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Overcoming the social stigma of losing a pet: Considerations for counseling professionals

By Dr. Michelle Crossley and Colleen Rolland | 

Abstract

During the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals found themselves spending more time with their pets and relied on them to maintain normalcy and provide security during isolation. Pets play a significant role in the lives of their caregivers, taking on different attachment roles depending on the needs of the individual. Grieving the death of a pet continues to be disenfranchised in society. Perceptions of judgment can lead individuals to grieve the loss without social support. The present review builds on research in the field of pet loss and human bereavement and factors in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human-animal attachment A goal of the present review is to provide counselors with perspectives to consider in their practice when working with clients who have attachments to their companion animals and to acknowledge the therapeutic benefits of working through the grief process to resolution as a way to continue the bond with a deceased pet.

Overcoming the social stigma of losing a pet: Considerations for counseling professionals

The stigma associated with openly grieving a loss can complicate the healing process. With life comes death and therefore, it is reasonable to expect that clients will come in to discuss important losses in therapy sessions, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While empathy may come more naturally when discussing human loss, there are other types of loss that are not acknowledged or given a similar amount of attention by society. Grief due to these socially unendorsed losses is referred to as disenfranchised grief and can include death by suicide, a lost pregnancy/miscarriage, and death from AIDS (Lenhardt, 1997) in addition to the death of a pet (Attig, 2004Cordaro, 2012Sife, 2014). Doka (2008) defined disenfranchised grief as a grief reaction after a loss that is important to the individual though unacknowledged as important enough to grieve or ask for social support from society. When relationships are not valued by society, individuals are more likely to experience disenfranchised grief after a loss that cannot be resolved and may become complicated grief. It is important for counselors to recognize their own biases regarding the types of losses that are worth an empathetic response as individuals are better able to heal from a loss through social support and recognition (Cordaro, 2012). This article will focus specifically on the complex nature of losing a pet based on the roles ascribed to the animal companion and the importance of resolving grief through individuals openly seeking support as they would a human death.
 
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (2018), in the United States, 57% of households owned a pet with 66% owning more than one companion animal. Of the individuals surveyed, approximately 80% consider their pets to be family members, 17% consider them to be a companion and only 3% consider them property. The data indicate that more individuals were choosing companion animals even before the pandemic; a poll by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA, 2021) noted that 19% of individuals acquired a cat or dog during the pandemic. With the increase of individuals and families obtaining a companion animal, it is expected that as we move away from remote work and companion animals age, we will need to discuss pet loss more than ever before.
 
The pet loss grief response can be exacerbated and intensified by a multitude of factors (Gosse and Barnes, 1994), especially as many pet owners ascribe human characteristics to their pets (Field et al., 2009). The attachment bond and meanings of the human-animal relationship create complexities in the loss of the companion animal, and the grieving that follows this loss, as it can be as traumatic as the grief one experiences from the loss of a family member (Brown et al., 1996Field et al., 2009) or even more in some cases than a human (Eckerd et al., 2016Sife, 2014). One factor that complicates one’s psychological well-being after this loss is the belief of others that pets are not worthy of being grieved over because a companion animal may be viewed as replaceable, whereas a human is not (Crossley, 2013Sife, 2014). The stigma associated with pet loss, compounded by the feeling of losing a part of the family, can lead individuals to avoid openly grieving the loss of their companion animals and can intensify symptoms of depression (Sife, 2014). The major goals of this review are to provide counselors with an aspect to consider in their therapeutic work with clients dealing with grief and loss, present different factors that may impact how one grieves the loss of a pet, and discuss considerations for counseling that can be utilized to foster a supportive and non-judgmental space where clients’ expressions of grief are validated.

Understanding pet loss

Defining the human-animal bond and how different factors may impact such a bond can inform a counselor’s therapeutic response to clients who experience this type of loss. The human-animal bond can be simply stated as the interaction that a human has with a non-human animal and the nature of the relationship between the human and animal (Beck and Katcher, 2003). Given this bond, pets can provide emotional attachment bonds that help promote security and well-being (Sharkin and Knox, 2003Sife, 2014). As with many other relationships, it is believed that one’s level of attachment can impact the grief that one experiences following the loss of an important figure (Brown et al., 1996Field et al., 2009Gosse and Barnes, 1994Margolies, 1999Podrazik et al., 2000Sife, 2014). Pets may also serve a function to individuals whose interpersonal relationships are lower in quality and therefore, the bond formed between the individual and the pet can be a strong one, where the pets occupy traditional human roles because they evoke similar patterns of emotions for the human (Field et al., 2009Sife, 2014).
 
