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Social work professor explores animals’ abilities to help those dealing with grief

Appears in docuseries produced by Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry

ASU School of Social Work Associate Professor Joanne Cacciatore smiles while posing with a horse

Joanne Cacciatore, associate professor in the ASU School of Social Work, and her horse, Chemakoh. Chemakoh has helped several grief-stricken people cope with their losses. Photo courtesy of Joanne Cacciatore.

June 16, 2021

Friends and family members of a grieving person often will advise them to talk to a counselor, to “keep busy” or engage in some other activity they think will help. They want to see that individual return to a “normal life” as soon as possible.

Joanne Cacciatore, an associate professor in the ASU School of Social Work, lost a daughter in 1994. Since then she has learned much more about grief than can be found in conventional wisdom. For example, not everyone wants to talk about what they’re feeling, whether to a therapist or anyone else. It may be too difficult to put into words, for one thing. Also, occupying oneself with distractions may do little other than delay the grieving process.

Cacciatore has also learned that many of those who lost a loved one are aching and empty, and the length of time those feelings are present is unique to each individual. The agony of loss affects everyone differently.

A few years after her daughter’s death, Cacciatore started a nonprofit foundation serving families dealing with the loss of a child, and she returned to school to train to conduct research in this sensitive area.

More recently, she documented how animals can play a vital role in relieving the grief-stricken from the often devastating and long-term effects of loss. Today, along with the MISS Foundation, the nongovernmental organization she started in 1996, Cacciatore and a small group of others operate a care farm in rural Arizona, where grieving people from as far away as Ghana and Cambodia come to work with the more than 40 rescued farm animals who, too, have suffered loss, fear, loneliness and grief. Care farms, popular in Europe, are farms that welcome grieving people to come and heal by participating in nature or interacting with animals.

She shared what she knows with an international audience in May when she appeared in the Apple TV+ docuseries, “The Me You Can’t See,” produced by Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex. Cacciatore also served on the production’s advisory board.

Read on to learn more about Cacciatore’s path toward helping those coping with loss through exposure to animals.

Question: First, please tell us a little about yourself today and your early years. 

Answer: I was born into an immigrant family who moved from New York City to Phoenix when I was 3 years old. At a very young age, I had a sensitivity to animals, and after watching a documentary about animal slaughter at age 7, I stopped eating animals. This was long before the terms “vegetarian” or “vegan” were popularized. I returned to school after the birth of my fifth child; my fourth child having died a few years earlier, leaving me utterly devastated and facing a deep, existential crisis. Not knowing how I could live without her, in 1996 I started the MISS Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, to help families facing the death of a child. I decided to return to school to become a researcher in this area in 1997. I was most positively influenced by Dr. Eric Ramsey at ASU and Dr. John DeFrain at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who would eventually chair my PhD dissertation committee. It’s been 25 years since the MISS Foundation started.

Q: How long have you been in academia? How long have you been with ASU?

A: I have been at ASU since receiving my PhD from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 2007. In 2008 I was named an assistant professor, and in 2014 I became an associate professor. My BA in interdisciplinary sciences/psychology and my MS in social work are both from ASU.

Q: Tell us about the Selah House Respite Center and Carefarm. How did it start? How did it come to be what it is today?

A: Three years ago, after rescuing a badly tortured pack horse, whom I later named Chemakoh, we started the Selah Carefarm, a sustainable restorative community that brings together rescued farm animals with traumatically bereaved families. This incredible project was one of the focuses of Oprah Winfrey and British Prince Harry’s Apple TV+ docuseries, “The Me You Can’t See,” in Episode 4. We hope to eventually start other care farms based on this model of mutual compassion and caring for humans, animals and for the Earth, all over the world.

Q: What was it was like to be contacted by Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry’s production company to ask you to be on their advisory board? How did they say they heard of you? What was it like to appear in “The Me You Can’t See?”

A: It was a real honor to be both featured in “The Me You Can’t See” as well as to sit on the advisory board, with 13 esteemed colleagues, for the docuseries. I was so moved that, while many other pop culture attempts at tackling psychological and emotional struggles often avoid covering topics related to grief, especially when traumatic, this team saw the importance of including it. I have to admit that seeing the Selah Carefarm and some of our clients featured brought tears to my eyes. We’ve worked so hard to create a sacred space that honors grief and helps both human and animal clients experience the compassion of connection and mutuality. Seeing the beauty of it all on screen was overwhelming in a very good way. Since the airing, we’ve been widening our reach to help grieving families all over the world.

Q: You recently wrote a paper that explains how animals provide better subjective social support to grieving humans than most humans can. What do animals have that humans don’t, or have more of?

A: So many grieving people have expressed to me that others are uncomfortable with their sorrow, particularly when it lasts beyond an arbitrarily assumed time limit. However, many respondents in our research reported feeling accepted and loved by their animals, noting that animals didn’t judge their emotional expression, nor did they abandon them when their sadness came to the fore.

In fact, when compared with every other human group with whom grievers typically interact, animals provided significantly more support than family, friends, colleagues, therapists, social workers, medical staff, spiritual providers and more.

When we conducted deeper analyses, we found that their steady and nonjudgmental presence, their continuity, their loving responsiveness and the deep connection with their animals were the most significant ways that animals are perceived as emotionally supportive. Most of these attributes, of course, humans could also provide. But we’d have to deepen our understanding of grief and confront the inevitability of death in order to allay fears. Too often with humans, fear gets in the way of love. Animals, simply, just show up.

Q: What fires you up about your research?

A: I am deeply passionate about my work, so I get fired up about every aspect of it, from connecting to communities to volunteering to help grieving people from around the world. I love what I do in both research and practice.

Q: How do you hope your research will impact society?

A: For me, the greatest gift we could give ourselves and each other, including animals and the planet, would be to understand the beauty that can one day emerge from fully inhabited grief; this is in stark contradiction to the damage that traumatic grief can do when its repressed, both in individuals, families, communities and societies. It is my hope that my research will help shift our culture’s very strange relationship to grief to enact a more compassionate infrastructure that promotes belonging, connection to all things and a depth of caring that is so absent in so many institutions today, especially for those who suffer deep loss. And the more we work with our experiences of deep suffering, I hope, the more we can bring compassion to all living things.

Q: What is it about ASU that made it where you wanted to take your career?

A: I have always appreciated ASU’s vision for bridging research and practice. The application of data to improve the world for all is a core value that I share with the university’s vision.  

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would use $40 million to enact K–12 and beyond education around caring and compassionate communities. While my interest is in trauma and grief, the value of teaching a child, for example, to care for the ants outside is incalculable. If we can teach compassion for insects and animals to children, how much more will they, then, value the life of a fellow classmate? I imagine many of the world’s woes could be eradicated if we prioritized compassionate relationships through education, policy and modeling.

Learn more about Cacciatore’s work with care farming and grief.

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