This morning, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Joanne McGonagle over at The Tiniest Tiger for a Google Hangout on the topic of pet loss. I had this whole long post about how easy it is to get wrong and how hard it is to get right, but rather than go through the long sordid tales of all the times I’ve said the exact wrong thing I thought I would instead sum up what we, along with all the wonderful participants, concluded during the course of the talk. Some of the statements are specific to pet loss, but really, most of them are pretty universal when it comes to grief.
WORST THINGS TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS LOST A PET
1. How old was he?
While it may be an innocent question, it sort of implies a gradient of allowable grief depending on the age of the pet. Three? Tragic. Thirteen? Well, he was old, so it’s not quite so sad. Losing a pet is sad and awful no matter the circumstances; pets who lived a long life had that many more years to seal into your heart.
2. Aren’t you over it yet?
Clearly, they’re not. Making a person feel like there is something wrong with them for feeling sad will only force their sorrow into isolation. There’s no official grief timeline.
3. Come on, it was just a dog/cat/bird. I can get you another one this afternoon.
A pet is not a yoyo, an easily replaceable object. Nor is the pet a human, but that does not mean the attachment the person felt to their pet wasn’t just as deep, nor their grief easier to bear. And that individual will never be replaced.
4. Too bad you didn’t try fish oil/more chemo/crystal therapy.
Second guessing what a person did in the days leading up to a pet’s passing serves no purpose other than to add guilt to what they’ve already piled on themselves. This is not a teaching moment; nothing will change what happened. If you can’t say “You did the right thing”, don’t say anything.
5. My dog had cancer too- all of my dogs! And my hamster!
While it’s human nature to want to empathize through sharing similar experiences, beware of the Pain Olympics- being the person who has to turn someone else’s grief into their own, and then top it. “Oh, you’re sad? Well, not as sad as I WAS back in 08! Boy was that a doozy!”
6. He’s in a better place.
The only place we wanted him was here, with us.
BEST THINGS TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS LOST A PET
1. I’m so sorry for your loss.
Simple, right? Just acknowledge their pain. Those around a bereaved owner may hesitate to say anything out of discomfort, not knowing what to say, or trying to avoid having the topic come up at all. Make no mistake, they haven’t forgotten that they are sad, they’re just stuffing it down as hard as they can because that is what one is supposed to do.
2. My favorite memory is:
I love this one. Share a memory, something their pet did, or how their fur felt, or how they always leaned up against your leg. It is so lovely to have another person share with you an impact, no matter how big or small, your pet had on them too.
3. (Silent hug)
If you can’t think of any words, just go for the hug. It is another form of powerful acknowledgement.
4. Take as long as you need.
Grief is not a straight line that decreases in a defined percentage each day. Think of it more like a receding tide, waves roll in, then go back out, then roll up again, and pull back, a little bit further each time. There are good days and bad days, and having a meltdown 6 months after the fact in a Barnes and Noble just happens sometimes. It just does.
I’m happy to explore this topic more, as I think there is so much to learn to help us be better pet care providers, better caretakers, and better friends. If you have more suggestions as to things you’ve heard that were good or bad, please share them below.