Social support is crucial for individuals grieving a loss, although research on how bereaved persons experience social support is limited. A new study, published in PLOS One, explores bereaved individuals’ experiences and satisfaction with social support. The researchers’ findings indicate that animal, as opposed to human supports, can be the most satisfactory form of support.
They also offer suggestions on how to best support grieving individuals both during the COVID-19 pandemic and post-pandemic. The researchers, led by Joanne Cacciatore, Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, write:
“Social support seems to help some bereaved people, particularly those with traumatic grief, that is, the violent or sudden death of a close loved one or the death of a child, cope with psychological distress, while its absence may exacerbate poor physical and psychological outcomes. Yet, a breakdown in social relationships after a loss is not uncommon, and loneliness- particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic- may exaggerate that effect for grievers, increasing the risk for poor outcomes.”
The benefits of social support on human health and wellbeing are well-documented. For example, social support has been shown to positively affect psychological and physiological stress reactions, as seen through an improved immune system, endocrine, and cardiovascular health. On the other hand, lack of social support and loneliness has been shown to negatively affect physical, emotional, and mental well-being, including increased risk of premature death from many causes.
Loneliness and insufficient social support are common in grieving individuals, which raises concerns about their health and wellbeing. In addition, loneliness has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn has contributed to increases in mental health concerns like depression and suicidality.
Conversely, adequate social support, whether in-person or online, can contribute to a better quality of life in bereaved persons. Additionally, both the quantity and quality of support received have been shown to affect grieving individuals’ wellbeing. Social support for bereaved individuals has been demonstrated to be particularly effective for persons who have experienced “traumatic grief,” or the violent or sudden death of a loved one or the death of a child. However, research has also shown that social relationships are prone to fall apart after a loss.
The researchers identify four categories of social support: informational, instrumental, appraisal, and emotional:
“Informational support may include logistical help on available services after death as well as advice, data, and information offered during a difficult or stressful time. Instrumental support is actionable aid that helps with specific tasks or provides necessary physical support such as food, shelter, transportation, and financial aid. Appraisal support is a more passive means of self-evaluation often enacted, for example, in peer-to-peer contact. It provides a means to assess one’s self in a particular circumstance through like-others utilizing affirmation, feedback, and social equality.”
In the current study, the researchers provided qualitative surveys to a total of 372 adults who had experienced traumatic grief. The interviews consisted of questions about the participants’ perceptions of social support both directly following the loss and long-term.
The participants were mostly white (91.1%), married or partnered (69%) females (91.4%) with college or graduate degrees (58.1%) who had experienced the loss of a child (75.1%). In addition, the majority of participants had experienced the loss more than five years ago (43.3%), and the cause of death was most frequently an illness or disease (25.8%).
When asked to rate their overall perceptions of support from others since the death of their loved one, 35.7% of participants rated their experience of support as excellent or good, 26.5% reported receiving adequate support, and 37.9% rated their support as poor or very poor.
Mortuary staff were ranked as being the most effective in providing human-to-human support (65%). Conversely, law enforcement and physicians, and hospital social workers ranked the lowest, being the least effective in providing bereavement support at 37% and 35%, respectively.
Interestingly, 89% of the 248 participants who had pets or interactions with other animals reported being extremely or mostly satisfied with the support received. In fact, animals were ranked the highest among all forms of social support, which included categories like friends, family, community members, faith leaders, therapists or counselors, support groups, and faith leaders.
These findings are consistent with research that identifies care farming as a useful intervention for individuals experiencing traumatic grief and research that indicates that pets are effective supports for individuals struggling with mental health problems and mental distress.
In their open-ended responses to survey questions, the participants noted emotional support and “acts of emotional caring,” such as receiving a phone call or text message, as the most effective form of support.
Some of the participants described their experiences of emotional support and acts of emotional caring as:
“Telling me that my grief is valid, that my feelings are real. Basically just allowing me to be.”
“Just letting me mention his name without awkward silence or changing the subject.”
In their descriptions of actions that felt unsupportive, participants noted failures to provide emotional support or engage in emotional acts of caring as being most problematic. Examples of unsupportive acts include feeling abandoned by loved ones, feeling as if their grief was being rushed, and not feeling listened to.
When asked how others could better support them, participants identified increased emotional support and emotional acts of caring, emphasizing the importance of listening and being present and remembering their loved ones with them without feeling a need to try to fix or resolve their grief.