Since humans can form an attachment bond with an animal that is similar to one with a human, the grieving process can also be seen as similar. Losing a pet can be an isolating experience for many. Not only is the individual stressed and possibly depressed, but many individuals do not feel comfortable openly grieving the loss of their pet due to societal pressure, even more so for males (Crossley, 2013Field et al., 2009Sife, 2014). The literature points to varying levels of grief experienced by individuals. Researchers have attempted to answer the question as to why this phenomenon occurs in relation to the strength of attachment of pet owners (Brown et al., 1996Field et al., 2009Gosse and Barnes, 1994Margolies, 1999Podrazik et al., 2000).
 
It is believed that the more an individual feels attached to their companion animal, the more severe the grieving process will be (Sife, 2014). Counselors are tasked with understanding the unique relationship between clients and their companion animals (Barton-Ross and Baron-Sorenson, 2007Hess-Holden et al., 2017). For counselors who have not had this type of bond with a pet, there may be biases about recovering from this type of disenfranchised grief; these biases must be explored and bracketed before working with a client grieving from pet loss. Without providing time and space to heal and resolve the pain associated with the death of a pet, a counselor can cause more pain to the client by not understanding or honoring the depth of the bond shared between the client and the pet (Sife, 2014). The distress that one can experience secondary to the loss of a companion animal can be intense, and it is critical to serving these clients in the same manner that we would have had they been grieving the loss of a human.

Background of pet loss and human bereavement

The statistics on pet ownership (AVMA, 2018) provide evidence that the number of households that are acquiring companion animals continues to increase and has significantly increased with required isolation due to COVID-19 (ASPCA, 2021). As the shift to remote work and quarantine occurred, the relationship and time spent with companion animals increased (Bussolari et al., 2021). While many pet owners already considered their companion animal a part of the family, and experienced serious grief when they died (Brown et al. 1996Dunn et al., 2005Hunt et al., 2008Field et al., 2009Gosse and Barnes, 1994Pointon, 2006Walsh, 2009aWrobel and Dye, 2003) given the length of the “new normal” since the pandemic began, we can expect to see more reports of intense grief as individuals’ pets die. Social norms of grieving impact how an individual will mourn the death of their companion animal if they feel comfortable openly mourning them at all (Field et al., 2009). Resolving loss in isolation or without support can intensify strong depressive feelings for the bereaved (Cordaro, 2012). Having a safe space to discuss the meanings associated with the companion-animal relationship is beneficial for moving through the loss in a supportive environment, leading to the resolution of the pain of the loss.
 
Findings from companion animal attachment research over the past 30 years suggest that individuals do form attachment bonds with their pets (Barton-Ross and Baron-Sorenson, 2007). Bowlby’s (1969) work acknowledged that when attachments are no longer available, a certain level of distress may be expected. Given that companion animals have a shorter life expectancy than humans, it is not uncommon for the death of a companion animal to not only be the first encounter one has with death but is also something that can happen multiple times in one’s lifetime (Sife, 2014). The grieving process is an important experience that one must face when the death of an important relationship occurs and a factor that has been found to impact this process is one’s level of attachment (Bowlby, 1969, 1982). Researchers have investigated if attachment theory can also be used as a predictor for the grieving process of losing a companion animal (Brown et al., 1996Field et al., 2009Gosse and Barnes, 1994Margolies, 1999Podrazik et al., 2000) and the findings have suggested that the stronger the attachment to companion animals, the more severe the grieving process will be parallelling findings of grief associated with losing a human (Eckerd et al., 2016). Understanding a client’s strength of attachment to a companion animal can equip counselors with a hypothesis of how devastating a change in the relationship will be in the future.

