The bond between human and animal is increasingly recognised in published literature as unique, important and typically mutually beneficial. More veterinary schools are explicitly training veterinarians to recognise and acknowledge that bond. But what happens when it breaks down?
A US study involving 177 clients across 14 practices found that 30 per cent of pet owners experienced severe grief around the loss of their pet, with reactions characterised by insomnia, loss of appetite and “feeling like something died within them” (Adams et al 2000). That grief remained fairly consistent for around 6 weeks after the death of a pet.
Another study of 106 owners from a single veterinary clinic found that subclinical levels of grief and sadness lasted for six months or more in 30 per cent of people following the loss of a pet (Adrian et al 2009).
The Lort Smith Animal Hospital has taken an innovative approach, employing an animal chaplain. The hospital, now Australia’s largest not-for-profit animal hospital, was founded by Louisa Lort Smith to care for the animals of the poor and disadvantaged.
Animal chaplain Adele Mapperson is employed specifically to support pet owners through difficult times – be that the euthanasia or death of a pet, surrender of a pet or worry about a potentially sinister diagnosis.
“The Lort Smith has always been based on the notion of looking after the human-animal bond,” Mapperson said. “It was about providing affordable care for animals – but a very real by-product was providing support for people. As a chaplain, my job is to care for the person who has come with the animal.”
That usually means dealing with anxiety, concern and grief that owners feel for companion animals.
“I remember asking [Lort Smith CEO Liz Walker] why they wanted a chaplain and not a counsellor, and she said that they were after someone who could sit down beside people and not frighten them off with the word counselling,” Mapperson said.
Mapperson had previously worked as a Uniting Church Chaplain in oncology and palliative care at the Royal Melbourne Women’s Hospital.
When offered the role, Mapperson admits to having some reservations.
“I thought, hang on, I am doing really serious things in my role, looking after people who are dying, looking after people who are seriously ill,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was right for me, but my supervisor suggested I go and have a look. And I found out very quickly that it is a very serious job.”
Mapperson quickly learned that the grief people feel around losing their pets is very raw, very real and quite often much greater than the grief people experience when they lose a human companion.
“People have said that the death of an animal is like the death of a child, and that the grief is just as strong,” she said. “I haven’t known that myself, but for many this is true and they need support.”
Mapperson, Lort Smith’s second chaplain, has now been in the role for two and a half years. It has caused her to reflect and rethink her ideas about grief around companion animals.
“I think their loss is felt so keenly because with animals often there is a freedom to be who you are without any expectations or complications,” she said. “I think the relationship is a lot less complex [than relationships with people], and that people often feel acceptance from animals that they don’t get from their human relationships.”
Sometimes the loss of an animal unleashes grief that has been building up.
“To be able to grieve over the loss of an animal can open doors for people who have lots of other grief that they haven’t been able to open the door on,” she said.
While Mapperson is religious, religion is not central to her role.
“I come from a position of faith, and that is important for how I do my work, but I don’t think that becomes significant overtly,” Mapperson said. “The conversation is always about what is going on for the person I am talking to.”
“People come here with a lot of religious faith, no faith, Buddhist, Muslim – all kinds of faiths,” she said. “I come from the perspective of seeing animals as part of the whole, and recognising that we are called to care for each other.”
Mapperson’s role is varied. She is available four days a week for Lort Smith clients to talk to. Within the busy hospital, her office is a sanctuary where clients can sit, have a cuppa and discuss their feelings. Some clients seek her out, others are referred by a vet, nurse or receptionist, while others bump into her in the waiting room.
Mapperson is also involved in a pet bereavement support group, offering a safe space for people to share their grief. There are as many reasons for attending the group as there are owners.
“One owner attended six weeks after her dog died because she was fearful that she would go into depression,” Mapperson said. “Another had gone to a support counsellor only to be virtually looked at in amazement and almost ridiculed for grieving over a pet. Another came because they were angry about the way in which the death had occurred and their subsequent experience with their vet. One came because she had had a long relationship with her dog during a period of her own illness, and felt her grief was misunderstood by those around her.”
Some attend the group once, others join for several months.
“Grief can be deep and it can be longterm,” Mapperson said.
In addition, she writes to every person whose animal dies at the hospital – often following up with a phone call.
“People are generally very glad of that,” she said. “They may be surprised, but they appreciate it. It is an acknowledgement that our job doesn’t finish when they walk out of the door.”
In 1989, Kenneth Doka argued that the loss of a companion animal is a type of disenfranchised grief – not unlike that experienced in cases of perinatal death or abortion – because the relationship with the companion animal is not sufficiently recognised by others. Unlike people, pet loss is not publicly mourned, depriving those grieving animal death of vital social support.
That notion is borne out in a study which found that more than half of those who had recently lost a pet reported that they felt like society did not view the loss of a pet as worthy of grief (Adams et al 2000).
Almost all of those people believed that their veterinarian should provide emotional support before and after their pet’s death, yet under 40 per cent had the opportunity to communicate with their vet following the death of the animal. That may be due to the busy nature of practice, or it may be due to other factors such as a feeling on the part of veterinarians that their role is over once the animal dies. It could also stem from a general discomfort around grief.
Mapperson said that grief is often challenging to witness, and empathises with veterinarians who deal with grieving clients.
It can be tempting to try to “fix” the problem, but grief is not fixable in the way a broken leg is.
“Doctors, veterinarians and nurses are practical people because they have to be, and they want to solve problems,” Mapperson said. “But we’re not God, and even God doesn’t keep things living forever.”
“Grief is often very confronting, it can be very disturbing and you may not want to be there,” she said. “The instinct can be to get out of the way, but if you can stay present it helps, because people need most to feel that their grief is allowed and accepted.”
The most any of us can do, she said, is bear witness.
“It can be a very hard thing to stand and watch another person’s grief and it can be emotionally draining, but it is also a good thing.”
“Grief belongs to the grieving person, it isn’t yours, you can allow it and witness it but you can’t take it away or change it,” she said.
Like anyone who works closely with people experiencing grief, the position can take an emotional toll. Mapperson draws strength from her surroundings, choosing to commute from her homestead in central Victoria which she shares with her partner, two dogs, two donkeys, the odd friend’s horse on ajistment, and an abundance of wildlife including echidnas, kangaroos, owls and kookaburras.
“I’m a really passionate gardener so I spend a lot of time doing that,” she said.
The commute helps.
“Because it happens that I travel a long way on the train I have time built into my day to read, which is a huge outlet. I read a lot, it has always been a great source of restoration.”
Though she is keen to acknowledge that it isn’t for everyone, faith is also an important source of strength for Mapperson.
“Each day, every morning and night, I read something from scripture and mediate upon it,” she said. “That provides me with huge strength and makes a difference to how I approach everything. It gives me purpose.”
That purpose, she added, is compassion – a quality she said she shares with those working in the veterinary profession.
“It’s all about living compassionately in this world and finding ways to do that. I am very fortunate that my work provides that.”
Adams CL, Bonnett BN & Meek AH (2000) Predictors of owner response to companion animal death in 177 clients from 14 practices in Ontario. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217(9):1303-1309.
Adrian JAL, Deliramich AN & Fruch BC (2009) Complicated grief and posttraumatic stress disorder in humans’ response to the death of pets/animals. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 73(3):176-187).
Doka K (1989) Disenchanted Grief: Recognising Hidden Sorrow. Michigan: Lexington Books.