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June 16, 2021

Friends and family members of a grieving person often advise them to talk to a counselor, to “occupy” or to engage in some other activity that they think might help. They want to see this individual return to “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 how they feel, whether it’s a therapist or someone else. It can be too hard to put into words, on the one hand. In addition, dealing with distractions can only delay the grieving process.

Joanne Cacciatore, Associate Professor at ASU School of Social Work, and her horse, Chemakoh. Chemakoh has helped several bereaved cope with their losses. Photo courtesy of Joanne Cacciatore.
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Cacciatore also learned that many who have lost a loved one are painful and empty, and the length of time these feelings are present is unique to each individual. The agony of loss affects everyone differently.

A few years after her daughter’s death, Cacciatore established a non-profit foundation serving families facing the loss of a child, and she returned to school to train in research in this sensitive area.

More recently, she documented how animals can play a vital role in the relief of the bereaved often devastating and long-term effects of loss. Today, along with the MISS Foundation, the non-governmental organization she established in 1996, Cacciatore and a small group of others operate a care farm in rural Arizona, where mourners as far as Ghana and Cambodia come to work with more than 40 rescued farm animals who have also suffered loss, fear, loneliness and grief. Care farms, popular in Europe, are farms that welcome mourners to come and take care of themselves 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 advisory board.

Read on to learn more about how far Cacciatore has come to help those coping with loss from animal exposure.

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

Reply: I was born into an immigrant family who moved from New York to Phoenix when I was 3 years old. Very young, I had a sensitivity for animals, and after watching a documentary on 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 passed away a few years earlier, leaving me completely devastated and facing a deep existential crisis. Not knowing how I could live without her, in 1996 I created the MISS Foundation, a non-governmental organization, to help families facing the death of a child. I decided to go back to school to become a researcher in this field in 1997. I was very positively influenced by Dr Eric Ramsey of ASU and Dr John DeFrain of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who would end up chairing my doctoral thesis committee. It has been 25 years since the MISS Foundation began.

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

A: I have been at ASU since I received my PhD from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 2007. In 2008 I was appointed Assistant Professor and in 2014 I became Associate Professor. My bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary science / psychology and my master’s degree in social work are both from ASU.

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

A: Three years ago, after rescuing a severely tortured pack horse, which I later named Chemakoh, we launched Selah Carefarm, a sustainable restoration community that brings together rescued farm animals with bereaved families in a way. traumatic. This incredible project was one of the main themes 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 care for humans, animals and the Earth, all over the world.

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

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

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

A: So many grieving people have told me that others are uncomfortable with their grief, especially when it lasts beyond an arbitrarily assumed time limit. However, many respondents to our research reported feeling accepted and loved by their animals, noting that animals do not judge their emotional expression and abandon them when their sadness is manifested.

In fact, compared to all other human groups that grievers typically interact with, animals have provided much more support than family, friends, coworkers, therapists, social workers, medical personnel, spiritual providers and more.

When we conducted further analysis, we found that their constant, non-judgmental presence, continuity, loving responsiveness, and deep connection with their animals were the most important ways animals are perceived to be emotionally supporting. Most of these attributes, of course, could also be provided by humans. But we should deepen our understanding of grief and face the inevitability of death in order to allay fears. Too often in humans, fear hinders love. The animals, quite simply, present themselves.

Q: What motivates you in your research?

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

Q: How do you expect your research to impact society?

A: For me, the greatest gift we can give ourselves, including animals and the planet, would be to understand the beauty that can one day emerge from fully lived mourning; this is in stark contradiction to the damage traumatic bereavement can cause when suppressed, both to individuals, families, communities and societies. I hope my research will help change our culture’s very bizarre relationship with bereavement to build a more compassionate infrastructure that fosters belonging, connection to all things, and a depth of compassion that is so lacking 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 beings.

Q: How did you get to where you wanted to take your career at ASU?

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

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

A: I would use $ 40 million to build education from Kindergarten to Grade 12 and beyond around caring and compassionate communities. While I am interested in trauma and grief, the value of teaching a child, for example, to care for ants outdoors is incalculable. If we can teach children compassion for insects and animals, how much more, then, will they value the life of a classmate? I imagine that many of the world’s woes could be eradicated if we prioritize compassionate relationships through education, politics, and modeling.

Learn more on Cacciatore’s work with Care Farming and Mourning.


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