Although emotional support and acts of emotional caring were mentioned by participants most frequently across the survey questions, both instrumental and appraisal support were also discussed as being helpful. Informational support was infrequently mentioned by participants, with aligns with previous research findings that this form of support is generally not helpful for grieving individuals.
The researchers summarize their findings regarding specific acts of instrumental and appraisal support identified by participants as being particularly effective:
“Instrumental support was effective when expressed through helping with meals, childcare, housekeeping, and written notes and gifts. One important aspect of instrumental support deserving of attention may be the classic mistake of saying, “. . .call if you need anything,” without any follow-up. Participants appreciated others actively reaching out to them to offer practical aid. Appraisal support meant connecting with like others through grief support groups, in-person and online, and on social media. Time spent with others, both online and in-person, who share a common tragedy of loss was reported as supportive in these data.”
The researchers note their finding that animals are highly effective in providing support as being especially important, as animals are not typically mentioned when considering bereavement support. Recognizing the role that animals can play in providing support during grieving is crucial, particularly when isolation through social distancing or quarantine is required.
The findings also carry implications for healthcare providers and law enforcement, who were ranked the highest in dissatisfaction with social support. As these individuals most often are confronted with persons in crisis, further research must examine why the perception of support from these professionals is so low.
Further, Cacciatore and her colleagues highlight how emotional support was identified as key in the grieving process. Yet, supports were demonstrated to struggle with providing adequate support in this area. Therefore, they call for education for individuals supporting bereaved individuals to assist them with being more responsive to the grievers’ emotional needs.
Limitations of the study include a lack of diversity in participants and the study’s focus on traumatic grief, whose findings may not translate to grieving individuals in the general population.
The researchers conclude by emphasizing how their findings on the importance of animal support can be used to assist grievers and should be investigated in future research:
“Animals may be an especially important source of emotional support during conditions involving social isolation, such as the COVID-19 pandemic when contact with other people is limited, or during experiential conditions such as the loneliness so common in bereavement. Further research could investigate the ways in which animals are perceived as beneficial in grief more thoroughly, but the adoption of pets could be one avenue which to promote well-being and reduce loneliness during the pandemic, especially for those who are not able to access strong social support networks. When it comes to good grief support, perhaps we may have much to learn from our fellow non-human animals.”
Cacciatore, J., Thieleman, K., Fretts, R., & Barnes Jackson, L. (2021). What is good grief support? Exploring the actors and actions in social support after traumatic grief. PLOS One, 16(5), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252324 (Link)
Only in countries which allegedly values education, experts, etc. do we need a “study” that tells us something so obvious and what we already know. My cat has helped me through withdrawal and through grief. My father had a cute little white poodle that helped through his PTSD and even “told” him when he was in some sort of diabetic trouble, because he had diabetes due to Agent Orange exposure. We know horses have helped prison inmates, juveniles with issues, the physically and developmentally disabled, etc. The connection between humans and animals is obvious and “just is.” When something is “just is” we do need to study it, question it, frame it into statistics, etc. We
just need to accept it. Animals, especially some animals in particular, such as dogs, cats and horses (and some may consider a few others) are meant for each other. I rescued my cat; but my cat rescued me. This is a real live win-win situation. Why study it? Lets, just accept and help to ensure that if someone needs an animal companion for any reason, will have one available to him or her. Thank you.
Yes, rebel, I’ve noticed on MiA, that there is a need to attempt to educate the “mental health professionals” with a ton of information, that is blatantly obvious. Or, in other words, known to the rest of the population, as common sense.
I even had a non-personally chosen, lunatic psychiatrist, who had ‘delusions of grandeur’ that she’d given me a “test,” that “proved you have millions of voices.” My response to her, since I didn’t have “millions of voices,” was “Wow, you’d think I know.” The other doctors literally had to hold that psychiatrist back, to prevent her from physically attacking me.
It’s sad too many of the psychiatrists seemingly have “delusions of grandeur,” that common sense is the same thing as “millions of voices.” And they’re all so deluded by their own DSM “bible,” and their unjustly being given the right to play judge, jury, and executioner to all humans, to repent and pay for their crimes.
How does any decent government ever rationalize giving this undeserved power to any one profession? None should.
Life is about love, pets are about love. Psychiatry and psychology are about making money, not about love. So, of course, pets are more effective for grief support, than psychology and psychiatry, who only care about making money for themselves.
