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Support pets: Understanding and managing grief in a healthy way


Senior woman (face unseen) sitting on a couch caressing a small tan and white dog by her side

At some point or another, we will all have to deal with grief. In the United States, around 2.5 million people die each year, with an average of five people per death severely affected by the person’s passing. 


Coping with grief is a very individual process and no two people will necessarily react in the same way. Part of this could be to do with the nature of the relationship. Losing a grandparent, for example, can be a painful experience but a sense of the person having lived a long and happy life can provide comfort to the bereaved. In other words, as the saying goes, “it was their time.”


Other types of grief can be more difficult to comprehend or get over. Around 1.5 million children in the US – or 5% of the children in the country – will lose one or both parents by the age of 15. Spousal loss, the death of close friends, or shocking losses such as suicide, regardless of age, can be particularly trying for those closest to them. 


It’s also important to note that death isn’t the only source of grief. Breakdowns in relationships, particularly marriages, or losing a job can also cause people to grieve. It’s the individual reaction to loss that is important, not the source of that loss. 


When grief isn’t normal


n the first weeks or months of a loss, especially if it is a particularly close one, it is normal for a person to experience acute feelings of sadness or grief. However, generally speaking, these feelings will slowly fade with time as the person rebuilds their life and begins to move on. 


Persistent complicated grief


Occasionally, however, these feelings don’t fade and may even intensify. When this happens, it is known as complicated grief. Complicated grief can evolve to include symptoms beyond what is normal during a grieving process, such as extreme focus on the loss, inability to accept their passing, feelings that life no longer holds meaning, and a lack of trust in others. 


Childhood loss


Another severe type of grief is when someone experiences loss at an early age. Children’s brains are still developing and how they process grief can be difficult from an adult. This can be particularly damaging when it is a sudden or unnatural loss that they experience, such as a parent or sibling. 


In a 2018 landmark study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that acute childhood grief can lead to increased rates of depression and functional impairment. Children younger than 12 who experienced parental loss were found to be more susceptible to depression than those who went through the same experience in adolescence. What’s more, griefing children of all ages were more likely to suffer from PTSD.


The role of support pets in coping with grief


As with any mental health struggle, there is no one way to deal with grief. Some people may find solace from being part of a community, whether taking part in charitable organizations, taking up a new hobby, or connecting with others who were close to the deceased. 


Others may lean on their spiritual beliefs, begin building better, healthier habits – such as eating, sleeping well, and exercising – or start seeing a professional counselor. At the end of the day, each person is different. 


Emotional support animals


One method that is proving particularly effective in helping individuals suffering from a loss is support pets. Officially speaking, an emotional support animal is prescribed by a medical doctor as part of a treatment plan. While dogs are popular, any animal can qualify provided that they are suitable as pets or in public environments. 


As emotional support animals have certain privileges that normal pets don’t, such as being allowed on planes, the owner does need a certificate. To get a letter or certification that is legally enforceable, it needs to come from a licensed mental health professional. Any website that claims to be able to provide one “easily” should be investigated thoroughly. In many cases, they can be scams


How support pets help sufferers


A 2018 review found that pets can provide benefits to individuals suffering from mental health conditions. It goes on to recommend that they are incorporated into, “the mainstay of support for people experiencing a mental health problem.”


The source of this benefit comes from animals’ ability to offer unconditional positive feelings and love to their owners. This unfailing, daily positivity can help regulate people’s feelings, as well as aiding them in managing stress and coping with difficult times in their lives. 


Having pets was particularly effective for individuals who live alone as the pets provide a source of “connectedness, reassurance and normalcy.”


Another study even found that there is a subtle increase in oxytocin and a decrease in cortisol after just ten minutes with an animal. But the bonds people develop with pets goes beyond these simple interactions and can help people to regulate their emotions over time. 


It is important to note that support pets are unlikely to “heal” individuals with grief or other issues – they can’t address the fundamental root issue. Instead, they provide a sense of companionship that can aid people in navigating these difficult periods of their lives. 


Support pets and other conditions


Grief or loss is just one example of how support pets can be of use. The fact is that they can be a great source of comfort for individuals who suffer from a wide rage of mental health conditions. This could be anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, chronic stress, or post‑traumatic stress disorder brought on by domestic violence or other traumatic experiences.


While the root problem may be different, the same logic holds – animals offer unconditional, non-judgemental love and care. 


Have emotional support animals helped you? 


Our colleagues at MHA are trying to find out the impact that support pets are having on individuals suffering from grief or other emotional or psychological issues. To give us a better idea, they have launched a survey asking for your input. The survey takes around 10 minutes to complete and we are interested in hearing from people who both have and don’t currently have a pet. 


To take part in the survey, please follow this link.


For any other local Illinois inquiries or support, you can, as ever, contact us directly. Our team will be happy to help you or refer you to those who can. For any mental health emergencies, remember you can contact the 988 emergency hotline at any time.

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