish, & Packman, 2009). Consequently, people who are more attached to their pets are likely to experience longer and more intense grief reactions (Sharkin & Knox, 2003). When the bonds between a person and a companion pet are strong, the grieving process is likely to be similar to the bereavement experienced with the loss of a family member or significant other (Archer & Winchester, 1994; Field et al., 2009; Podrazik, Shackford, Becker, & Heckert, 2000). Theories of grief can be adapted to articulate grief reactions observed in clients dealing with the death of a pet (Carmack & Packman, 2011; Quackenbush & Graveline, 1985). Given the complexity of grief, its manifestation has been considered in several theories (Parkes, 2001). This article will explore both traditional and contemporary models of grief, and extrapolate from these models the experience of bereavement after the death of a beloved pet.

Kubler-Ross (1969) described grief reactions as progressing in stages: denial, auger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The general population is familiar with this model, but counselors should point out to clients that these stages of grief should not be taken literally (Payne, Jarrett, Wiles, & Field, 2002). …

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