ATTACHMENT AND LOSS

Much of what is understood about the reaction to the loss of an important companion animal bond is informed by literature about attachment and grief. Attachment theory describes an emotional bond to another person and explains the connectedness between human beings (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980). These bonds are typically formed in the earlier years between children and their caregivers and can have a great impact on fostering secure relationships throughout the lifespan. Attachment, as it was originally studied, described how an individual will navigate their environment and relationships with other individuals (anxiously, securely, or avoidantly) based on their perceptions of safety and security in that environment. Researchers have linked attachment theory to the relationship one has with their companion animal (Brown et al., 1996Field et al., 2009Gosse and Barnes, 1994Margolies, 1999Podrazik et al., 2000) as well as to the nature of the relationship and reasons for pet ownership (Pointon, 2006Sharkin and Knox, 2003). Investigators have attempted to determine if the type of attachment style (Field et al., 2009) or the strength of attachment bond (Brown et al., 1996Field et al., 2009Gosse and Barnes, 1994Serpell, 1996Walsh, 2009aWrobel and Dye, 2003) of individuals in relation to the death of their companion animals can effectively determine the level of stress and grief experienced. The findings suggest that the stronger the attachment bond and role of the companion animal, the more devastating the loss of the pet will be for the owner.
 
Bowlby’s work on attachment posited that as certain attachments end there would be an imbalance in perceptions of safety within environments (Bowlby, 1980); humans work to maintain these relationships to live in balance and with safety in mind (Zentella, 2009). The understanding that life is finite and reasonable consequences can be expected after an important relationship is lost, be it by death or other types of loss (Applebaum et al., 2020Sife, 2014) is helpful in our understanding of how clients will react to the end of the relationship. The early study of death and dying has provided pet loss professionals with a basis for understanding how one will respond to the death of a companion animal. Grief is a response that one experiences after a major loss, or perhaps death. The Kübler-Ross model was created as a way to understand and cope with dying (Burglass, 2010) and describes five stages that one will encounter when experiencing a loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages do not always happen in that order and not every individual who experiences a loss will encounter each stage. The time one spends in a particular stage is not consistent either; individual differences cause the process to differ across grieving persons. This model can be used in relation to an emotional response to trauma and is not necessarily and exclusively related to death. Some say that the loss or death of a companion animal can evoke the five stages of grief that also surface secondarily to the loss of an individual (Brown et al., 1996Field et al., 2009).
 
There are many specific pet loss models of grief that have been developed since Kübler-Ross’ work, just as other models of grief and mourning have been applied to pet loss. Cordaro’s (2012) work provides an overview of not only Kübler-Ross’ model but also loss adaptation models (the dual-process model and adaptive grieving styles) in an effort to conceptualize pet loss and grief through a thorough application of the models to this specific type of disenfranchised grief. Having a basis for understanding ways in which individuals may process their grief provides opportunities for others to develop theories specific to pet loss. While many of the models overlap with previously mentioned models of grief and loss, they present factors unique to the experiences of an individual who is tasked with keeping their companion animal safe.
 
Models specific to pet loss arrive at similar ideas about the processes one may go through soon after a loss. One model that presents the grief process as a cycle was developed by Blue Cross for Pets in the U.K. (D. James, personal communication, March 8, 2021). The Blue Cross for Pets Grief Cycle starts with anticipatory grief where expressions of shock and denial are common; this type of grief is difficult as individuals are preparing for something that will be painful rather than dealing with the pain of something that has already happened. Self-blame is common in responsibility grief; here individuals hover in the mental space of what more they could have done to extend the time with their pet. Anger and bargaining are usually directed at the veterinary professionals providing care during this difficult time. Attention to physical symptoms comes at the onset of depression, reflection, and loneliness. This is also a time when an individual is adapting to a new lifestyle, one that is a little lonelier with more time to honor the memories of the deceased. Once through these stages, individuals will begin to socialize more by making new beginnings and move toward deeper healing through fostering acceptance and hope.
 
Other pet loss models represent stage models similar to Kübler-Ross’ work. Barton-Ross and Baron-Sorenson (2007) describe their model to include the stages of denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, sorrow, and resolution. The Stages of Bereavement (Sife, 2014) describe similar stages and processes that serve as a roadmap for what an individual may experience after the loss of a pet. Sife’s stages of pet loss include shock, disbelief, and denial, anger, alienation, and distancing, guilt, depression, and resolution. While Sife is credited for developing this model in the early 1990s it has had revisions along the way. One particular note about these models is that the language moves away from closure and more toward a resolution of the grief associated with the death of a companion animal. Through resolution, individuals are able to reorganize a relationship with the deceased (Field, 2008) and find comfort through displaying continuing bond expressions (Packman et al., 2011).

