Date of Award

May 2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Sarah Riforgiate

Committee Members

Erin Ruppel, Ali Gattoni, Xiaoxia Cao


Disenfranchised Grief, Emotions, Netnography, Organizational Communication, Sensemaking, Virtual Community


Millions of U.S. families care for pets, a joyous yet emotional experience. Following a pet loss, caregivers embark on the oft lingering and disenfranchised grief processes. Online support groups are helpful to the disenfranchised bereaved population as technology allows users to access similar individuals, acquire support, and make sense of their experiences. Throughout disenfranchised animal companion loss, bereaved online support group members engage in sensemaking (Weick, 1995) to reconcile their past and becoming selves, construct a community identity, and grapple with their emotion displays within and outside of the support group. Identity work and emotions are salient sensemaking processes among individuals processing disenfranchising discourses they encounter following the loss of a companion animal. In this dissertation, I draw from netnographic fieldwork to explore the communication exchanged between virtual support group site facilitators and bereaved animal companion caregivers to broadly understand the communication that organized the virtual space and member experiences. In two empirical chapters, I articulate findings related to the virtual support groups’ identity (chapter two) and emotion (chapter 3) sensemaking that coalesced to constitute (re)constructed caregiving identities, emotion rules following a disenfranchised loss, and a virtual safe space for engaging in authentic emotion displays. The first study (chapter two) explores sensebreaking, sensegiving, and sensemaking communication within the virtual support group to understand how bereaved site visitors and facilitators co-constitute identity (re)construction. Findings detail the sensebreaking communication site members used to enact their ruptured identities, as well as the secondary sensebreaking communication other members used to discursively disrupt ruptured identity enactments and prime members for reconciling their overall identity narratives. Implications articulate the importance of attending to sensebreaking enactments as a process rather than a trigger, how workplaces may use sensebreaking and sensegiving communication to help bereaved members understand and heal their identities, and how social affordances may enable or constrain sensemaking processes in virtual spaces. The second study (chapter three) details the disenfranchising discourses that bereaved site visitors drew on to make sense of their emotions in their personal and professional interactions, as well as constitute emotion rules within the support group itself. In this study, I articulate findings that foreground colonizing discourses that site members resisted, reified, and reimagined to make sense of their emotion displays, which communicatively constituted the virtual support group as a safe space for displaying their authentic emotions. Implications include theorizing about how transitory disenfranchising experiences layer onto other identity markers to complicate emotion rules, how safe spaces reify professionalism and managerialism, and how organized spaces (i.e., workplaces and virtual support groups) might actively work to enfranchise animal companion loss and support members throughout a variety of loss experiences. I address these two studies collectively in the fourth chapter to illuminate and contribute several theoretical and practical implications about how people navigate disenfranchised grief, enact emotions following animal companion loss, and facilitate identity (re)construction in various organized spaces. Further, I propose future research that continues to emphasize the communication that organizes virtual support groups and member experiences.

Available for download on Saturday, May 25, 2024