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On Doing Death and Dying Research

Sara Kaufman and Leanne Nieforth talk about their recently published research in Omega

– Journal of Death and Dying, the challenges and rewards of conducting

interdisciplinary research in this area and suggestions for both life and death scholars. 


Sara: My research interest in death and dying and non-human animals began when I worked at a veterinary school several years ago. I think partially because I was immersed in the culture of veterinary school, I was thinking about how our relationships with non-human animals, like our pets, affect our interpersonal communication. My partner and I experienced an intense grieving period after the death of our dog, and I started thinking about how this kind of death affects people's relationships. This idea eventually became the subject of my dissertation, examining companion animal loss within the family system. I never thought I’d be conducting research in the realm of life and death. Leanne, how did you become interested in this topic? 


Leanne: In addition to my academic role focused on researching the human-animal

bond, I am a trained and certified practitioner for equine-assisted services. Through the years, I have had the privilege to work with some amazing humans and horses. I have seen firsthand the impacts the horses have within equine-assisted programs and have experienced (and supported other horses and humans through) the death of a horse in this context. With these lived experiences, I noted that the topic was missing from the literature and was motivated to fill the gap. People (including myself) really struggled with the loss of their horse partners, and I felt that digging into the topic in an academic context could be both a support for them and a way to honor the horses. I was so grateful for our connection and your willingness to partner together with this new idea! 

 

Sara: We talked about collaborating on research together for several years before we

started this study. You are with the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue

University, and I am in the Department of Communication Studies at Manchester

University. We both have an academic background in communication, which I think has

been a strength.  What has your experience been like doing interdisciplinary research?

And how would you suggest other scholars begin? 

 

Leanne: I very much enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of human-animal interaction

research. When people ask me what my degrees are in, they always give me a funny

look when I share that I have a BS in Animal Science (where I focused heavily on bench

work and bioscience), an MS in Communication (where I broadened my lens to focus on

theory and social science) and then combined the skills into my PhD in Human-Animal

Interaction. Having an interdisciplinary background has been so valuable. I love that I

can have conversations with a variety of researchers across disciplines and incorporate

multiple methodologies into my own work. Combining different mindsets and

perspectives creates space to really dig into phenomena, ultimately offering a more

complete picture of what is happening.  


I would encourage scholars to reach out to others who are studying similar topics but

from a completely different perspective. Scholars love to talk about their work and in

conversation, you can learn more and see how your scholarship could potentially align.

Of course, before these conversations, reading up on the other person’s work is

critical.  

 

Sara, what has your experience been like? Any advice for scholars on starting with

interdisciplinary research? 

 

Sara: In my experience, finding connections between your work and others is a good

place to start, even if you don’t have perfectly aligned interests. You never know where

these conversations may lead in the future. And of course, joining professional networks

like End-of-Life & Death Scholars. The more I get to know my colleagues working in this area, the more I am impressed by the variety of topics and approaches they employ to

examine an often understudied yet inevitable facet of the human experience. 

  

Assisted Services Program, explored the experiences of equine service practitioners and

identified the socioemotional processes that occur upon the death of a horse within an

equine-assisted services program. We found that the way in which our survey

respondents processed the death of an equine was situated within Worden’s Four Tasks

of Mourning. This grief model is comprised of accepting the reality of the loss,

processing the pain of grief, adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is

missing, and emotionally relocating the deceased to move on with life (Worden, 2018).

This grief model had been previously applied in the context of human death, but not yet

expanded to companion animal death. The responses to our survey fell into two

themes, processing the death of an equine and practical implications for horse-human

interaction practitioners.  

 

Practically speaking, we found that it was important for equine service providers to

prepare for the logistics of a death, including euthanasia and setting a communication

plan well in advance of needing one. 

 

Leanne: Applying a model that had been previously only considered in the context of

human death to the context of horse death brought validation to practitioner

experiences. Many times, the grief of an animal is disenfranchised, and people often

feel isolated or guilty for what their grief looks like or feels like. Applying a human loss-

focused grief model in this study suggested that similar processes are occurring with

animal grief, affirming many experiences.

 

In sharing this work, many practitioners have been grateful to have a framework for

understanding their own grief processes. One question that I often get is how do you

handle doing such sad work? As a researcher, I am passionate about ensuring that my

work is directly applicable and useful to people’s daily lives which helps me to

remember my why. Sara, what about you?  

 

Sara: I’ve found that personally, conducting this kind of research can sometimes be

emotionally taxing. I try to enter into the research process reminding myself there may

be times of heightened emotion and vulnerability, which helps me prepare for those

moments. I agree with your sentiment of remembering your “why,” because keeping in

the forefront why I study these topics can help ground me. I think it is also important for

new scholars who work with vulnerable populations and sensitive subjects like grief and

loss to have their own support systems in place if things get difficult. 

 

Ultimately, I appreciate the opportunity to do this kind of work and am especially grateful

for the time that the people involved in our research have given us. I hope that it helps

others in the future and other researchers studying in the areas of end-of-life and

death. 


___

 AUTHORS


Sara Kaufman, PhD is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Manchester University. 

















Leanne Nieforth, MS, PhD is an assistant professor of Human-Animal Interaction at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine at the Center for the Human Animal Bond.








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Find the Practitioner Experiences of the Death of an Equine in an Equine-Assisted Services Program publication here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/00302228241249200

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