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Disenfranchised Grief

Dr. Ken Shapiro, Ph.D., PSYETA

Disenfranchised Grief*

In the first article in this series, we described how a person can work through his or her anticipatory grief, that is, grief that is anticipated, such as in the case of a terminally ill person.

But for many shelter workers, anticipatory grief makes their hearts heavy most of the time. It isn’t something that goes away. They are always keenly aware that the animals they are working with have suffered abandonment and may suffer euthanasia. This chronic and long-term grief complicates the grieving process, making it harder to cope.

Grief is further complicated when it is not socially supported. We call this “disenfranchised grief.” It occurs when our culture fails to provide rituals, such as periods of mourning and funeral rites, for the expression of certain losses.

Examples of disenfranchised grief outside animal welfare may occur when someone loses a gay partner or a partner through imprisonment or suicide or when a person gives up a child for adoption. All of these situations are somewhat stigmatized by our society, so we fail to support the people experiencing such losses. We have “disenfranchised” their grief.

Animal welfare workers who become attached to relinquished animals may find that their grief is disenfranchised by friends and family. It may be undervalued or simply unrecognized. They aren’t recognized as legitimate grievers.

Reacting to their disenfranchised grief, many workers will hide or suppress their feelings for fear of ridicule. The hidden or suppressed grief increases their reaction to loss and makes the worker feels even more confused and overwhelmed.

To enfranchise the grieving shelter worker, to let her or him know it’s okay to grieve, it’s important to validate these normal feelings within the shelter and community more generally. This can be done by including recognition of the grief of caregivers during rituals on the occasion of individual losses or on a day set aside in remembrance of all animals lost.

Grief has its place in the shelter. It’s up to shelter managers to see that it’s acknowledged in a positive way.

*I am indebted to Barbara Meyers for some of this material. Barbara is a certified grief therapist and animal behavior therapist in Staten Island, NY, (718)720-5548.

Kenneth J. Shapiro, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Editor of Society and Animals and Coeditor of Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.

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