Bereavement in animal owners and disenfranchised grief

I’ve been inspired to write this blog by a Facebook group for the owners of horses with Cushings disease. I’ve been a member of the group for some years, mostly lurking, but reading the posts with interest.
Over the last year it seems that many of us in the group have lost our beloved horses after much care, love and management of this tricky disease. Recently, one member posted twice in one week. Both posts told of her heartbreak at loosing one of her horses. She lost two, unexpectedly, in one week- that’s a lot of trauma and a lot of grief.
I’ve been reading a lot about grief in animal owners in recent months. It was all prompted by a cutting from a professional journal that my friend and vet sent me. So, I thought I might share, in some short blogs, some of the information I have come across.
Lots of studies, over many years, have looked at how humans grieve when they loose someone close to them, but little attention has been paid to the bereavement processes for humans who loose animals. What literature is out there will probably not be a surprise to many of us who have loved and lost animals.
The grief experienced when an animal dies is often, for those who were attached to it, much the same as a bereavement reaction when a close human dies. Sometimes it can be more deeply felt and experienced. There are several issues that make grief for an animal more tricky.
One of these is that often other people don’t recognise the owner’s grief, or think that they are just being silly and sentimental. It’s common to be told that, “it was only an animal” or “you can get another one.” It is not unusual for a grief reaction for an animal to be considered as a sign of mental illness or instability.
All of this can lead to what is called ‘disenfranchised grief’ – when an individual is bereaved but can’t express it or explain it to others, but instead has to keep it bottled up inside. How lonely and difficult this must be. And how unhealthy. Rather than the expression of grief for a lost animal being a sign of illness, the suppression, due to disenfranchised grief, of those deep feelings is much more likely to cause emotional damage and mental health problems.
So, the ‘Equine Cushings Disease Horses’ Facebook group looks like it has a very important function as, in addition to all the practical support and sharing of ideas, it allows horse owners to openly express their feelings before and after the loss of their equine companions. With each post that tells of sadness, grief and bewilderment as another horse dies there are many replies offering kind words, support, warmth and virtual hugs.
That very special group is a superb example of how, when at its best, social media can be connecting and helpful.