Pet Loss: What Is Disenfranchised Grief?

Associating pets with words like “best friend,” “unconditional love,” “support,” “family member,” etc. is more common than ever. A lot of people around the world now value their animal companions with as much regard as they do with their peers.

However, large parts of society don’t always recognize that the amount of grief and pain a person can feel for a departed pet can be just as intense and heartbreaking as the grief you might feel over the loss of a friend, spouse, or family member.

The lack of understanding and support can amplify negative feelings and only make things worse for those suffering. Proper coping mechanisms and understanding of the situation can help you deal with your pet’s death, and most importantly, teach you how to help others going through a similar loss and accept their grief as real.

What is disenfranchised grief, and why do bereaved pet owners experience it?

The term disenfranchised grief refers to grief that isn’t really acknowledged by the people around you, or by society as a whole. This usually happens because the reason for distress isn’t what most people would justify or scale as “acceptable.” Death of an ex-spouse, a friend you lost touch with long ago, miscarriage, ending of an intense romantic relationship, etc., can all fall under this category.

pet loss disenfranchised griefA beloved pet’s death can be just as stressful and damaging as a loss of a real friend, but not everyone sees it like that. Grieving pet parents, seniors, and children are often left misunderstood and even judged for taking so long to mourn the loss of a dog, parrot, or cat, which often leads to withholding sorrow and negative emotions. Animal loss is just not recognized as important or emotionally disturbing enough to get attention and acknowledgment from many.

Bereaved owners can even get stigmatized by other animal enthusiasts who can be dismissive of pet types that are less common. For instance, cat or dog owners are sometimes unintentionally dismissive of other people’s grief caused by the loss of smaller pets or reptiles, as they are not “as devoted/smart/affectionate/aware, etc” as dogs or cats.

Holding everything in… Why a lack of understanding can be dangerous

The process of emotional healing is always more effective with strong social support. Having someone to talk to who will listen, as well as connecting with those who care and empathize can go a long way for accepting tragic events like death. In cases of a loss of a family member, people often provide support in various ways. That can include honoring the departed through different rituals, providing counseling, expressing condolences, and just openly accepting the time needed for grieving.

People who feel disenfranchised are left to deal with the stressful emotions all by themselves and thus choose to be quiet about it or even try to diminish the seriousness of their sorrow. Like any other repressed negative emotion, disenfranchised grief can eventually lead to chronic sadness, stress, and an inability to open up and connect with others. People who can’t find sympathy for their grief may eventually convince themselves they are overreacting, which can trigger self-esteem issues, lack of confidence, self-blame, prolonged grief, and isolation.

Dealing with pain and helping others do the same

The first step in dealing with the lack of support is understanding your emotional struggles and accepting them as normal. The second step is helping others come to the same realizations.

Start by accepting your grief as real, valid, and worthy of expressing

Pain is subjective, so are the relationships we develop through life. Who is to say that your pet wasn’t your true best friend? Research has shown that pet owners are much more attached to their animals than 30 to 40 years ago. Acknowledge the fact that you are in charge of your emotions.

Allow yourself to be sad

When dealing with loss, some people keep themselves busy with their daily routines as a way to avoid their grief, while others need to let it all out. It’s perfectly fine to isolate yourself in silence, cry, or even scream if that will make you feel better.

Find your own ways to honor your pet

Pet funerals and pet cremations are very common and an effective way of saying the last goodbye. Some owners opt for a tombstone in memory of their furry companion, while others scatter their pet’s ashes over their favorite place. Some people have their pet’s ashes turned into beautiful artwork or jewelry. This symbolic farewell can be an emotional outlet for finding peace.

Make new traditions and reminders

Many people fear losing the precious memory of their departed pet. A comforting solution may be to create memorable objects in honor of your happy days together. A collar tag can become a lovely necklace locket, while your departed parrot’s feathers can be framed and turned into a fantastic picture. You could even commemorate your dog’s birthday by turning their favorite treats into a dog birthday cake, then sharing the cake with some of their canine chums. Anything you find endearing and close to your heart is acceptable.

Remember that you’re not alone

There are always people going through similar losses as you are experiencing. You may be surprised how many people struggle with disenfranchised grief and need acceptance and support. Don’t hesitate to open up and share your experience, as there’s always a community of pet lovers who understand the importance of an animal’s role in our lives. You can read more about coping with disenfranchised grief here.