Research shows that social support is highly important to help grieving individuals cope with their loss. Yet social support can take on many forms. A new study, whose results may surprise some, found that pets, rather than human support, offer the most satisfactory support when grieving.
These findings could be even more relevant in these pandemic times when most people were more isolated than they have ever been during their lifetimes. More than 600,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19, with each leaving, on average, nine people grieving. This means that more than five million people are currently battling grief on account of the pandemic alone.
“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,” Joanne Cacciatore, Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, said in a statement.
The biology of grief
There's quite a sizable body of evidence that suggests grief can significantly affect the health of the bereaved. So much so that it may even kill the bereaved, in some cases.
Studies on bereaved spouses show they have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, infection, cancer, and chronic diseases like diabetes. In the first three months, bereaved parents and spouses are nearly two times more likely to die than those not bereaved. Grief has also been found to aggravate physical pain, increase blood pressure and blood clots, and exacerbate appetite loss, perhaps because grief is known to make people find less pleasure in food.
A 2018 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests these effects may be due to inflammation in the body. The authors from Rice University found the inflammation levels of widows and widowers in the top one-third of the elevated grief group was 53.4% higher than the bottom one-third.
Social support is crucial for those grieving a loss. And a dog or cat may be your best friend after all
For their new study, Cacciatore and colleagues at Arizona State University surveyed 372 adults who had experienced traumatic grief. Among many other things, the survey also included questions about the participants' perception of the social support they received immediately following their loss, as well as many months after.
When asked about their overall satisfaction with the social support received following a loved one's death, 35.7% rated their experience as excellent or good, 26.5% said they received adequate support, and 37.9% rated their support as poor or very poor.
But the most intriguing finding was that 89% of the 248 participants who had pets said they were extremely or mostly satisfied with the support received. Animals were ranked the highest among all forms of social support -- higher than friends, family, community members, therapists and counselors, and faith leaders.
When it came to institutional human-to-human support, mortuary staff were ranked as the most effective form of support (65% approval rating), whereas law enforcement and hospital social workers were rated as the least effective in providing support to the grieving at 37% and 35%, respectively.
Examples of effective support included "acts of emotional caring", such as an empathetic phone call or text message. In the open-ended part of the survey, some of the participants described satisfactory emotional support as:
“Telling me that my grief is valid, that my feelings are real. Basically just allowing me to be,” or “Just letting me mention his name without awkward silence or changing the subject.”
Conversely, examples of unsupportive acts included feeling abandoned by loved ones, feeling as if their grief was being rushed, and not feeling listened to.
The researchers summarize their findings concluding that instrumental and appraisal support were the most effective at relieving bereavement.
“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," they wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.