I remember fighting back tears on that van ride to school. We were returning from a middle school field trip and the song, “We are the World,” came on the radio. As the chorus sounded, “It’s true we make a better place, just you and me,” it was all I could do to hold it together. When we returned to the school, my classmates filed out of the vans and into the building. As soon as there were no more kids around and my teacher, having noticed my quivering lip, asked if I was ok, I lost my composure and the tears flowed. I explained that my dog had passed away the day before. The “you and me” in the song had reminded me that there would be no more “us” when it came to my childhood furry friend and me.
I had no idea what to do with my emotions. I was so very sad, but didn’t know if it was ok to feel so distraught about a losing a pet. Luckily, my teachers were more than sympathetic and reassured me over and over that not only was it ok to feel so sad, that is was totally normal! Losing a pet is very much the same as losing a human family member, and in our grief, we deserve to be treated the same as if we have lost a human. It’s still difficult to know what to say when trying to comfort a friend or family member after the loss of a pet. Here, we have provided five discussion starters, based on advice from professionals, to guide your conversations.
- I’m so very sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do to help you through this difficult time? Dr. Kriss Kevorkian, who has a doctorate in thanatology--the study of death, dying, and bereavement--suggests to “say what you would say to someone who’s lost a human loved one.” It is insensitive to mention that your grieving friend/ family member just “get another pet,” as if it is easy to replace the one they have lost.
- I know your cat/dog was very special to you. I hope your other pets can help you cope with your loss. This recommendation comes from Eric Richman, a social worker at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University in Grafton, Massachusetts. He points out that even though a person may have other pets to comfort them, it is important to recognize the role that specific pet played in their life. “That pet may have had a significant impact or helped someone through a traumatic event. The context of the pet’s relationship has to be considered,” says Richman.
- How are you doing? How are you feeling? Continue to check in on your grieving friend or family member. According to Richman, “It’s never appropriate to put a time frame on anyone’s grief, as everyone grieves differently.” Assuming a grieving pet parent should “be over it by now,” is unfair. Give your friend plenty of time to properly remember and appreciate the time he did get to spend with his pet.
- Is there anything we can do to make the day easier for you? Bosses and/or coworkers should honor loss and respect if a worker who experiences pet loss needs to take a personal day. But if one doesn’t have personal time to take, it is a good idea to offer to do something to help make the day easier, like pick up a shift or step in to help.
- This must be such a difficult time for you. You were with him during a difficult illness.It is important to meet a your friend or family member where they are in the grieving process. They may not be ready to hear, “At least he’s not in pain anymore,” or “At least he’s running free over the Rainbow Bridge.” These sentiments may help you, the one offering condolences, but may not fit your friend/family members belief system.
Many people are not comfortable with grief, which makes it so difficult to know what to say or do when someone close to us is mourning the loss of a pet. Being willing to listen, recognizing their grief, and not rushing a grieving pet parent to move on can often be the comfort they need.