I lost my family pet of 15 years in 2020.
Our rescue dog passed away after struggling with gastrointestinal issues for the last two or three years of her life.
While I have to two dogs with my wife, I felt the loss of my family pet deeply. After all, I had grown up with her in the home, from graduating High School and University, to her meeting girlfriend and eventually my wife. It felt like a chapter had ended in my life.
A good friend lost her dog during the Coronavirus pandemic and I was struck by the fact I didn’t really know what to say to her despite going through the same experience earlier in the year.
So I asked eight experts ‘What To Say When Someone Loses A Pet’. Here are their suggestions.
You Can’t Possibly Know How The Person Feels
Dora Carpenter, a Certified Grief Coach and Founder of Institute of Professional Grief Coaching
Individuals losing a pet often experience disenfranchised grief, meaning others might minimize the significance of the loss. One might respond, “Why are you so upset, it was only a cat.”
Pets are part of one’s family and the loss will bring on a myriad of painful emotions of grief, which are normal and natural responses to loss. Due to the lack of grief-education in our society, we unfortunately oftentimes say all the wrong times, while actually meaning well.
Even if you are a pet owner or pet lover, you should not say, “I understand how you feel.” You can’t possibly know how the person feels or know the exact relationship they shared with their pet. It is better to say, “I can’t imagine how you feel, but I’m here to support you in whatever way that I can.”
Also, empathy never begins with the words “at least” so refrain from statements such as, “At least you can get another dog” or “at least you had him for 8 years.”
Allow the grieving individual permission to grieve the loss, share their emotions and feelings without being judgmental. Don’t try to fix or cure them. Being there to listen and offer support is much more effective.
Dr. Tim Shu, CEO and Founder of Vet CBD Hemp
For many, losing a beloved pet is nearly as devastating as losing a human loved one. As with any loss, expressing sympathy, words of compassion, and offering support are some of the ways you can help a grieving friend or family member cope.
Grief Is Incredibly Complex
Ashley Jones, Founder and Executive Director of Love Not Lost
In order to understand what grief is and how to support people in it, it’s important to first establish what it’s not:
Grief is not a singular emotion. It is not a phase that someone just gets over or moves on from. It is not just five stages (Note, the five stages are specific to people facing their own death – and is outdated research from the 1960s..)
It is not linear with a clear endpoint or destination. There is no timeline or order to grief. Rather, grief is incredibly complex. It encompasses lots of emotions.
We need to start viewing grief as a state of being – a way for our body to process pain and heal. It is a natural and healthy response to loss of a pet. So when we show up for people grieving the loss of their furry or feathered family, here are some helpful things to say and why it can matter.
In the immediate after a loss:
• Honor their loss – If you know the pet who died, it can be helpful to share a memory or a favorite trait to share love and remembrance. “I’m so sorry Reese dog is gone. The way he howled with the sirens always made me laugh. He will be missed.”
• Lead with love, not fear – Don’t just say the first platitude that comes to mind. Have you stopped to consider how the words you want to say might be received? If you don’t know what to say, tell them. Don’t be afraid to say, “I have no words, but I am here for you,” which conveys authenticity and support.
• Show up – Sometimes loving silence and presence can be the most helpful support. Are you okay sitting in the awkward painful silence to be a support? Are you loving them the way THEY need to be loved? If you are willing to follow through, asking, “What can I do to love you or support you this week?” can give them a chance to share what would actually be helpful (and placing a timeframe on it can help them think through what would actually help in the moment).
• Convey empathy without making it about you – “My heart hurts with yours. I am so sorry you lost …” This shows that you have put yourself where they are and are willing to be in the pain with them. It also helps when you acknowledge the specific loss and aren’t afraid to say the pet’s name.
• Be willing to hold space – “Grief is hard and I just want you to know that I am here anytime you need someone to listen or want to talk about .” Again, don’t make the claim unless you are willing to follow through, but this can be incredibly helpful.
• Ask how they are doing in this moment – Get specific. Grief changes from day to day, moment to moment. If you ask generically, “How are you doing?” then people can get overwhelmed thinking about the hundreds of emotions they’ve felt in the past day or two. But if you say, “How are you doing today?” or “How are you feeling right now?” It can make a world of difference and open up an opportunity for honesty and vulnerability.
• Offer a specific task if you’re able – Sometimes people don’t even know what they need at the moment. If you are able to offer something specific, it can help people say yes or no to your help. Instead of a general comment like “Let me know what you need” – something like “Would you like my help in donating their remaining food or toys to a shelter?
Dawn LaFontaine, shelter volunteer, pet fosterer and founder of The Cats In The Box
Unfortunately, as a lifelong animal lover, I have had far too much experience with pet loss.
The first thing to say to someone who has lost a pet, is maybe to say nothing at all. Just listen. Even if you think the person may be overreacting or making too much of the loss, keep these thoughts to yourself. They don’t help, and as a friend or family member it’s your job to provide support, not judgment.
If you feel inclined to say anything, use the pet’s name rather than referring to the animal as the dog or the cat. A pet parent views their pet as a member of the family, and family members are referred to with proper pronouns. Regardless of how you feel about the role of pets in people’s lives, it’s respectful to refer to the lost pet in this way.
Show compassion without judgement for what the person you care about is experiencing. Say, I’m sorry you are going through this, or I can’t imagine what you are feeling right now, or, I know you must be hurting. Acknowledge their concern for their pet by saying, I know how well you took care of him. He was lucky to have you.
Do send a sympathy card, if you are so inclined. There are ready-made pet bereavement cards available in the loss section of your local card shop. Consider making a donation to a pet charity in the pet’s name if you are moved to do so.
