What do you say to comfort a friend facing the loss of a beloved pet? How can you be there to talk to and support a friend dealing with grief? Use these guidelines to learn how to be more sensitive and helpful during the heartbreak of pet loss.
- Provide the opportunity to talk about feelings and concerns before, during and after a loss. Let them tell “their story” as many times as they need to.
- Share and reminisce about fond memories of the pet. Share stories about what you remember about their pet.
- Use the pet’s name…even after death.
- Provide a hug, a squeeze of the hand, or touch on the shoulder-whatever you feel comfortable doing.
- Listen more than talk and also listen in a non-judgmental manner. Allow periods of silence.
- Know that depression and anger are normal emotions and expressions of grief. Be accepting and patient. Do not take a grieving person’s negative attitudes or unusual behaviors personally. Give them a lot of room for reacting badly and not doing things “better.” Tell them that there is no right or wrong behavior for grieving. Everyone is different.
- Reflect on the feelings they are expressing and help them explore them and the reality of the death. Know that they may have emotional set backs. Know that they will always grieve the loss but will learn to live with it.
- Say, “There’s nothing I can say right now to make you feel better. I wish I could. I want you to know that I am here for you.” Mean what you say. Let them know you are there for them. Be there for them in the days as well as weeks, months, and years following the death. Ask them how they are doing.
- Cry with them if it feels natural to you.
- Help them celebrate the life of the one they have lost. Offer suggestions to help them through their grief: give them ideas for ways to memorialize their pet. Help those who are in the process of grieving to develop the rituals they need to get through those early difficult times: light a candle each day, display photos, clay paw print, fur clipping, write a love note to the pet, plant a flower garden, make a garden stone mosaic, keep the pet’s tags on their keychain, keep a journal, make a photo album.
- Send a condolence note with personal comments about the pet and how he or she will be missed.
- Send flowers and/or call: “I’ve been thinking of you and I was wondering how you are doing?”. Ask them how they are doing, offer to help, repeat your offer to help at a later time: days, months, years.
- Send a donation in the deceased pet’s name to an organization that benefits animals.
- Give information about a local pet loss support group to attend (list of pet loss support groups: Pet-Loss.net) and Pet Loss Support Hotline to call (National Pet Loss Support Hotlines: ASPCA (877) 474-3310 Calls are returned immediately 24 hours a day. IAMS (888) 332-7738 Monday through Saturday from 8am-8pm.) While it is kind to share your own compassion and support, additional support services are beneficial in ways you are not qualified for.
- If the person who is in grief is suicidal, it is your moral and ethical responsibility to refer them to a mental health professional. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. List of pet loss counselors: Pet-Loss.net
- Do NOT tell them you know exactly how they feel because no one can ever experience pain, grief, and loss in exactly the same way.
- Do NOT tell them that time heals all wounds.
- Don’t say, “He/she is in a better place” or “Think of only the good times” or “It’s probably for the best” or “Think of all your precious memories”
- Don’t say, “You think you’ve got it bad…” or “When my pet died…” Do NOT compare one griever’s loss or experience to another’s. Comparisons are attempts to minimize the loss or to force the griever to behave the right way.
- Don’t say, “It’s been two months (or however long); you shouldn’t still be so sad.” Do NOT impose a timeline for feeling better—there is no timeline for grief.
- Don’t say, “If I were you, I would have done it (or would do it) this way.” or “Why did you do that?” It helps to give them a lot of room for reacting badly and not doing things “better.”
- It’s not helpful to say, “Faith teaches us to be strong.”
- Do NOT try to ‘fix’ the grieving person or make it all better—no one can ever do that. DON’T scold, give advice, lecture or pep talks to them when they are feeling down—let the grief process take its course. DON’T encourage them to make major changes in their life. Do NOT suggest they medicate their pain with alcohol or tranquilizing drugs. Avoiding the immediate symptoms of grief can ultimately lead to complicated and unresolved grief.
- Don’t say, “All Seal Point Siamese look the same. Just get another one.” Do NOT tell them they can ‘get another dog/cat etc’. Do NOT get a new pet for your friend! Don’t ever say, “You know, you can always get another pet. As a matter of fact, I know of one who needs a home right now.” This comment does not acknowledge the unique relationship the person has lost. People need to grieve and be validated for the feelings they are having about this specific loss. It is impossible to recreate lost relationships with another being who is, in itself, unique (even if the same breed). The length of time, and way a person needs to mourn varies with each individual. Telling a person that she/he can simply replace a relationship by getting a new dog/ cat/iguana/ parakeet/horse, etc., is similar to telling a parent who has lost a child that she/he can always have another one.
- Do NOT use euphemisms that tend to deny the extent of the loss. Don’t say, “Everything happens for a reason” or “Time will heal” or “He/ she isn’t suffering any more” or “Life goes on” or “Only the good die young” or “All clouds have a silver lining” or “It’s a blessing” or “You were lucky to have him/her this long”. Most of us have said some of these “don’t say” comments at one point or another. In fact, some of these comments have a lot of truth to them. Life does go on. Time often does heal, or at least lessen enormous heartache. The ending of suffering is good. The thing to keep in mind is that when a person is experiencing an acute sense of loss, logic is not comforting. With acute grief, simply acknowledging the sadness and overwhelming sense of loss is appropriate and is more helpful.
Adapted from information obtained by Bonnie Mader, founder of Pet Loss Support Hotline, University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and Washington State University Pet Loss Hotline webpage.