It’s not easy to know what to say when a friend or family member loses a furry (or smooth) friend. Maybe you’ve experienced this and can empathize. But what if you’re not really an animal person and have no idea how to react?
Though you might not be able to understand or sympathize with the grief associated with this type of loss, there are certain things you can say to offer support while not inadvertently offending the grieving. Here are some tips to help everyone be a compassionate friend.
The safe initial reaction to the news
Start by offering one of the simple phrases that we suggest saying to all who are grieving, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “my condolences.”
It’s always hard to say the right thing after a death, but of all the benign things to say, these two are the safest. Even if you never met the pet, this fail-proof phrase is a simple acknowledgement of the pain the friend/colleague/sobbing stranger next to you on a park bench is feeling.
If the grieving person wants to talk about it with you, and you have no idea what to say, just listen.
Remember Thumper’s advice in Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Even if you can’t relate or think the person is overreacting, it’s important that you keep these feelings to yourself. You’re there to lend support and help.
Also, don’t bring up your own experience of pet loss, or how you would feel if your pet passed, because that can belittle their current pain and make it feel like a grief competition. This is about them, so the best thing you can do is lend a sympathetic ear.
Feel free to ask questions if you have questions to ask
If the grieving person isn’t offering many details, don’t push. If they’re open to speaking, and you’re genuinely interested, then it’s okay to ask some questions or inquire about details. You don’t want to pry, but at the same time it could help the grieving to discuss what they went through and not keep it all bottled up.
Example: If you knew the animal was sick, perhaps you want to ask about the illness. To lighten the mood, you can ask about the funniest or naughtiest thing the pet ever did to help the grieving recall happy memories.
Remind the owner that they gave the pet a great life
Whether it was buying the best treats, most adorable toys, or posting the coolest photos online, let the owner know that they went above and beyond to make sure their pet was always happy.
Domesticated pets are completely dependant on us for their survival, which can create an added level of guilt when a pet dies. Was there something more that could have been done? Should they have sprung for that longshot surgery which cost $7,000? If, for whatever reason, the person had to put their pet to sleep, they could doubt their decision. So keep reminding the owner how fortunate their pet was to have such an amazing parent.
Use the pet’s name
Never refer to the pet as “the dog” or “the cat.”
Even if you can’t wrap your head around a person being that upset over the loss of a pet, you should still be courteous. If someone or something was given a name, you should use it.
If you have a memory or favorite photo of the pet, share it
There’s nothing sweeter than a person posting a cute photo of the pet on Facebook with a nice message attached.
If the grieving person posts a heartfelt message about the loss, leave a respectful comment showing your understanding and support. Not only will this remind them of the good times but they can also take solace in the fact that their pet had a positive impact on others.
Make a donation in the pet’s name to an animal-related organization
This might be above and beyond for most people, but it commemorates the late pet and is an incredibly kind gesture for other needy animals. Even if you donate old towels and sheets to a local shelter, every bit helps.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Say These Things
Most of these after-a-death platitudes are said with the best of intentions, but they can have terrible results. So take heed before you make a sad situation even worse.
“He/She is in a better place.”
How do you know? Perhaps the owner thinks the better place is cuddled next to them on the couch under a comfy blanket. But you’re saying that their pet is better off dead. At least that’s how it can easily be interpreted.
“So, when are you getting another one?”
This might seem like a thoughtful gesture, but it’s upsetting because you’re making it seem like all pets are interchangeable. Many people think of their pets as their children. (Don’t believe us? Read this story: The 10 Biggest Inheritances Ever Left to Pets) Imagine how offensive it would be if you were to ask a parent who lost a child “So, when are you making another one?”
We’re well aware it’s every parent’s goal and purpose for their children to outlive them, and it’s completely normal to have many pets throughout a lifetime. But it’s still devastating if someone just lost a pet that provided them love, comfort, and perhaps even a service. As actor Mickey Rourke said “sometimes when a man's alone, that's all you got is your dog. And they meant the world to me.” So don’t inadvertently make that person feel worse than they already do.
“You didn’t even like that [animal type goes here]”
There’s a possibility that the owner often complained about the pet. Maybe it was their spouse’s pet from before they met. Maybe they stepped in to be a guardian after the original owner got sick or passed away. Regardless of the circumstances, it doesn’t mean they’re not sad about the loss.
This also applies if you didn’t like their pet. Now’s not the time to bring it up. The pet won’t be bothering you anymore, so let it go.
However, if the person says they are relieved the pet is gone, and not because it was suffering from an illness, then we suppose everything is fair game. That person might also be a psychopath, so watch out!
“Get over it. It was just a [animal type goes here].”
Any person who says something like this will be viewed as a heartless monster, regardless of the type of pet. If that pet was named and cared for, there was an emotional connection. If you belittle that, or selfishly put your own needs above the person who’s genuinely upset, that person will never look at you the same way again.
That might sound like an overstatement, but grief can be very complicated. The person experiencing the loss is going through a range of emotions. One of those could be anger, and by saying something insensitive they may associate that anger with your face. Forever. Deceased dog = That jerk Jimmy I thought was my friend.
“[It] was really old/sick so it’s probably for the best.”
This is just as offensive to say about pets as it is to say about elderly or ill humans. While it may be technically true due to health issues, it’s not your place to say it. If the grieving person says this to try and reconcile the loss, just nod along and agree. But we still suggest silence.
Reader Submissions/Tell Us Your Stories
From Paula: "My favorite cat died prematurely of cancer. Someone said to me, 'Well, they don't live forever.' It just felt very callous to me."
From Joyce: "The one thing someone said to me that helped me most was 'Be gentle with yourself.' I had a sudden loss of my beautiful cat. It was drawn out yet unexpected and I grieved so hard. I still do. I can't help it. It's been 9 months Those words told me I had the right to grieve as I needed to, and not to apologize for 'still' grieving. There are no time limits or rules. Grief comes in waves. Sometimes there's those sobbing uncontrollable waves, other times it's just the silent streaming of tears. And sometimes you find you're actually able to talk about it without the heart wrenching pain in your chest. But then, there it comes again unexpectedly one day. All of it is ok. Just be gentle with yourself. Don't rush. Don't ignore those who want to just sit with you or listen or talk. No one person has your relationship with your lost love, no matter how much they loved as well. So you, do you, and be gentle with yourself."
If you’ve ever lost a pet, we’d really like for you to share the most thoughtful or infuriating things people have said or done after you experienced the loss. Send your stories here.