One of the toughest aspects of grieving for a pet is that people often feel very alone and unsupported in their loss.
Sadly, a bereaved pet carer might be given a day off work and receive a few sympathy cards before they’re expected to put their loss behind them and get back to normality. Yet, in reality, the loss of a pet can be as devastating as the loss of a human companion.
If you’re reading this then you may well have a friend who is grieving the loss of their pet and you’re wondering how you can best support them.
Let us first start by saying thank you. Thank you for seeing their pain. Thank you for caring enough to ask how you can help them. Thank you for recognising their loss.
To help you, we’ve put together some ideas for gentle and compassionate ways that you can support your loved one during this difficult time:
Let them know that you’re there for them
Although you want to take your loved one’s suffering away, the truth is that you can’t. Grief is a journey we each have to go on, often numerous times, during our lifetimes. There is no quick fix and no timeline.
Instead, let your bereaved friend or family member know that you are there for them, however, they need you. They might need space, they might need to talk, they might need to cry or even to sit with you and say nothing at all.
Let them know that you’re there, no matter what.
Acknowledge that it’s normal to grieve for a pet
In our society, people often try to apply a hierarchy to grief – for example, a dog or a cat ‘trumps’ a small pet but nothing compares to the loss of a human.
In reality, this hierarchy is unhelpful and rarely applies.
It can also be hard to understand the depth of your loved one’s pain if you’re not an animal lover yourself. But just because it’s unfamiliar to some people doesn’t make grieving for a pet abnormal.
Pet bereavement is painful and traumatic. Your grieving loved one has lost a family member, someone they shaped their routines around and shared their home with, possibly for many years.
One of the kindest things you can do is to acknowledge that it’s normal to grieve.
Don’t minimise their loss
Grief is a challenging emotion to navigate, both for the bereaved individual and the people around them. In not wanting your loved one to suffer, you may try to distract them from their grief or downplay its impact.
You may feel so scared of saying the wrong thing that you don’t know how to acknowledge their loss at all.
But this may leave your loved one feeling very alone.
Please don’t let your friend or family member’s grief become the elephant in the room. They need you to acknowledge their feelings.
Help them take care of themselves
When you’re weighed down by the thoughts and emotions of grief, basic tasks like cooking a meal or staying on top of the washing can feel overwhelming.
Your loved one may appreciate you cooking dinner for them or taking over a few domestic tasks until they feel ready to do a bit more.
Support them with difficult tasks
If your loved one decided to have their pet cremated, one of the devastating milestones they will face is having to collect their companion’s ashes from the vet’s reception or pet crematorium.
Other difficult tasks might include packing away food bowls, toys or bedding that belonged to their pet.
People tend to tackle these tasks at different times but if it’s something your loved one faces then ask them if they would like you to help. This could mean driving them to the vet’s to collect the ashes or helping them pack everything away in a special box.
Think before you speak
In trying to be supportive, people can often say very hurtful things to bereaved pet carers. Many of us who’ve lost pets have heard the following:
- It was just a dog/cat/budgie/rabbit etc.
- At least you can replace a dog/cat/budgie/rabbit etc.
- When are you going to get a new one?
- You just need to move on
- Their lives are so short that you knew this was coming
- It’s so heart-breaking – this is why I don’t have pets
- It’s not like you’ve lost a child
- He was really old – you should be grateful he had a long life
- She was so old that you probably should have let her go a while ago
- If only you had….<insert helpful suggestion about preventing an accident, etc.> /Maybe you should have….<as above>
Although many of these phrases come from a good place in terms of wanting to help the grieving person to move on, it can be devastating to hear them.
Listen without judgement or offering advice
Sometimes the best thing we can do for a bereaved loved one is to listen to them without any input, other than to acknowledge that their loss must be incredibly painful.
Help them remember the good times
Guilt, trauma and sadness are all part of pet loss, so much so that people often focus on the pet’s passing or the events around them going missing rather than the full, happy life they lived up until the end.
Your loved one may well appreciate an opportunity to talk about the good times. Perhaps you could write down a happy memory of your loved one’s pet and share it with them in a card or by writing it on the back of a photo.
Although it can be hard to talk about the good times at first, it’s always good to know that there is the opportunity to talk to a compassionate listener about a much-loved pet.
Don’t expect grief to look a certain way
Everyone grieves differently. Some people like to talk about their lost loved one, look at pictures, write about them and generally keep them as present in everyday life as possible. For other people, that comes with time or not at all. Some people feel that their grief is private or that they don’t want to dwell on what’s gone.
Sometimes people get angry, other times they feel sad or even depressed. They might blame others for their loss or struggle to connect with their remaining pets.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to grief. We often act as if it’s something we need to get past but the truth is that grief isn’t something any of us can cure. We live through it, carry it with us and begin to shape a new normal out of it. And that’s OK.
Refer your loved one to further sources of support
Sometimes people who have lost a pet need some extra support. It can be particularly helpful to talk to others who have experienced a similar loss and understand its impact.
If you feel that your loved one needs more support, you could tell them about pet bereavement counsellors, The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Service, Paws to Listen Grief Support from Cats Protection, or The Ralph Site’s closed Facebook group.
Time is the greatest healer of all
It may be a cliché but time really is the greatest healer when it comes to grief. No-one knows how much time it will take them to come to terms with their loss, but you can help to make the journey through grief easier by standing at your loved one’s side.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support