Understanding pet loss grief

Conceptualizing how an individual will grieve a loss depending on the strength of their attachment is helpful in counseling. Pets can play a significant role in the lives of their caregivers; especially more so since the start of the pandemic. The onset of the pandemic and the need for quarantine and isolation from other humans changed the amount of time that people were spending with their companion animals, therefore intensifying the relationship and bond (Applebaum et al., 2020Bussolari et al., 2021). Past research has shown that some people believe that their companion animals serve as a support system in their lives (Flom, 2005; Hara, 2007Murphy, 2006Pointon, 2006Schneider, 2005Watt and Pachana, 2007), and others consider their pets to be a member of the family (Hara, 2007Knight and Edwards, 2008Murphy, 2006Walsh, 2009b). The role that the companion animal serves for an individual can impact the intensity in which one grieves when the relationship ends or changes in some way.

COMPANION ANIMAL ROLES

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a change not only in the number of people adopting new pets (ASPCA, 2021) but also in the amount of time that individuals spent with their pets (Bussolari et al., 2021). As some individuals shifted to remote work and school and others lost their jobs, pets served a different role; they were now co-workers and full-time companions. Pets are known to be therapeutic to their caregivers, offering psychological, physical, and social well-being (Murphy, 2006Pointon, 2006). During this unprecedented time, individuals were spending more time with their pets while also navigating threats to their own safety as well as physical and mental health (Bussolari et al., 2021Mueller et al., 2021). The responsibility of pet ownership helped to mitigate loneliness for some by allowing for a sense of normalcy by taking the pet for a walk (Lee et al., 2022) and the increase in time spent at home strengthened the bond with their pets (Bussolari et al., 2021). While most of the research post-pandemic points to the positive impact of living with pets has had on individuals, it has also contributed to individuals refusing medical care due to the concern of what will happen to the pet if the owner dies (Applebaum et al., 2020).
 
A dual caregiver relationship between companion animals and human is not new; wall paintings of dogs helping humans navigate their environment date back to the Common Era of the 1st Century (Brown, 2019). Since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, service animals have been recognized to provide physical assistance and safety and share the role of caregivers to their owners. Animals are trained to assist individuals with daily functioning, especially those who are blind, wheelchair-bound, may be apt to have seizures, have food allergies, or have other medical and/or mental health conditions. The time and resources to train service animal factors into the importance of the human-animal bond. Individuals are tasked with recognizing traits for suitable service animals as an important first step in the process of training such animals, as well as the teamwork between the animals and trainers (Lucidi et al., 2005). The relationship one has with a service animal is one built on trust—the human relies on their service animal to safely navigate the world around them. Individuals who rely on guide or service dogs have varying types of loss that they can experience secondary to their companion animals, most likely anticipatory loss. Schneider (2005) highlights the three goodbyes that owners of service animals must face: the decision-making goodbye, the working relationship goodbye, and the goodbye of death. As service animals age, they become less able to provide the needed services that were once rendered to their owners. Since human life expectancy traditionally exceeds that of a service animal, death is expected due to illness or old age (Schneider, 2005Van de Pol, n.d.). Service animal owners are likely to experience loss multiple times over the course of their life. As can be imagined, the bond that one has with a service animal is powerful and, therefore, losing that helper can be devastating for any reason.
 
Adolescents (Flom, 2005) and elderly persons (McGlogan and Schofield, 2007Watt and Pachana, 2007Knight and Edwards, 2008Rock and Babinec, 2010Winefield et al., 2008) find a social support system with companion animals. For these specific populations, the bond with pets can provide a range of benefits. Important life lessons and relationship skills can be learned, across the lifespan, when owning a companion animal. Children can benefit from the experience of pet ownership—as it can teach them responsibility and allow them to have a friend, confidant, and security base (Wanser et al., 2019). Pets are non-judgmental and accepting and children are able to share their emotions with them. This can help children increase their emotional control and expression (Sato et al., 2019), increase social competence, communication, and play (Purewal et al., 2017), and develop a positive sense of self (Bodsworth and Coleman, 2001) as well as self-esteem and purpose (Vidović et al., 1999) when caring for the pet. Companion animals for older individuals allow for a balance between an independent lifestyle and emotional dependence on their pets (Hara, 2007). Older individuals live alone more often and owning a companion animal can be seen to provide social support and companionship in the absence of others (McGlogan and Schofield, 2007Watt and Pachana, 2007). In addition to social support and companionship, there are many benefits that can be seen as secondary to pet ownership, such as increasing exercise and illness prevention (Knight and Edwards, 2008) and having positive effects on human health (Rock and Babinec, 2010).
 
