10 Things You Never Say To Someone Who Has Lost a Pet
You may know someone who has lost a pet and find that they are sad, may not want to go out, and tell you they are completely heartbroken. I hope by sharing some of my experience in my communications with bereaved pet owners, that you will have a better understanding how losing a pet can impact someone. That for some, losing their pet can be more momentous than losing a parent, sibling, or spouse. The role that pets now have has changed dramatically over the years as well as the type of pets we bring into our lives. Cats and dogs are no longer left outside to sleep on the porch and it is common to meet someone who has a skunk or hedgehog as their companion. We let our pets sleep in beds next our children, we purchase health insurance to help ensure they get medical care when needed, and for some, a will or contract has been arranged to guarantee that our pet is cared for in the event we die before them. Pets are by our side through career changes, marriage, moving, break ups, make ups and more. They are the steady presence always offering affection and comfort through good times and bad.
When a human family member dies, everyone you know rallies to send cards or flowers and stop by with food items. However, when someone loses a pet, the loss is often thought of as trivial or dismissed by simply suggesting they can get another pet. When someone tells us they have just lost a pet, our impulse is to say something that will make the pain go away or cheer them up and then, we are ready to move on. This type of disenfranchised grief can further complicate things for the person who has lost their beloved pet and leave them feeling further bereft.
I have co-facilitated a pet loss support group for several years and would like to share some of my experience and perception with examples of things people say with good intentions, but may not always provide empathy or comfort to the person who has just lost their cherished pet.
1. “They're not meant to live forever”
We never want to say goodbye to someone or something we have loved deeply. We don’t want to think about how many years together we'll have with our pet. It does not matter if they live 15 years, 10 years, or 2 years... It’s never long enough. An alternative sentiment may be "They were sure lucky to have you for as long as they did".
2. “At least their pain has ended”
There is a good chance that this owner is already second guessing themselves, the vet, and anyone who has ever touched their pet. For some, the realization that there pet was suffering may help them in their grief, but for others, it may not. It may be more assuring to offer a condolence such as "You did everything you could to provide them a happy quality life".
3. “I can’t believe how much money you have spent on care”
No one wants to be criticized for the choices and care they provided to their pet. People will spend their entire life savings to give their pet a chance to live longer. Perhaps a more comforting thought would be "You did so much for your pet and made sure they got the best medical care available".
4. “That breed seems to have a lot of issues, you shouldn’t get another one”
Certain breeds can have a sentimental value to a pet owner. Perhaps they grew up with a Labrador and having the same breed offers a happy attachment to their past. It's ok to caution someone, but try not to suggest your support is provisional.
5. “Think of all the free time you’ll have now”
Many pet owners take on a caregiving role when their pet is elderly or faced with a disease. They may have routines for medication dosing, feedings, and therapy. These routines often strengthen a bond and will be particularly difficult when the owner no longer has to provide the care. It may be helpful to let this owner know how strong and dedicated they remained through their pets illness or demise.
6. “You should get rid of all their things”
For some, keepsakes are an important part of grieving. Toys, leashes, or blankets can allow someone to still feel a connection if they have those personal items kept close. Allow the owner to take the time to determine what items hold sentimental value.
7. “I can’t believe you wanted your pet’s ashes”
At the end of a life, we are faced with so many choices, some of us are prepared and know what they're preference would be, and others not. Much like a human life , when a pet passes, the owner has to decide if they will have their pet cremated and have the ashes returned or not. Some people choose to bring their pets home to bury, but often this is not possible. Having an urn with a pets ashes on display somewhere in a home is a way for an owner to pay tribute to their pet and may provide comfort. This is certainly a personal preference and just being supportive may be best.
8. “It’s just an animal”
For some pet owners, they may not have children of their own and their pet was their child. Perhaps their pet belonged to family member that passed away and it allowed them a connection to that person. Animals have taken on the role to provide therapy or can be a companion for someone with a medical condition. Never underestimate the significance a pet represents to someone or the role that pet had in their life.
9. “Come on…let’s go get you a new one”
This may seem like a simple solution and for some people, immediately having a new pet will provide them comfort. For others, it could have a negative effect if they are not emotionally ready. Consider that a replacement pet will not be the best solution for the owner and perhaps have a conversation with them to see if they are ready. It may be best not to surprise someone, but first make sure they are willing to take on a new commitment.
10. “Why is it taking you so long to get over this”
Grieving a pet is a highly personal and individual experience. For some, the grief may last days and for others years. There is no time frame for grief and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. The significance the pet had in that owners life and the strength of the bond will impact the grief and the time it takes to get through the difficult feelings and emotions they may experience. Help the owner by asking him/her about their pet, let them share a story and honor the pets memory. Someone who has lost a pet needs you to be patient and understanding while they take the time they need to grieve.