Pet Sympathy: What do we say (or not say) when someone loses a pet?
Solidarity in grief…on being a voice of compassion for someone who has lost their pet.
When someone we care about faces the death of a beloved pet we want to say and do helpful things for them. For those of us who are pet lovers there is a unique solidarity in the grief of a lost pet. But not everyone
is a pet lover and that can make relating to someone grieving a lost pet more difficult. Over the years I have learned one golden principle before opening my mouth to offer someone else comfort…and that is to always “error on the side of grace“. Following this principle has served me well. First though, let’s take a step back and consider a few things that can help us be a source of compassion when someone we love is in mourning.
Grace is patience and understanding as grief is complex.
Grief is complex. It is a spectrum of deep and varying emotions. I will never forget the depth of the emotion I felt when I lost my first dog. I was taken back by the depth of the heart-break. It was the first time in my life that emotional pain literally equated to physical pain. I was also surprised at how complex my grief was. I bounced from anger to sadness to extreme guilt; over and over. I questioned my judgment and felt I failed my dog.
Whether someone has lost their pet quietly in its sleep to old age, in a tragic accident or chose to humanely euthanize a sick pet; the parent is going to experience a range of emotions and all need grace in friendship. We can’t assume we know exactly what someone is feeling when they are grieving. Thankfully, you don’t have to understand someone’s pain to “sit with them” in it. It is always possible to be present for them no matter what they are feeling. It is helpful to keep this universal truth about grief in mind; WE DON’T GET OVER GRIEF. Rather, WE LEARN TO LIVE WITH GRIEF. Learning to live with grief takes varying amounts of time for different people. Grief is also rarely isolated to one loss. When someone is grieving the loss of their pet it may open them back up to past losses they have experienced in their life.
Routine complicates grief. Our pets are creatures of habit. They love and live for their routines and their routines becomes our routines For most of us there is more than just routine though. We have silly and joyful rituals with our pets…around feeding, treats and tricks, bedtime, etc. When our pet dies the disrupted routines and rituals transform in to a series of daily painful reminders of the emptiness we feel. When my rottweiler Hercules died I cried twice a day; everyday; for at least a month when I fed the other dogs their breakfast and dinner. Hercules was such a huge presence at meal time that when he was gone this once joyful task became a sad one. It takes a long time to establish new routines and rituals.
Grace does not judge
Ok…I will say it plainly as I can. This is the time to KEEP OUR OPINIONS TO OURSELVES! This is where the “error on the side of grace” principle really matters. NOTHING about losing a pet is cut and dry. When someone is grieving it is NOT the time to share our opinion on whether a pet should die naturally or be euthanized; nor our opinions on what could have been done medically differently or how an accident could have been prevented or whether a pet should be cremated or buried. Button up! Trust me on this one. If we value friendship and desire to be a person of compassion, judgment should be spared.
Compassion and judging someone’s actual grief process are also incompatible. Grief is a unique journey for each person in both its intensity and duration. Everyone deserves the space to grieve in their own way. Some people grieve immediately and very openly. Some people grieve privately and at times long after a loss has occurred. I made the mistake of sharing my own grief with people I thought I could lean on. Instead of solidarity or compassion I was shamed and diminished for grieving the loss of a “damn dog”; once by a so-called “pastor” and once by a family member. That experience permanently changed those relationships. It is NOT childish or silly to grieve a pet. Rather, it is a mature reflection of love. It is typical for our relationships with our pets to be more affirming to our lives than our relationships with some people. When someone is grieving a pet they are on the right side of history. The bond between people and animals dates back to ancient times. Countless pre-historic grave sites have been found with people and their dogs buried together.
Grace doesn’t start theological arguments
As a seminary graduate I have a lot of thoughts on theology, religion, philosophy, etc. I try to live by a rule that I don’t offer those thoughts unless I am specifically asked about them. As I have grown older I have
become much more comfortable with mystery and tension…(by tension I mean acceptance that there are things I will never understand). I have also never met a winner of a theological “argument”…because Truth is a journey…Truth is not something we hit each other over the head with. When someone is experiencing a great loss, an important part of a normal healing process and their own spiritual journey is to explore and/or reaffirm their own convictions about life after death. Many years ago the same person who shamed me for mourning my dog also chastised me with the “I suppose you think the damn thing is in heaven now too” line…seriously! The comment literally sucked the air out of my lungs…I couldn’t respond…I just walked away feeling emotionally mugged. Frankly, at that time I had not come to any conclusions about what I believed happened to pets after death…it was the first time I was faced with processing the death of a pet. But I will always recall that moment as one of the cruelest interactions I have had with another person. Perhaps it was the best lesson I ever learned in the importance of extending grace when interacting with someone who is grieving. Trust me, its a really bad idea to give someone your theological treatise on pets and death…give them the grace and the space to work that out themselves. Today, I have very strong convictions on life after death for all creatures…but that was my own journey to take.