Pets are oftentimes seen as family members by their owners and are treated and sometimes pampered as such. Some owners even take the time to shop at trendy bakeries and buy high-end clothing, toys, and beds for their “fur babies” (Greenebaum, 2004). The bonds that owners form with their animals create this family-like relationship in many cases. Companion animals can be seen as surrogate children or grandchildren and make the lives of their owners richer and more fulfilling (Knight and Edwards, 2008). When working with families, it is important that the role of the pet within the family be identified (Barton-Ross and Baron-Sorenson, 2007). Not only do pet owners benefit and react to the behavior of their companion animals, but companion animals can oftentimes react to the stress and anxiety of the family (Walsh, 2009b).

TYPES OF LOSS

Pets within one’s life can lead to many, many years of joy and well-being. Many times, the death of a pet is the first experience a child may have with death and dying. For older individuals who may have experienced the death of many loved ones and friends, the death of a pet can be something that is seen as a component of the cycle of life. While death is the ultimate loss and end of a relationship, other scenarios lead to a separation between the individual and pet leading to grief and bereavement (Gitterman and Knight, 2019). These other types of loss can include forced removal or relinquishment of the pet for housing and/or safety reasons, ownership changes with divorce or romantic relationships that end, and missing and lost pets (Sife, 2014).
 
As work and school settings go back to in-person, individuals may be grappling with their own anxieties about leaving their pets at home (Sicurella, 2021). The human-animal bond has received more attention since the onset of the pandemic; with results pointing to both the positive and negative aspects of the time spent with pets. As these relationships have shifted and changed over the past two years, it is assumed that there will be anxiety and guilt on the part of humans who need to return to in-person work and school settings. Some companies have attempted to get ahead of these anxieties for their workers by allowing pets to come to the office as more businesses re-open (Case, 2021). In a poll, 24% of respondents indicated that they are concerned about how their pet will respond to their return to work out of the home and 27% reported that it was likely they would suffer emotionally with their return to work (Halpin, 2021). These reports underscore the fact that even without death, the attachments developed through quarantine have strengthened the bond and individuals are concerned about how their pets and themselves will respond to the loss of their pandemic routine.
 
The grief associated with pet loss has been highlighted during tragic weather events; namely in the wake of natural disasters. The need to abandon a pet due to a natural disaster has been further studied since Hurricane Katrina leading to positive changes in policies requiring relief shelters and hotels to make special accommodations for individuals fleeing with companion animals (Barton-Ross and Baron-Sorenson, 2007). Research has pointed to the psychological effects experienced by post-natural disasters can be great due to the loss of companion animals (Hunt et al., 2008Lowe et al., 2009). Hunt et al. (2008) found that the impact of pet loss can be long-term as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, or short-term as seen with acute stress and peritraumatic dissociation. In these cases, the development of a PTSD diagnosis can be accounted for by the trauma that is experienced secondary to having to abandon their animals. If emergency agencies were prepared to help find suitable shelters for pets in order to reunite owners with their companion animals, there could be an added level of relief and support for victims of natural disasters. Lowe et al. (2009) also found that a stressful situation, such as a natural disaster, can be exacerbated when individuals must abandon their support system as they will be less able to emotionally get through this life-altering event. Recognizing the importance of keeping companion animals safe and/or with their owners during these events, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) created the Pet Giving Network through collaboration with Greater Good Charities to connect the pet care community with frontline rescuers helping pets to lessen the distress for pets and people (HABRI, 2021).

WORKING THROUGH PET LOSS AND HUMAN BEREAVEMENT

How society views pet ownership and the grief that pet owners can experience after a loss impacts the bereavement process (Cordaro, 2012). Addressing the sociological understanding of companion animals in the lives of their owners is an important component that counselors must assess when creating treatment plans for individuals who are grieving such a loss (Morley and Fook, 2005). Counselors are trained to employ skills that help clients resolve challenges in their lives. In order to better identify clients who have strong attachments with their pets, these types of relationships should be assessed at initial intakes with clients (Barton-Ross and Baron-Sorenson, 2007Donohue, 2005). Additionally, counselors are able to deliver a range of inventories to assess the connectedness between a pet and the client (Uccheddu et al., 2019Zilcha-Mano et al., 2011) to get more information about how attached they are to their pets and the roles pets are ascribed.
 
