What to say and do when someone loses a pet
Perhaps you’re the one who’s experienced pet loss, and was surprised when an otherwise caring friend said something hurtful. Or worse, said nothing at all.
Or maybe you’ve been on the other side: you felt awkward upon hearing that a friend’s dog or cat had died. You didn’t know what to say, or were afraid to say or do the wrong thing.
Most of us want to do the right thing. Someone we know is in pain, and we want to ease that pain. But death is an uncomfortable subject for most of us. And the emotions that surround the death of a pet can be difficult for others to understand, especially if you don’t have a pet yourself. But even the most open and articulate among us can find it difficult to choose the right words or undertake the right actions when faced with another’s grief.
For this post, I spoke with a wide range of professionals: veterinarians, for whom pet loss is part of the job description, bereavement counselors, who see people through their grief every day, and pet experts of all stripes, to get their insight into what to say and do when someone loses a pet.
To a pet lover, what does having a pet mean?
It’s not hard to explain to another pet lover what having a pet means. Even if we don’t know the right words to say when we’ve heard that someone’s pet has died, we do have some sense of the loss that they must be feeling.
But if you have never owned a pet, or if you don’t relate to the idea of loving an animal, it can be hard to understand the scope of a pet owner’s feeling of loss when their pet has died.
For many pet owners, a dog or cat, or a bird or small animal, is an integral part of the family. For some, the pet is a best friend. “We are vulnerable with our pets and share a large part of our lives with them,” explained veterinary surgeon Linda Simon, a consultant for FiveBarks. “In return, they offer us their support and a constant love and loyalty.”
Pets of any kind, from horse to hamster, give shape and meaning to the lives of their guardians, who structure their days around caring for their pets, even if their lives are otherwise full. “They wake us up in the morning to get fed. They keep us active, and on a schedule,” said animal communicator Terri Jay (terrijay.com).
Owning a pet can make a person feel useful and needed. “Having a pet can be closely tied to having a purpose, having a living thing to serve, love, and spend time with,” said grief coach Shelby Forsythia (shelbyforsythia.com). For many, pets are more than “just pets.” “Pets are friends, children, caretakers, protectors, and companions,” she added.
What does the loss of a pet mean to the person who loved the pet?
For many, the loss of this routine and structure is deeply felt. I know from personal experience how hard it is to wake up the next morning to find the empty food bowl, knowing there was no reason to fill it. “When a person loses a pet…they will miss not only the animal, but also the shared experiences and routine that had likely been in place for many years,” explained Forsythia.
But, of course, it’s not just the loss of the routine, but the loss of the living being that had become entwined with the pet guardian’s life. “Losing a pet can feel like losing a family member,” explained Katie Ziskind, licensed therapist and owner of Wisdom Within Counseling. “It is agonizing,” added Jay.
When a pet dies, the guardian feels the loss of the day-to-day companionship of the pet. “Pet bereavement can be absolutely devastating for many people…that source of companionship and unconditional love is now gone,” said Wendy Andrew, owner of The Scottish Pet Bereavement Counseling Service, and author of How to Recover from Pet Loss. But as in any loss, there is also the loss of the future life with that pet, the hopes and dreams of fun times to come and memories to be made.
The pain can be compounded because a grieving pet parent often feels alone in their grief. When a human family member passes, there are rituals, such as funerals, to cling to, and automatic community support. Some grieving pet owners may doubt their own grief, wondering whether the intensity of their feelings is “normal.” “A person grieving the loss of a pet is often embarrassed to admit the depth and breadth of their pain,” said Dr. Robin Moore, owner of East Bay Animal Hospital and Pets ‘n Moore.
What should you should say to someone who has lost their pet?
When the news of a pet’s death reaches us, we often don’t know what to say. If the pet guardian has shared this information with us personally, we may feel put on the spot, and at a loss for words. Whatever words tumble out of our mouths may feel stilted or awkward. We can feel we didn’t say something meaningful enough, or conversely, said something that felt too emotional or too personal.
We might hear of the death second-hand and then feel unsure about how to move forward. It may seem callous to ignore this information, but what is appropriate? A phone call? A text? A note? And what should we say on that call or in that note? It’s easy to put the question aside for the moment, and then eventually the “moment” becomes forever.
“In talking with someone who has lost their pet, the most important thing is to honor the significance of the loss. Words that acknowledge the importance of the relationship can help the pet parent feel understood and less alone in their grief,” explained Jill Lauri, who counsels pet parents through illness and loss (Healing With Animals).
“Saying, ‘I'm sorry for your loss; I know how important they were to you,’ is helpful too, because sometimes society doesn't consider a pet's death a significant loss,” added Forsythia.
Your words don’t have to be deep. Your sentiment doesn’t have to be complicated or profound. Your words will not resolve your friend’s grief, but your openness and willingness to acknowledge their grief can help ease their pain.
Here are the kinds of things that are helpful to say:
- “I know you loved Whiskers dearly.”
- “Dogs are part of our families. I know Beau was part of yours.”
- “Henry was lucky to have you.”
- “I know that nothing I can say will make you feel better. But I am here for you.”
- “What can I help you with?”
Whatever you decide to say, keep this in mind:
- Use the pet’s name. The cat is not just “a cat” to the person who has lost him.
- Show you understood the importance of the relationship with the pet. To pet guardians, their pets are their family.
