The lost of a beloved pet is a very emotional experience. According to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey from the American Pet Products Association, 68 percent of US households have some type of pet. The majority of people understand the special bond a human can have with their pets. The loss of a pet is something all pet owners eventually have to face, however, even with so many people being pet owners, other people who have a living pet can still be incredibly insensitive at expressing sympathy to a friend or family member who has recently lost a pet.
Grief is a real experience
When a pet goes to the Rainbow Bridge and is different for each person, Pet loss is a grief that can be extremely hard as it falls into a classification of grief known as “disenfranchised grief” Disenfranchised grief is that which cannot be easily publicly mourned like the loss of a human family member. It is far more acceptable to burst into tears at work having recently lost a spouse or parent than if one has lost a family member that was a beloved pet.
People are very uncomfortable around grief, and people who have not experienced grief themselves may not know what to say at all. Others who may have experienced grief may even say things that are insensitive trying to comfort the bereaved. This guide is created so you can provide solace to those grieving a pet and not say something callous. Alternatives that express sympathy and compassion better are given if you cannot find the right words.
It is natural to be uncomfortable with death
We can change how we respond to it and do so in ways that do not destroy friendships, relationships or disrespect the grieving pet parent. Think before speaking about how what you say to express sympathy and choose to show compassion and support, not accidentally disregard the genuine pain and loss that person feels.
Never remind someone who has lost a pet “at least you have others.” You would never say such to a person who had lost a friend or family member. Each pet a person has is a unique relationship and an irreplaceable bond. The context of that pet’s relationship to the person cannot fully be known in some cases, and if that pet was a support animal during a divorce, the loss of a parent or helped that person through a trauma or had a significant role in their owners life, you are dismissive of that relationship and bond between owner and pet. A good suggestion is to say instead, “I am very sorry for your loss. I know how important your pet was to you. I hope that your other pets can be a comfort and help you through this most painful time.”
“You can always get another pet.”
Is also insensitive and can be one of the absolute most hurtful ways things to hear when grieving a pet. You would never suggest to a person who has lost a family member they could get another one. A pet is a member of the family. This is sadly the most common thing people say to someone grieving a pet. This was a sentient being they shared their life with and to treat it as if it were not a living thing but rather an inanimate object is extremely hard to hear. Just as you would never say to a man who has just lost a wife “You can always get another one” or worse, say such to people who have just lost a child, you should never say such to someone who has lost an animal family member who was loved and wanted. Losing a companion animal is losing a family member so sympathy should be expressed appropriately. If your blender dies, you can get another blender. You cannot get another Fluffy or George. A pet is not an appliance and it’s passing should not be spoken of so callously. Express sympathy by telling someone you are sorry for their loss and asking if there is anything you can do to help is how what should be said when a friend or loved one’s pet crosses the rainbow bridge.
Even if you hated someone’s dog or dislike all cats, when a person is grieving a pet, it is not the time to let them know “I didn’t like < Pet name here>. Maybe you can get something else next time.” You should not be passing judgment and talking about your feelings and opinion of their pet who has just died. Your feelings about their pet were and are irrelevant, and it was their pet and their grief you are trying to be supportive during. It is rude and egotistical to say such to a grieving pet owner. If you cannot say anything nice, try saying “I can’t imagine what you must be going through. How can I help?” is a decent thing to say even if you cannot sympathize with their loss having not had that special relationship with their pet that they certainly did have.
“Aren’t you over that yet?”
Is something people hear a lot when a person is grieving a pet and are still grieving weeks or months later or even have the ashes of their late pet in a place of honor in their home and still tear up if asked about the pet. People offer support and will check in on a grieving person for a short period but seem to forget that the grieving process is different for each and is an incredibly personal thing. There is no such thing as a time frame for grieving, and a person must be allowed to grieve as long as it natural for that individual. Do not think because a week or two has elapsed since the death of a pet that a person “is over” it. Continue to be supportive and make inquiries on how they are doing and feeling so they feel supported, and if they do need mental health support, you can be a good friend and listen to them.
In cases when a pet has to be euthanized, people often blurt out “at least he’s not in pain/suffering/sick anymore.” And while that may be true, the person who has just lost a pet is not ready to feel at peace and is grieving for the loss at that moment. While their pet is not suffering, they surviving human and that that emotional pain should be acknowledged with kind words like “This must be such a difficult time for you. You were with them during such a difficult illness. This must be so hard.” The choice to euthanize a pet is agonizing, and people need to feel they are understood and their choice respected, and grief is understood. Sometimes people can even feel bad about having to have their pet put to sleep and by giving them compassion and showing sympathy for them supporting their beloved pet during a long illness and being present for their late companion can help them grieve healthily and can deal with the complicated feelings surrounding having to euthanize a pet.
Being insensitive can also come from not liking the type of pet a friend or a family member has had die. It can be seen as hurtful and dismissive to simply not acknowledge the genuine grief of another human being for a pet by saying something like “I’m just not a dog/cat/lizard/fish person, so I don’t get why you’re so upset.” A person who cannot empathize with the person’s grief cannot be dismissive and should instead be polite and decent enough to have the presence of mind to “My absolute condolences. If there’s anything I can do to help, please ask.” Even at a workplace, a person should be allowed some time to cope and calm and at least be asked if their coworkers can make the day easier on them. Ideally, a personal day for the loss of a pet should be allowed as they have emotionally lost an actual family member and long-term relationship.
“At least he’s gone to heaven or is running free over the Rainbow Bridge.” is only comfort for those who take comfort in faith or meaning in the afterlife. For people who are secular and do not believe in an afterlife, this statement can seem trite, even if it most often comes with good intent and a sense of not knowing what to say. Opening an open-minded dialogue with that person can help you be a better friend or family member if you do not know if they believe their pet had a soul. Their answers to kind questions can help you find a way to comfort them and take part if the rituals that your grieving peer may need to help them feel supported in their time of grief and can help them cope with the process of mourning. Never use death as a time to proselytize to a grieving friend. It is predatory. Show respect for the spiritual and personal beliefs of the person who is grieving, even if you do not share them personally.