We’ve talked on The Ralph Site blog many times about pet bereavement being a kind of disenfranchised grief. Within most societies, the death of a human is marked by expressions of sympathy, a funeral, the sharing of memories, etc. that can be painfully absent when a pet dies.
Bereaved pet carers often talk about being expected to get back to normal straight after the loss of a companion and many express the pain of feeling like no-one cares or will even mention their loss.
So, what can we do differently?
Send a sympathy card
One simple but powerful gesture is to send a sympathy card to someone who has lost a beloved pet. Yes, a phone call or visit can be great but a sympathy card is a lasting expression that you care.
Many people comment on how touched they feel to receive a card from their pet’s vet, for example. It serves to validate that the animal mattered and that the vet could recognise the bond between pet and carer. It also shows that the animal mattered to the vet, especially if the vet has been involved with end-of-life care.
But it’s not just vets who should send sympathy cards. If you know someone who has lost a pet, give them a card – it really will make a difference.
Knowing what to write
Sympathy cards are always hard to write. Maybe one reason we don’t typically send them when an animal dies is that we don’t know what to say. Maybe too, it’s because human and pet relationships feel exclusive and unique, untouched by the world beyond the family home.
Not everyone wants to have a pet or understands how the grief of losing one can be comparable to losing a human loved one. This might shape how some people respond to pet loss.
A human death is devastating but at least we have some societal clues and norms to follow to suggest what we should say (not that people always get that right!). The absence of this guidance for animals is maybe another reason that pet carers are often left feeling alone.
We can do better.
A sympathy card is a way of letting the bereaved person or family know that we care that they’re hurt and that we’ll be there for them.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an animal lover or not. What matters is your relationship with the person who is grieving and how you are able to support them.
Try these sympathy card tips:
- Name the pet who has died instead of saying “I was sorry to hear about your dog/cat/rabbit, etc.”
- Share a memory of the pet if you have one. There is something so special about the sharing of memories; it tells the bereaved person that you remember their pet positively and that they will live on in some way with you as well as those closest to them.
- Share any photos you have. Life is busy and pet carers often regret not taking more photos of their pet, especially in their prime. Many of us take countless photos when a pet first comes to live with us or as we become aware of their days being numbered but it’s the moments in between that can be the hardest to capture. If you have photos of the pet, pop a copy in your sympathy card – it will mean the world.
- Acknowledge the loss. Pet carers often feel that people want to minimise their pain by dismissing the importance of the lost pet. There is nothing worse than hearing someone say, “It was just a cat” or “At least you can get another dog”. It’s okay for a pet carer to feel grief, pain, regret, sorrow – all those huge, sad feelings. Try a simple message like:
- We are deeply saddened by your loss of (name) and hope that you will be able to take comfort from the amazing memories you made together – you gave him/her a wonderful life.
- With deepest sympathy on the loss of your beloved friend, (name).
- I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your beautiful boy/girl, (name). He/she was such a beautiful/fun/cheeky/gorgeous (species) and clearly a much-loved member of your family; I know he will be missed.
- Words are inadequate to tell you how sorry we are about (name’s) passing. Is there anything you need? We’re here for you.
- Losing a loyal and true friend isn’t easy. Please know that I’m thinking of you, and if you need to talk or share memories, please call me. I’m sorry for your loss.
- Although others may not understand your grief, I do. Losing a pet like (name) can leave a hole in your heart and a void in your life. Know that I am thinking of you and offer my condolences.
- (Name) was such a fun-loving and sweet (species). His/her passing has shocked us and I’m sure devastated you. I have such fond memories of him/her. Let’s get together soon and catch up on things.
Some people find extraordinary comfort in believing that their pet has crossed over the Rainbow Bridge to wait for them or that there is another form of afterlife where they are safe and happy.
For others though, religious concepts don’t sit well with their own belief system. Being told you’ll see your pet again when you don’t believe this can be heart-breaking because it can feel like an attempt to minimise or undermine the sense of permanence you feel.
It’s important to tailor your message to what you know about the bereaved person.
If they are a religious or spiritual person they may appreciate a message that reflects the hope of eternity. However, it might be better to err on the side of caution – i.e. on a non-religious message – if you’re not sure of your loved one’s beliefs.
Ultimately, no-one finds it easy to know what to say in the face of a bereavement. We often worry that we’ll make things worse or hurt the bereaved person unintentionally. But sometimes silence is even more hurtful.
We don’t have to understand the nature of the loss. We don’t have to feel it ourselves. But expressing sympathy is a true kindness to someone we care about and that’s what matters.
So, the next time someone you love loses a pet that they love, send them a sympathy card. It will mean so much.