- Do not assume you know what the bereaved would like from you. Ask how you can help.
- Say that you are there for them. You don’t have to have all the answers; you only have to be present.
What are some things you should never say to someone who has lost a pet?
The best-intentioned among us can easily say the wrong thing to a person who is grieving, increasing their suffering. We all want to say something that “makes it better,” and so our worst impulses in these circumstances often come from a place of wanting to help.
“You don't need to remind them that it's a pet and they aren't expected to live as long as a human. Every pet owner already understands that,” said Kevin Cook, founder of Love of Paws.
“Do not try to minimize the loss,” offered Dr. Simon. “Suggesting ‘it was only a dog,’ or that the bereaved can ‘always get a new puppy’ is not helpful…[it] suggests that they were disposable in some way,” she explained.
“Never say, 'Will you get another cat/dog/other species?' This is highly insensitive and completely devalues the relationship that the person had with their pet. To them, their pet is completely irreplaceable,” suggested Andrew.
Sally Collins, founder of Sympathy Message Ideas, a website designed to help people struggling with what to say to those who are grieving, provided this list of things one should never say to a grieving pet parent:
- “At least they lived a full life.” As we all know, a full life is never long enough.
- “They are in a better place.” This may be hurtful to a pet guardian who felt that the best place for their pet was beside them.
- “Time heals.” Working through grief has no specific timetable.
How should you behave around someone whose pet has died?
In our culture we tend to avoid talking about death.
Talking about the death of a pet adds another layer of discomfort, especially if we don’t personally understand why a person would feel the depth of sorrow that they seem to feel over the loss of an animal.
Regardless of your own feelings about animals, and even if you don’t have any experience or understanding of this particular kind of grief, behave with compassion.
“Validate their grief,” said Daniel Caughill, co-founder of The Dog Tale, who lost his own beloved dog this year. “Help them feel like they have the emotional slack to feel grief for a little while.”
“The greatest gift you can give a pet parent in mourning is to be willing to be with them in their time of grief – just listening without judgment,” added Lauri.
“The most important thing is to let them know they’re in a safe space and they don’t have to make an effort to make others feel comfortable. It’s their grief,” reminded Emma Miles, co-founder of PawsomeAdvice.
What are some things you can do to help a person who has lost a pet?
Even if we cannot erase the grief of those in mourning for their pets, there are still things we can do to help.
One of the most important services we can perform for someone who is grieving is to allow them to talk about their pets. We may think that talking about the pet who has died will “remind” them of their loss and only make them sadder, but nothing could be further from the truth.
“Those who have lost a pet may appreciate the opportunity to talk about them, to share fond memories and funny stories,” explained Dr. Simon. “They may also want to go back over the pet’s final weeks, to seek reassurance that they made the right decision. This is especially true if they had an owner pet who was very unwell towards the end,” she added.
Allowing the bereaved room to “just talk,” can be very therapeutic. “If the grieving pet parent wants to talk, simply listen. Let them speak and be heard,” said Andrew. “Allow them to express themselves without judgment.”
Do not hesitate to talk about the pet yourself, if you knew him or her. “Share stories about their pet if you knew them in life. Ask if your friend would like to share a story of their own, a favorite memory or a silly mishap that occurred,” suggested Forsythia.
Are there any concrete things you can do for a bereaved pet owner?
For those of us who would rather take action than talk, there are many concrete things that we can do that a bereaved pet parent may find helpful or comforting.
Stepping up early can be a godsend to someone who has just lost their pet and feels overwhelmed. “If the pet has recently passed, they may need help with decisions on cremation or burial. They may want help with picking out an urn or a headstone,” suggested Jay.
“If your friend doesn't want to come home to a house full of toys, food, and water dishes, ask to be the person who collects all of their pet's supplies and donate them to a local animal shelter,” advised Forsythia. “It can be quite difficult to do that [yourself] after you lose a pet, especially if the last days were difficult for the animal,” explained Nora Glover, founder of Catademy.
Send a sympathy card. You might think this is act typically reserved for the death of a person, but it can be very meaningful for a pet parent in mourning, too. “When they receive the card in the mail, it will mean a lot to them that you have let them know that you are thinking of them during this sad time,” explained Ziskind.
There are thoughtful ways to help memorialize the pet, too:
- Create a keepsake. Have jewelry, a painting, or even garden stepping stone made with the pet’s ashes. I love these portraits by Stellar Villa.
- Gift a plant in a rounded pot around which you can hang the pet’s collar.
- Order a memorial headstone or brick, personalized with the pet’s name, such as this one by PlaqueMaker or this one by Let’s Make Memories.
- Make a donation in the pet’s name. Consider a rescue that specializes in the pet’s species or breed, the ASPCA, or a large research veterinary hospital, such as Tufts Veterinary Hospital or Angell Memorial. Request, if possible, a “memorial donation,” in which a note is sent to the bereaved pet parent, alerting them that a donation was made in the pet’s name.
And beyond the first painful days after someone you care about has lost a pet, there are things you can do to continue to show support. “Put their pet's death date in your calendar and reach out every year just to check in,” recommended Forsythia, even if you wonder if the event has been forgotten.
I can assure you it has not. As a lifelong animal lover I can say this about my pets: their beautiful lives and the devastating loss of them leave a permanent mark.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.