Someone else, Yes, even when my cat gets on my nerves, she’s a better listener than any therapist or psychiatrist ever was. Plus, there are no crazy, unjustified, abusive power issues. There is just love like it is meant to be. There are so many cats and dogs in the world now; it is a shame we can’t pair a dog or cat with someone who needs support for any reason. Of course, there are some who feel they can’t take care of a cat or dog. My mother is like that as she has mobility issues now. But, for me, as long, as I have a cat as my best friend, I know I am still alive. Plus, my cat, has been like an angel of mercy and healing from Jesus during my withdrawal period from the psych drugs, etc. and now in my adaptation period (as I call it) Even, in my darkest hour during the withdrawal period, my mother would tell me to hang in there because I had just got a cat and that cat needs me. Actually, we need each other. They say I rescued her, but she rescued me. Thanks be to Jesus. Thank you.
Yes, I survived 14 distinctly different psychiatric attempted murders, all via various anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings, according to my medical records and research. So, I too, say thank you to Jesus, for dying for my sins.
I too, have a love cat. Not to mention my former dog – whose been being cared for by my brother for the past 9 years – has recently moved close to me again. That dog is now almost 19 years old! A “gaga,” as my young children used to call their dog, doesn’t live that long, without a lot of loving. And he’s still doing relatively well. He loves our regular walks in the woods, and is still so cute, as his little ears flap up and down, while he walks.
Definitely, pets provide infinitely more joy – which is an effective form of “grief support” – than those attempting murdering, greed only inspired, thieving and attempted thieving psychological and psychiatric industries.
No need for further funding of research into the blatantly obvious, psychologists and psychiatrists. And if you’d stop poisoning us, and attempting to steal from us – under your “omnipotent moral busy body,” ‘delusions of grandeur’ that you’re ‘helping us,’ while in reality only trying to enrich yourselves and your industries – you’d be much more ‘helpful.’ As opposed to what your industries are today, which is downright harmful.
I hope that data like this can be used to expand access to animals as therapeutic supports, both emotional support animals in the home as service animals trained for public access. While my dog has been enormously beneficial for me, she has cost nearly $20,000 in three years between training, gear, medical care, food, toys, treats, etc. Service dogs cost so much in part because they are often large and require intensive training and mental stimulation that isn’t given to the average pet. A service dog was entirely out of reach for me financially when I needed her most, when I was at my least functional and most intensely used other services. I would love to see more studies like this that can be used to expand access to this kind of support for those who need it whether it’s just support to help low income people keep therapeutic pets or to help more people access service animals they otherwise wouldn’t be able to attain.
I bet even if a mentalness worker was with you 24/7, the dog would still be the better option. He keeps his opinions and hypothesis to himself plus he can’t write them down in the mental journals that get shared around town.
Every kid should be given the choice of a puppy or a shrink.
We don’t need to spend any more money on research. We already know animals work when paired with people of all kinds of needs. There may be some legal issues with various industries, states, or jurisdictions as to what can be considered a “service animal.” I think, when we try to stay with cats and dogs as service animals we do much better in their approval. Most people are used to being around cats and dogs. However, some do have allergies or may have a strong dislike, particularly for cats. Horse are not usually “service animals” because they are completely outdoors and have definite size issues, although some dogs are as big as a small horse or pony. Horses, although, are great for bonding and all kinds of positive interactions. As far as “service animals” some dogs and/or cats may be better for some people or some conditions better than others. We already know they use certain dogs for blind or deaf people and other certain conditions. Thank you.
I agree with the criticism of endless research. My point was only that because research drives funding for programs, directing research toward providing robust evidence of the benefit of pets for emotional support and service dogs for those who wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise. It could also help to change laws regarding pets in housing and temporary accommodation. I wasn’t able to get my dog until I had the benefit of my husband’s income. She has had medical emergencies that amounted to more than double my monthly disability check. The cost of a high quality food alone is prohibitive to a person living on disability. This is what I’d like to change with research showing the cost-benefit ratio of pets and service animals to persons with disabilities.
Many people have trouble paying for pet food, especially since so many have been out of work due to pandemic, but, even before that. Shelters, even local animal controls, and also local food banks know the importance of a loving pet in someone’s life or a family’s life. They also don’t want to see the pets on the street, in the trash, left for dead or worse. These agencies and shelters will work to make sure there is food for your favorite pet. This, of course, would include any service animals. If anyone is having a problem, you might check with your local humane society or the society for prevention for cruelty to animals. In our area during the worst of the pandemic, there were all kinds of agencies, even churches who handing out pet food with their regular human food. I just wanted people to know; so no one who felt that their funds were low for any reason they couldn’t have a pet or have to give up a pet; because pets are family, too. Thank you.