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.
I really love this and am SO bummed I missed the live hangout. I couldn’t agree more with the memory sharing — when Yuki died, I actually put a call out to, well, everyone, asking them to share either a favorite memory they had of Yuki (because it seemed like everyone who met her fell a little bit in love with her) or, if they didn’t know her, a special memory of their own pet. I cried over those stories for days (hell, I’m tearing up now), but it helped me heal and made Jared and me feel less alone in our grief.
Dr. V says
I love that you actively solicited those remembrances. GREAT idea.
Lisa W says
If you knew me at all well, then you also knew Bailey. So I loved it when people shared memories of the two of us. And a friend of mine also devoted a blog post to her. <3 (Still makes me tear up 4 1/2 years later!) Also, I took screenshots of Facebook posts/comments as well as his blog so that I would always have them. It's nice to be able to look back at them when the mood strikes.
Dr. V says
Screenshots- what a great idea!
E.A. Summers says
I think another discussion could be, how to handle the unhelpful comments when someone says the wrong thing.
I suffered through those inevitable cancer horror stories others chose to share when I was fresh to my losses – out of a sense of not wanting to be insensitive. I’d stand there trying to hold myself together.
I don’t do that anymore. I stop the speaker and quietly say that I cannot have that discussion right now – maybe another time. For me, I have become ok with saying that a comment is not helpful. I know that sometimes people just do not know what to say and also that I am not at my best, but last loss, I got very selfish and took care of me.
Dr. V says
That’s a great suggestion. And I am glad you took care of yourself, it can be very hard to do when on top of your own grief you now have to worry about offending someone!
Sheryl B says
More of a suggestion for ‘what to do’ as opposed to ‘what to say,’ but I make a donation in the pet’s memory when I learn of a friend’s loss. I usually pick Best Friends because then the person also receives the magazine. But a local organization would be wonderful too.
E.A. Summers says
Wow, great idea Sheryl B!
Dr. V says
Lovely idea. That would have meant a lot to me, for sure.
This is a truly brilliant list!
Another one *not* to say is “I know how you feel.” What you mean to convey is that you’ve lost a pet so you can empathize with their pain. You truly do know the terrible pain, from the heart.
But… you don’t know EXACTLY how they feel. You don’t know what it was like to love their animal, or how they went through multiple life changes with that animal, or how they raised it from an orphan.
Dr. V says
That is a great one. So very true! Thanks for adding to the list.
Sue B says
For me the Wrong that hurt the worst was “I know how much you loved her, but there will be others to take her place”. Little do they know that no “other” takes one’s place, but rather provides new great memories, love and companionship. When the pet you love dies, it breaks your heart and takes a little piece with them so it can be room to fill by a new love.
Dr. V says
Wow Sue, that is one of the worst things I’ve heard. What a terrible, awful thing to say.
Jen deHaan | DOGthusiast.com says
As others have mentioned here, families grieve their four-legged family members as strongly as they do losing members of their immediate two-legged family. The grief might be different, but it can be just as strong as I experienced myself after losing a father and most grandparents. I’m not sure why, but I believe that it has to do with the innocence, selflessness, beauty, and lack of baggage in a pets death. You don’t have those memories of the time you were lied to, the times they let you down, or discovering the secret life they led or sketchy magazines hidden in a back closet. (For what it’s worth, some of this is from experience and others from stories I’ve heard from friends! Not saying which is which.) With pets, you generally have memories of their unconditional love and devotion, of child-like happiness, of spending great times together, of being consoled by them when humans let you down (where will you get that assistance now?) and being gone-too-soon.
There are sometimes emotions around whether it was the “right time” due to the family choice for a humane euthanasia in the face of pain. There may be misplaced guilt at not noticing a symptom. There are many complexities and emotions when losing a four-legged family member, in addition to the intense grief of losing a beloved companion that loves so completely.
I have met, in pet loss grief group, humans that have trouble moving on with their lives 2 years after the death of their dog companion – because it was the only thing that they had in their life for 16 years. Human or furred. It can be intense. However, it does not matter how long the person had the dog necessarily. I bonded instantly and strongly to a dog I had only 8 months – I can hardly imagine what it would have been like if I had him a long time, but the grief was insane after only 8 months.
So with that, as others have mentioned, treat it as you would any person in grief. I recommend simply doing something, as opposed to asking (as the answer will more often than not be they don’t need anything). Buy a meaningful card, and take them some dinner or baking or whatever else might help them out that you’re able to assist with. Don’t ask, just do.
I can say without doubt if any of my acquaintances did something of this nature after my beloved heart dog left this earth, my opinion of them as humans would have raised infinitely. Most said nothing. My own father was incredulous I could still be sad a few days later about “the doggie” (I hate that word.) The fact this question is even raised means you’re headed in the right direction.
Dr. V says
Thank you Jen, so much truth in all you have said.
Mike Asara says
My friend just lost a dog. Honestly, I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say. I’m afraid that I’ll say something wrong and make things worse. Now I have a guideline.
Dr. V says
I’m glad this gave you some ideas!
Shannon W. says
Thank you so very much for posting this. I am going to share it with many friends.
Dr. V says
Thank you Shannon!
This list is perfect. I recently lost my best friend, Lassie, in August and the grief has been more than I ever could have imagined. As a pet blogger I’ve received so many kind words of comfort, however, I have also received some words that had the best of intentions, but were not at all comforting.
I don’t know if this has already been mentioned in the comments, and it probably could go with “He’s in a better place.” but I would suggest not brining religion or personal beliefs into it unless you know the person and their beliefs really well. Even then it may not be a good idea to bring it up. Often times, while you’re in mourning, you lose sight of what you once believed so strongly.
I had a very well meaning person mention reincarnation to me, something I have never believed in, but respected that other people do. The idea of reincarnation has never scared more than it did then, when someone suggested I get a puppy when I’m ready because it could be Lassie, reborn again. That was not comforting for me, it brought me a great deal of distress. Normally I would just shrug it off and think to myself, “That’s their belief.” but when you’re mourning over the loss of someone you loved so completely, you do not think rationally. I stressed and worried, “What if they’re right? What if Lassie is reborn but ends up with some other family because I was not ready for a puppy at the time of his rebirth? Would he be allowed to wait until I am ready?” I could not STAND the thought of someone else having my Lassie and I’m sure the person who made the comment did not mean for me to take it that way, but that was instantly where my mind went. Lassie is MY dog. Always has been, always will be, even in death. That is my belief. I can’t stand the thought of him being reborn into any body other than the perfect one he had before his passing. I cannot stand the thought of him looking different or living with someone else because I was not, am not, ready for another dog yet. I know other people find comfort in the belief of reincarnation and that’s fine, good for them, honestly. But for me, it only made me feel sick to my stomach.
I have been known to say, “that just sucks.” And it does, and the person feels a little better because they don’t have to spend time telling me that they’re ok with it. They don’t NEED to be be ok with it. It does suck.
Eloise Bright says
That is a great list, and I think you are so right in saying a simple ‘I’m sorry for your loss’, is better, rather than trying to say something profound or talking about the time you lost a pet. I have been a Vet for 7 years now and still struggle with this side of the job. The one thing I have tried to stop doing is babbling and filling the silence with words when it is time to do the deed. Sometimes just allowing people to spend their last moments with their pet, without feeling like I need to say anything is better.
And don’t suggest that they get another pet immediately to help them over the pain. Those for whom this is okay won’t need you to point it out to them. For the rest, it is a completely inappropriate suggestion.