When an individual loses a pet, it can be a traumatic experience, especially given the strength of attachment, the role the pet played in the life of the individual, as well as the circumstances and type of loss. While some stage models look to address the grieving process with an end-point of closure, this does not provide individuals with the opportunity to continue the bond with the lost family member; resolution in this case better addresses the need to maintain a connection with the departed pet (Field et al., 2009Sife, 2014). For some, resolution can lead owners to seek out religious ceremonies to honor, bless, and celebrate the life of the pet, further proving how animals are seen as members of the family unit (Holak, 2008). Children will, most likely, experience the loss of a pet early on and it can be their first experience with death, whereas elderly individuals may have experienced many previous losses in their lifetime (Kastenbaum, 2009); for the reasons provided previously, individuals in these cases may experience heightened grief after the loss of a pet.
 
Different strategies have been studied to assist grieving pet owners with the process of loss. Dunn et al. (2005) developed a bereavement support group for pet owners who were experiencing grief in a veterinary hospital setting. While the use of teaching hospitals can be frequent, these facilities are not always equipped to help pet owners through the difficult process of having to euthanize or treat a terminal illness. The creation of support groups for individuals can be a great benefit in the early stages of healing from the loss (Hess-Holden et al., 2017). Dunn et al. (2005) found that the support group allowed the clients to get through a very difficult time by sharing their stories and becoming a support system for other members of the group. Without similar groups, either within or outside the veterinary hospitals, it is difficult for pet owners to fully heal from the grief they experience secondary to losing their pets. Society does not always recognize how important and detrimental the loss can be to an owner, and therefore support groups are an added benefit to the pet owner population (Hess-Holden et al., 2017Sife, 2014).
 
Morley and Fook’s (2005) research was pivotal in recognizing the importance of providing services to grieving pet owners; although this phenomenon has received support in the literature, grieving the loss of a pet is still trivialized in today’s society (Cordaro, 2012). It is important that society stop defining the human-pet relationship in comparison to human relationships because it can cause additional stress to grieving individuals and misunderstanding the experiences of those who lose companion animals. Radical changes need to take place in order to help resolve this issue because more and more pet owners will experience the loss of their pets in the future. As with many stressors and given the increase of individuals adopting “pandemic pets”, it is likely that counselors will have clients come in to discuss their reactions to loss, and providing space and resources is needed.

Pet loss interventions

Giving a voice to individuals grieving a disenfranchised loss is one way in which counselors can help clients through pet loss. It is also important to integrate pet loss work into counseling interventions and coping strategies that are already being used in the therapeutic space. While cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective in grief work, clients may not be in a space when they are early in their grief to challenge the thoughts and beliefs they have about the loss. It has been noted that group counseling can be an effective strategy to navigate the anxiety, guilt, and depression that one experiences after the loss of a pet (Dunn et al., 2005; Turner, 2003). Group counseling practices that are facilitated by empathetic leaders are helpful to those navigating difficult life events as being around others in similar situations normalizes the emotional response one has and makes the experience less isolating (Jordan and Neimeyer, 2003), however, with the disenfranchised nature of pet loss grief individuals may be less likely to participate due to fear of judgment. For this reason, the use of web-based chatrooms where individuals are able to read and write messages simultaneously while reducing the stress associated with speaking about a topic (Bohlke, 2003); in this case, pet loss chatrooms can be a healing space for those working through their grief.
 
Other interventions that can be incorporated when working through the loss of a pet come from expressive therapy practice. Play therapy can be helpful for individuals who lack the cognitive or emotional ability to fully process their experiences with grief and loss (Webb, 2011). Counselors can engage both children and adults who are navigating pet loss by providing them with supplies and space to paint, draw, or use figures to draw out their anxieties and fears about the loss. Other expressive approaches can be helpful in the process of healing that Attig (1996, as cited in Bowman, 2021) describes as relearning the world after an important loss. Therapeutic storytelling, narrative therapy, and bibliotherapy is a technique that is used to build the foundation from which a counselor can work (Bowman, 2021). There are a number of books that counselors can provide for their clients to read in addition to their grief work; this can be especially helpful for children who are grasping the ideas of death and dying. Other techniques, such as letter writing or role-playing can be beneficial as well. For example, a counselor may invite their client to write a letter to their companion animal as well as a letter from the companion animal to the client to resolve any guilt that is being experienced or conduct a role play to diffuse any anger they may be feeling.

