Seven things not to say to grieving pet carers

The Ralph Site was created to offer bereaved pet carers a safe space where they could talk about their lost pet whenever and as often as needed. Our lovely community is united by the shared experience of grief, making it full of people who ‘get’ what it’s like to say goodbye to a beloved animal companion.

One of the things that make the community so special is that no-one attempts to minimise the loss each member has experienced.

Sadly, in the wider world, this isn’t always the experience of bereaved pet carers.

While our friends and family mean well, we can often feel like they are minimising our grief.

This can be deeply hurtful and lonely. If you’ve come to The Ralph Site today because you want to know how to support a friend or family member who’s grieving a much-loved pet, please remember these seven things that grieving pet carers wish you wouldn’t say:

1. “He/she was just a dog/cat/horse/rabbit/budgie*” (*insert as applicable)

Most bereaved pet carers have this supposed gem of ‘comfort’ offered to them at some point after their pet dies.

But this one sentence can have a hugely negative impact on the grieving person.

What is says is that there’s a hierarchy for grief and that the loss shouldn’t be as painful because they have lost a non-human companion and not a person.

This statement assumes the pet’s importance, the word ‘just’ minimising the animal’s significance in their own right. It also downplays the relationship between the carer and their pet.

The truth is that when someone has lost anything they love – be it a person, a pet, a job, a dream for the future – it’s not our job to say whether or not their pain is valid.

Nothing is comforting about this sentence. Your intention might be to reduce the person’s grief but that isn’t possible.

What grieving pet carers would like you to say instead:

“I know how much he/she meant to you and I’m sorry for your loss”.

2. “When are you going to get another one?”

People often ask bereaved pet carers this question or a variation on the theme like, “Well, at least you can get another one”.

The implication here is that one animal is interchangeable with another – they don’t even have to be the same species!

But it’s a bit like asking someone if they plan to replace a lost sock as if the pet is a generic item that you can pick up in the local shop. Or as if the person is grieving what they have lost (i.e. the type of animal) rather than who they have lost (i.e. the personality of their loved one).

To someone who is grieving their pet, this question is as horrific as saying to a bereaved parent, “So, are you planning a new baby straight away then?”

If you’ve never had the kind of human/animal bond that leaves you heartbroken when the pet dies or goes missing then, of course, it can be hard to understand the nuances of that relationship.

Yes, the person may decide to get another pet at some point, but it will never be a replacement for the one they’ve lost. Each pet has a unique personality, quirks, likes and dislikes. They are no more replaceable than you are.

What grieving pet carers would like you to say instead:

“He/she was such a character. I will always remember when…”

3. “It’s not like losing a child/parent/sibling/friend*” (*again, insert as applicable)

This is another statement that people often believe will help a bereaved pet carer by putting their loss into perspective.

It’s a way of saying, “Things could be worse”.

But, again, this makes assumptions about the hierarchy of grief – i.e. that some losses are more legitimate than others – and about the relationship the person shared with their pet.

Who’s to say that things could be worse for the person who’s grieving?

Do any of us have the right to tell someone else how much grief is appropriate?

While we each have our own beliefs and expectations around grief, these are very much rooted in our individual experiences. But everyone’s perspectives are different. It’s not fair to compare.

Research shows time and again that losing a pet can be as hard, and sometimes even harder than losing a friend or relative.

People will often say that they grieved more for their pet than for one of their parents or when a sibling died. Other people see their pets as very much fulfilling the role of a child within the family dynamic.

Pets offer unconditional love and non-judgmental presence – no wonder we miss them so much.

What grieving pet carers would like you to say instead:

“I can see how sad you are and I’m sorry for your loss”.

4. “He/she was really old anyway.”

A sad truth of life is that most companion animals have much shorter life spans than their human companions. When we bring an animal into our home, it’s with the knowledge that – in most cases – we will outlive them.

So, in that respect, pet bereavement is never fully unexpected.

People will often try to comfort a bereaved pet carer by saying, “But he/she was really old anyway”.

The intention is kind. It’s a way of saying, “They lived a good, long life”. And in some ways, maybe it is a comfort to know that a pet has lived for many happy years and has died with no questions left about what their life could have been.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.

What grieving pet carers would like you to say instead:

“I know you had XX years together, but I also know that forever wouldn’t have been long enough.”

5. “Are you really going to spend money on a cremation/memorial/casket?”

When a pet dies, you may assume that they will be buried in their family’s garden. This was often what happened by default in the past unless the pet was a larger dog or horse.

However, times have changed.

An increasing number of people choose to have their pet cremated and then keep their ashes in a beautiful urn.

There are lots of reasons for this – not everyone has a garden or plot of land suitable for a burial; people move more often than before, or perhaps they prefer the thought of cremation.

Disposing of an animal’s physical remains can be a surprisingly costly business but, for many pet carers, it’s also an important rite, a way to say goodbye that we take for granted when a human passes.

While you may see pet cremation in terms of its monetary costs, the value to your bereaved loved one is knowing that their pet has been cared for and well-treated even after death.

What grieving pet carers would like you to say instead:

“What a beautiful memorial and a way to honour your friend.”

6. “You’re not still upset, are you?”

Sadly, many pet carers are asked this question or a variation like, “Aren’t you over it yet?”

Something we emphasise at The Ralph Site is that grief doesn’t have a set timeline or expiry date. It’s not something you get over or close the book on.

Grief is a process, a journey with lots of highs and lows, U-turns and diversions. And everyone experiences in their own time.

When you care for someone who’s grieving, it’s natural to want to see them come to a point at which they’re free from pain. But grief isn’t something you can fast forward to completion.

Asking someone why they’re still upset or telling them they should be over their loss can be hurtful. It suggests that how the way they feel isn’t normal or that it’s too indulgent.

What grieving pet carers would like you to say instead:

“Take all the time you need. I’m here for you if you want to talk. Is there anything you would like to do to commemorate him/her?”

7. “Let me know what I can do.”

Although this is a lovely sentiment, the truth is that people rarely follow-up on a vague offer of help. This is especially the case with pet bereavement as people often feel that they shouldn’t make a ‘fuss’ or that they should be able to carry on as normal.

Also, this kind of offer is just so open-ended that people don’t want to take liberties by asking too much.

But the reality is that when someone is grieving, they may need practical help while they learn to adjust to life without their pet. If you can offer support, it will be appreciated.

What grieving pet carers would like you to say instead:

“Let me pop some meals round later or pick the kids up from school as I know you probably don’t feel up to that at the moment.”

Finding the right words

Bereavement is a tough topic for many of us to talk about, especially when the departed loved one is a pet.

We won’t always get it right.

It’s natural to want to make a loved one’s grief smaller or to hope that you can take it away altogether. Sadly, that isn’t possible.

When supporting someone who is grieving, the most helpful thing that any of us can do is to listen unconditionally.

And, please, remind your loved one that they’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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