Well, rest assured you're not alone. When we learn that a friend, family member or colleague is experiencing the loss of a loved one, including dear pets, we are often at a loss for words. Even with the best intentions, perhaps especially due to the sensitive nature of such a situation, we often hesitate and fumble as we formulate our responses. Of course, we all want to avoid making the pain worse, so I’m offering some Do’s and Don’ts to help guide you. Speaking from the heart can be easier said than done. Take consolation in knowing there’s no need to be clever, profound, or inspirational.
You’ve likely heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Phases of Grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These themes are not meant as a prescribed linear sequence and instead serve as a loose set of common reactions as the bereaved becomes reconciled to the new reality without their pet. A sixth component — meaning — has been added to this framework because we’re inclined to search for it as well, and because the grieving process can deliver a lot of it.
Grief Is a Collective Effort
Please note that if you haven’t personally experienced the loss of a pet, it’s best to think of the deceased just like any close loved one. Know that the grief is very real and deserving of the same compassion and patience as when a person dies. Be careful to avoid underestimating its depth and intensity.
Also, each person’s grief unfolds at its own pace so stay open to and accepting of the unpredictable fluctuations that naturally occur. Grieving a major loss takes more time and effort than our society is inclined to admit. Some people establish a new equilibrium within weeks and for others it can take months or years. Milestones like birthdays, anniversaries and holidays in the first year after the death can be particularly rough so it’s helpful to reach out for these “firsts”. For some, the second year can be even harder than when the loss was fresh because friends and family are no longer reflecting on it. Keep in mind that their lives have been forever changed by the loss.
There is often a sense of aloneness, even isolation, that descends when a major loss occurs. It’s as if the physical world retracts as the bereaved turn inward toward the void created by the acute absence they’re facing. They may seem distant and numb.
In fact, grief also manifests directly in the physical body as all sorts of both specific and vague symptoms including insomnia, extreme fatigue or lethargy; loss of or insatiable appetite; rashes or hair loss; nausea/gas/diarrhea/constipation; back, neck or headaches; tinnitus; grinding/clenching teeth; chills or flushes; agitation, tremors or muscle stiffness; heart palpitations, changes in breathing or dizziness. If the bereaved complains of such issues, it’s fine to wonder aloud if their grief may be expressing itself physically and that professional intervention might help to address it.
It is those persons around the bereaved who take on some responsibility for restoring a sense of belonging and connection by providing comfort and support. We intuitively know the importance of “reaching out” as an expression of reinforcing the social fabric needed to heal.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts to consider:
- DO: Sympathy cards and gifts, flowers, and treats are always welcome, as are donations to a favorite animal welfare or pet rescue organization. Providing a RemembeRing can also help them with both holding on and letting go as they grieve.
- DO: Let mutual friends know about the pet’s passing so they can express their own condolences and extend support.
- DO: The best thing you can do is be there for them. Nonjudgmental support is the key to being a friend of the bereaved, so seek them out directly – call or drop by (rather than texting or emailing if possible) – and be aware of their vulnerable state in case they indicate they want to keep the contact brief.
- DO: Simply being present and providing an active listening ear can be very healing as they navigate the roller coaster of grief. The bereaved often want to tell and retell stories, share memories, and they tend to show a range of intense feelings, even laughing and crying at the same time. They may want to tell you details about the pet’s final moments in an instinctual effort to incorporate the reality, so DON’T rush them. DO keep in mind that grief can sharpen one’s radar for insincerity so paying close attention to one’s own internal state is helpful. Sitting in silence as they divulge their experience can be very meaningful. Likewise, DON’T assume they no longer want you around if they stop talking. Simply ask if they want you to continue keeping them company or prefer some private time.
- DO: Be understanding, acknowledge their pain, and encourage them to speak freely. Look for signals that the bereaved may be struggling with guilt, doubt, and relief (often if the animal was becoming disabled or in pain) and allow them to openly express them. Offer reassurances that you know they always wanted the best for their pet and acted from a place of love.
- DO: Share a favorite story about the pet if you knew them.
- DO: Empathize if you also had a beloved pet that died, but DON’T take over the conversation. It’s not about you. Rather, consider remarks like: “I am so sorry about Pepper’s passing. When I lost Snoop I was so upset. It was really hard and I still miss him — I want you to know you can come to me anytime if you want to talk or just be with someone.”
- DON’T: Downplay the loss as "just a dog or cat" or pressure them to “move on” or “get over it.” Likewise, it’s not reassuring to mention that they "knew this day would come" or that they "can always get another pet" because each companion animal is precious and special. Because grief associated with pet loss still tends to be disenfranchised by society, DO offer explicit permission to talk openly and give reassurance that you know this is a major loss in their life and continue to keep in touch as time passes, checking in to see how they’re doing.
- DON’T: Impose your views and beliefs on the bereaved, especially spiritual or religious, and avoid platitudes and cliches. Only use expressions like “S/He’s in a better place,” "Everything happens for a reason," "God doesn't give you more than you can handle," or “Heaven needed an angel,” if you’re absolutely certain it will be welcome based on their spiritual beliefs. Instead, DO make space for them to formulate their own thoughts about death and what may or may not occur after it. While some pet lovers take comfort in the Rainbow Bridge, it may not align with your friend’s world view.
If you’re still struggling with what to say, some of the kindest thing you can say in response to a significant loss are simple:
- "I'm so sorry for your loss."
- "I understand that you're hurting."
- "I'm here for you."
- “You loved him/her so much.”
- “(Name of pet) was so special and will be missed by many.”
DO know that if you believe the offer of a hug or to hold their hand is welcome, this can be a wonderful response, and soothing sounds can take the place of words.
Finally, you’ll often hear someone say, “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Alas, this blank invitation can inadvertently end up reinforcing the bereaved’s disorientation. DO keep in mind that they may be having trouble with the simplest of routines at this difficult time, so they need their community to help them by providing specific options and suggestions. These are best presented with the caveat, “It’s entirely up to you.”
12 Ideas for Hands-on Help You Can Offer:
- Feed, walk or provide care for other pets in the home
- Cook dinner or take them to lunch
- Pick up groceries or prescriptions
- Fill up the car with gas
- Drop off or pick up children from school
- Play with children or help them with homework
- Clean the house
- Do the dishes or laundry
- Mow the lawn, weed the garden, or stack firewood
- Run a couple errands
- Create a special drink (alcoholic or not) to toast the pet’s memory together
- If you’re comfortable, and there is a scheduled euthanasia, you can offer to go with them. They may prefer that you remain outside the room but you can offer to take them there and drive them home. You could also go with them to pick up the cremains, help prepare the remains for burial, dig the grave, or plan a memorial.
We’re fortunate to live at a time when our society is collectively moving toward more open acceptance of loss and grief as a natural part of being alive, not sidelined as exceptional experiences. And finally, pets are now embraced as deserving to be being fully honored and celebrated when they die. Let’s be there for each other to provide the comfort and support we need when it’s time to say goodbye to them.If you’d like, please explore detailed guidance and additional resources here. And of course, we always welcome your insights and feedback here.