Considerations for counselors

Given statistics on pet ownership (AVMA, 2018ASPCA, 2021), the potential for counselors to work with clients who are experiencing intense distress over the loss of a companion animal is very likely, and the counseling profession is challenged to be prepared to help these clients through the grieving process just as they would if the lost loved ones were humans. Additionally, counselors are tasked with utilizing counseling strategies that align with the phenomenon surrounding the type of loss experienced and outside factors impacting their psychological well-being (Barton-Ross and Baron-Sorenson, 2007). It is in the accepting and understanding counseling space that bereaved pet owners are able to foster resolution; promoting adaptive coping and becoming invested once again in life (Clements et al., 2003). Resolution can be a vehicle for continuing the bond and relationship with a companion animal and honoring the time that was spent together as a way to continue a connection with the deceased pet (Podrazik et al., 2000).
 
The human-animal bond has been receiving increasing attention for approximately 30 years now, and even though it has emerged as an important component in counseling practice how to navigate distress when that bond ends has not received an adequate amount of attention. Many in the helping profession recognize the impact that losing companion animals can have on individuals; however, there is not enough support and education about how to best address this in counseling. There are many gaps in the current literature on helping individuals with pet loss and human bereavement. Given the time since the COVID-19 pandemic began and now, it is unclear how people will eventually navigate the loss of a companion animal who provided safety and security through uncertain times (Zilcha-Mano et al., 2012). It is also unclear how the death of a pet might impact counselors who deliver services through telemental health; it is likely that companion animals have been introduced to the counselors throughout the pandemic. Future research about this aspect of pet loss can be helpful for the development of self-care strategies for counselors in addition to clients.
 
Helping professionals are trained to work with clients through various stressors, however, learning about pet loss work is disenfranchised here as well. Fortunately, there are organizations that provide certifications to individuals looking to provide these services as well as community resources for clients to receive additional social support through their loss. Individuals will not discuss their pain due to the fear of sharing something that is often invalidated by society. It is important for helping professionals to get more information about the power of the bond that individuals have with their animals and to set aside any biases that they may have about the relationships. Counselors can be influential in the healing of their clients through learning more about attachment and loss and about the struggles that an invalidating society presents to grieving pet owners (Morley and Fook, 2005). This is where helping clients resolve their loss can be influential in healing from the loss.
 
There are more individuals today who include their pets as part of the family. Due to the pandemic and virtual counseling, it is likely that they have even been a part of therapy. The human-animal bond and pet loss and human bereavement literature highlight the importance of pets in the lives of people, therefore, grief after a loss is an important topic that should be addressed in counseling literature, continuing education, and practice in the future. Not all individuals will grieve the same, and it is important to be responsive to the individual needs of the client. Understanding the grief process of pet owners can better prepare professionals to foster non-judgmental spaces where clients can feel open to display their grief. Providing empathy and validating the feelings that any type of loss of a pet can create for the clients may lead to more open sharing among the community further enhancing the healing process and a possible societal shift in the recognition of grieving pet loss as a normative experience.

CONFLICTS OF INTERESTS

The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

ETHICS STATEMENT

The authors confirm that the research meets any required ethical guidelines, including adherence to the legal requirements of the study country.

AUTHORS’ CONTRIBUTIONS

All authors contributed equally to the development of this article.

FUNDING STATEMENT

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Bereavement Specialist. Attendees will have an
opportunity to ask questions of the experts.

Special Holiday Schedule

We understand that the holidays can be a difficult time for pet parents missing their fur babies. APLB will be extending our hours this year to help you – we’ll get through this together.

Chat Room

Sun Dec 24: 2 – 4 pm EST
Sun Dec 24: 8 – 10 pm EST
Mon Dec 25: 8 – 10 pm EST
Tues Dec 26: 8 – 10 pm EST
Wed Dec 27: 8 – 10 pm EST
Fri Dec 29: 8 – 10 pm EST
Sun Dec. 31: 2 – 4 pm EST
Sun. Dec 31: 8 – 10 pm EST
Mon Jan 1: 8 – 10 pm EST

Video Support Group

Sat Dec 9: 7- 9 pm EST
Sun Dec 10: 7- 8:30 EST
Sat Dec. 23: 7 – 9 pm EST