Disenfranchised Grief

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Disenfranchised Grief

By Ken Shapiro, Animals and Society Institute
April 2009

For those of us involved in animal protection and animal services, the death of a companion animal is a major event. We immediately understand the suffering of a colleague whose companion animal is terminally ill or has recently died. It is expected and accepted that such a person needs to go through a period of grieving and that, during that time, he or she will need our support and some time to work through the loss.

However, the gravity of such a loss and the psychological burden that accompanies it is not always recognized. Most people, while nodding to the fact of the loss, will offer a thin expression of regret and immediately ask, “so, when are you going to get another cat?”

Societies develop extensive customs and rituals to help us deal with loss, but not for all losses. Disenfranchised grief is grief that is not socially supported and that even may be ridiculed. Examples include loss of a gay partner, of a partner through imprisonment or suicide, and through giving up a child for adoption. For these losses, the culture fails to provide rituals such as periods of mourning or funeral rites.

That it does not do so for these classes of losses – and for the loss of a nonhuman animal – increases the difficulty of the grieving process for the bereaved.

Social attitudes can actually devalue and stigmatize any expression of grief for some losses, adding to the typical sense of being confused and overwhelmed at a time of loss. As a result, many people hide their grief over the loss of a companion animal because of fear of ridicule. An example of this within the animal service professions is the shelter worker who becomes attached to a relinquished and, subsequently, euthanized animal and is not recognized as a legitimate griever. The resulting hidden or suppressed grief in these caregivers increases their reaction to loss and adds to an already complicated grief process.

We have been discussing the pain of the loss of an individual animal, but many of us grieve at the ongoing loss of groups of animals who currently are exploited, such as animals hunted for sport and farmed animals. This results in a state of chronic and anticipated grief.

Kenneth Shapiro earned his BA from Harvard University and his PhD in clinical psychology from Duke University. He is cofounder of Animals and Society Institute. He founded Psychologists for the Ethical treatment of Animals and the Society and Animals Forum. He is founder and editor of Society and Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies; cofounder and coeditor of Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; and editor of the Human-Animal Studies book series. His most recent book is Animal Models of Human Psychology: Critique of Science, Ethics and Policy. He is one of the developers of AniCare and AniCare Child, the only psychological treatment models for animal abusers, and trains therapists throughout the country on the use of these models.

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