Mourning 'Fluffy' or 'fluffy mourning'? The role of pet memorials in preventing human socio-emotional isolation
Fenella Eason (University of Exeter)
Paper short abstract:
This paper investigates physical and virtual tributes that maintain connection between humans and deceased pets, reducing the isolation of disenfranchised grief and allowing exhibition of individual and collective memorial and material culture to preserve the significance of loved companion animals.
Paper long abstract:
Drawing on multidisciplinary research into human death, grief and material culture, I take an anthrozoological approach to explore the ontological insecurity faced by today's nuclear families that has promoted pets into quasi-human 'stress-reducers' whose companionship may be intensely mourned when death occurs. Human life-stage reaction to pet death is examined as are categories of grief. Disenfranchised grief may result from the failure of others to acknowledge a pet's significance in the human companion's life, causing a sense of shame and lack of self-esteem similar to that sometimes encountered, for example, among HIV/Aids sufferers or members of minority groups or cultures. However, validating grief for companion animals rather than dismissing it as senseless or contemptible, allows acceptance of the pet's importance to the mourner, increases the bereaved individual's self-worth and offers opportunity to release suppressed emotion. The paper discusses the value of physical and online pet memorials in providing access for enduring tribute and visible expression of grief. The expanding availability of web pages and social network 'walls' offers mourners new means to reconcile the pet's absence with a continuing presence in cyberspace. Similarly, items of material culture that bring the past into the present and future of human-companion animal relationships are emphasized. I argue the need for greater communication between pet-bereaved individuals and experts in the field of companion animal death to improve decision-making, discussion and understanding, thus inviting mutual respect whether the pet dies from natural or unnatural causes.