Avoid campy euphemisms:
Sometimes they slip out; but if we can, it is a good idea to avoid campy euphemisms like, “at least they are not in pain anymore” or “he is better off now”. Seriously, these are not helpful statements when you really think it through. No one in mourning is satisfied with the implication that their loved one is better off dead. Perhaps it might be a factual statement but it does not bring comfort to the bereaved and therefore is not helpful. I shouldn’t have to say it but I will; “it’s just a dog/cat” or “you can always get another dog/cat”…bad, really bad things to say.
It is normal for us to want to “speak” and “help” and “do” when someone is hurting and that is a beautiful thing. To keep myself from letting tricky statements slip out of my mouth I try to stick with “you questions” when I have the urge to say something….for example “what can I do for you?”…”how can I help you through this?”…”how can I make this better for you?”.
It also is a good idea to avoid unsolicited advice like’ “why don’t you get a puppy to make you feel better”. Again, well intended but not helpful. Some people will get another pet within days of losing a pet…others will never get another pet. Give them the space to work it out on their own. If they ask for help getting another pet…by all means trot them down to the local shelter!
So what do we say and do for someone grieving the loss of a pet?
Here is my unsolicited advice for standing in solidarity with someone who is grieving their pet.
- Say nothing. Just listen. Let’s be honest…we stink at this. I could write an entire blog post on the “ministry of silence”…maybe I will. But we don’t have to talk to be helpful. We can sit in silence with someone who is in pain. Our quiet presence is often the best form of solidarity we can offer. For someone in mourning; expressing their range of emotions out loud can be very therapeutic. Being a quiet and patient listener for someone in mourning is a great gift. You don’t have to have words of wisdom…just be there. If you just have to say something…thank them for trusting you with their feelings and reaffirm your solidarity with them.
- Be honest. If you aren’t a pet lover or have not yet experienced the loss of a pet BE HONEST about not understanding their grief. You don’t have to understand someone’s pain to stand in solidarity with it. Express how much you care about them and your desire to be someone for them to lean on.
- Ask them how you can be useful. You can’t know how to help someone unless you give them a chance to tell you. Grief is a really strange journey and you might be surprised at what someone will find helpful. We can’t know unless we ask.
- Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t avoid their discussions about their pet. Share your favorite story about their pet; using their pets specific name out loud.
- Make a condolence gesture. Send a sympathy card (a real one…not an ecard…hand write your message); I still have all the pet sympathy cards. They mean a lot to me. Get the bereaved a picture frame or scrap-book. My favorite memorial gift is a wind chime. I have wind chimes in my yard for all of my pets who have crossed over and it is my favorite gift for someone else. Other great ideas are yard stone markers; St. Francis statues; make a donation in their pet’s name. I am going to do an entire post on unique ideas to offer condolence and memorialize a pet.
- Check on the bereaved often…remember; grief is journey that lasts the rest of our lives…the most difficult part of that journey can go on for weeks, months, maybe longer. Check on them and ask them specifics on how they are doing and what you can do to be there for them.
We all struggle with seeing someone we love in pain so I really hope this post is helpful. I enjoy hearing from other pet parents with their ideas and experiences of grief and healing. You can contact me by commenting on this post or by email at email@example.com.
If you are struggling with the guilt that often comes associated with the loss of a pet I encourage you to read the post I wrote on euthanasia and guilt. Working through my own guilt after the loss of my first dog was a long and painful journey for me. Part of the healing process was finding solidarity with other pet parents who experienced the same feelings of guilt. Follow this link: Euthanasia and Guilt.
I am an artist and full-time rescue mom. The majority of my art is pet rescue themed or pet sympathy themed. Pet sympathy cards are my favorite work and also my best-selling items. If you are looking for handmade pet sympathy cards please follow this link: The Rescue Mama ETSY Shop. I offer discounts to pet professionals purchasing 10 or more cards at a time…send me an email or convo me directly through ETSY for a coupon code.
This is the first in a series of posts I am writing this year on pet sympathy related topics. I am going to follow up this post over the next few weeks with a post on writing sympathy cards and other gestures of condolence, a resource guide for those who are in mourning and finally a post on my own convictions regarding pets and the afterlife.
If you are a lover of “all things pet” please consider following my blog. I blog weekly on a variety of topics related to pet parenting, pet rescue and expressing my life through art. I also have a The Rescue Mama Facebook Page and The Rescue Mama Pinterest Page. My Pinterest page is a collection of both my original content and curated content. I have boards that cover pretty much every topic you can think of regarding pets! If you are looking for pet art, pet cards or some fancy pet accessories please visit The Rescue Mama ETSY shop!
On the journey,
The Rescue Mama