Don’t ask the grieving pet owner when he or she plans to acquire a new pet, even if your best intentions are behind such a question. To a pet-lover, the lost pet is not so easily replaced, and some would find the remark insensitive.
I Am So Sorry For Your Loss
Hart Haragutchi, Licensed Therapist and Author of Choosing Therapy
Research shows that when someone loses a pet, that loss can feel just as devastating as if they’d lost a human loved one.
A good guideline when thinking about what to say to someone who has lost a pet is to think about what you’d say if they’d lost a family member or close friend. Because to them, it likely does feel like a family member or close friend has died.
Something as simple as I am so sorry for your loss is a really good place to start. You might also say I am thinking about you in this difficult time or even I don’t know what to say, but I care about you and I am sorry for your loss. Follow up with open-ended questions such as ‘How are you feeling?’ and ‘What can I do to support you through this?’
It can be really hard to know what to say or do when someone you care about is grieving. Remember that it’s less important exactly what you say than the fact that you show up and are there for them. Because everyone grieves differently, it’s hard to know exactly the right thing to say or do.
Don’t assume that you know how they’re feeling or what would help them, even if you’ve had a similar experience. Instead, give them the opportunity to let you know what would be helpful and feel supportive to them by asking. And remember to follow-up with them.
In general, people stop checking in with someone who is grieving about three weeks after their loss has occurred. Many people continue to grieve beyond that three-week mark, but then do so in private and without support. Make a note to follow-up, and let them know that you’re thinking about them.
It Is More About Listening Than About Speaking
Nicholas DeRoma, Veterinary Technologist,Canine Behavior Specialist and Consultant for catpet.club
When someone loses a pet, there is a grieving process that follows. This grieving process is different for each individual. The grieving process consists of the following stages in chronological order: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and resolution.
Determining the right thing to say to a grieving pet owner is dependent on determining which stage of the grieving process a pet owner is in following the loss of their pet. Both the denial and bargaining stages tend to occur prior to the loss of their beloved pet. However, after the death of a pet, one of the more prominent stages of grieving is anger.
When a pet owner is going through the anger stage of the grieving process, it is important to exercise tolerance and patience regardless of whether you believe the anger is justified.
Much of the anger is originating from a place of guilt; wondering whether or not they made the right decisions for their beloved friend. “Did I wait too long?” “Did I let him suffer?” “Why didn’t I pursue treatment sooner, before the disease became advanced and/or terminal?”
These statements are often the basis of anger. Therefore, the best way to help an owner who lost a pet is by offering words of reassurance, saying things such as “in my opinion you did everything possible,” and “you made the right decisions.” It is important to understand that during this stage of the grieving process, it is more about listening than about speaking and saying the “right thing.”
Following anger, is depression. This stage of the grieving process is characterized by overwhelming sadness. Symptoms of depression include withdrawal, irritability, and restlessness. In order to help a grieving pet owner through this stage, being supportive and following up frequently to ensure the wellbeing of the individual.
Respectively, all humans process loss differently; some may lose a pet and adopt a new puppy the same day, others will lose a pet and go into a deep depression for years to follow. It is important to avoid judgement during this stage of grief and offering words of warmth and hope.
Additionally, knowing when to refer to bereavement specialists is helpful. It is ok to share personal experiences with these owners and make gentle phrases such as “I know a professional who is experienced in helping those who have lost pets.”
The last stage of grief is resolution/acceptance. In this stage closure is often achieved. You can help a pet owner get to this stage of the grieving process by offering ways for them to immortalize and memorialize their pet. This can be suggesting a memorial garden, a memorial plaque, or starting a movement or a cause that is relevant to the pets’ loss, such as starting a foundation that helps pet owners afford chemotherapy treatment.
You Don’t Want To Make Assumptions
Dr. Brian J. Bourquin, Founder and Chief Medical Officer of Boston Veterinary Clinic
With the loss of a pet, you don’t want to make assumptions. You will want to refrain from saying things like, ‘it will get better tomorrow’ or ‘why don’t we look for another dog or cat’.
Similar to the loss of any life, share your condolences, check in on your friend or relative who lost the pet and be there for them. You need to look at an individuals needs in life and respond accordingly.
Just because you may see this as a pet who passed, this animal could be that person’s lifetime companion. Especially with elderly who may live alone, their companions get them out of the house and give them additional responsibility throughout the day. They may even need animal contact after losing a pet.
If you have a dog or cat, you can offer your companion to be looked after, they may want to interact with a friendly animal, petting the animal or taking him or her for a walk which gets them out of the house. If necessary, there are also hotlines and grieve groups that can help after the lost of a pet.
Recognize That You Can’t Understand The Loss Of Another
Dr. Tamar Blank, Licensed Psychologist and Director of Riverdale Psychology
Recognize that you can’t understand the loss of another and offer support in whichever ways you can. Ask the other what support is meaningful rather than assuming someone else would like the support you would wish for yourself. Listen carefully.
Perhaps your friend will mention that she is sad that she will not see the pet again. This many provide you with an opportunity to print and frame a photo of the friend and the pet or print the picture on something customized.
Presence And Empathy
Dr. Wyatt Fisher, Licensed Psychologist and host of “Marriage Podcast”
The top two things to provide when someone loses a pet is provide your presence and empathy. Presence entails increasing your time with them so they don’t feel alone. Empathy includes comments relating to how they feel, such as I can see how you would feel ____ from losing ____ or It makes sense you would feel ____ from losing ____I’m so sorry for your loss.