The language of loss 

As a bereaved person, how we talk about the death of a pet, and how other people speak to us, can have a major impact on whether we feel supported or even able to express our grief. 

Despite its universal nature, there doesn’t seem to be an agreed language of loss. It’s wrapped up in euphemisms, metaphors, analogies, symbolism, agreed social and cultural messages, and our own experiences.  

This can make conversations about loss extremely hard to navigate. Sometimes, words may fail us altogether. 

People often don’t know what to say to a bereaved person for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing more harm. They don’t want to remind us of our loss. Silence from our loved ones can feel extremely isolating but, equally, sometimes words intended as comfort don’t land the right way. 

When we’re grieving, emotions run high. Then there’s the fact that we all have individual preferences about language. Good intentions can get lost in translation. 

Our hope with today’s blog is that we can highlight some of the nuances around the language of loss and grief.  

If you’re the person who’s grieving, this may help you to understand more about what you find helpful and supportive. If you’re supporting a bereaved person, it may help you feel more confident about talking to them about their grief. 

Direct language vs. abstract language 

You might prefer to use direct language when talking about the death of your pet as it acknowledges the reality of the situation and allows you to confront it head-on. Direct language can provide clarity and avoid confusion.  

On the other hand, you may prefer softer, more abstract language, as it can feel less harsh and more comforting. Abstract language can provide a sense of distance from the finality of death and may be preferred if you find direct language too confronting or upsetting. 

Here are some examples of direct or abstract language: 

  • Direct language: Dead, death, died, euthanised, deceased 
  • Abstract language: Passed away, transitioned, departed, didn’t make it, isn’t with us anymore, slipped away 

Concrete terms vs. metaphors 

Concrete terms describe death and its aftermath in literal and straightforward terms, leaving little room for interpretation. They tend to be quite practical in nature, for example, describing what has happened to your pet’s physical body.  

Metaphors, on the other hand, use symbolic language to evoke emotions and provide comfort. While concrete terms offer clarity, you may find them too stark or clinical, preferring the gentleness and poetic nature of metaphors

It is important to recognise that many metaphors for death have religious connotations. The idea of being called home to heaven or to a better place can be incredibly comforting for someone with religious or spiritual beliefs. However, for someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, religious metaphors can be jarring. Suggesting, for example, that there’s a better place for an animal than their loving home may upset pet carers, so it’s always advisable to tread carefully. 

These are examples of concrete language vs metaphors: 

  • Concrete Terms: Dead, cremated, buried 
  • Metaphors: Resting in peace, returned to the earth, released from suffering, gone to a better place, sleeping with the angels, beyond the veil, lost their battle, was called home 

Closure vs. continuation 

When you’re grieving, believing that you must move through clear stages of grief until it’s over can set unrealistic expectations and pressure (here’s why it’s fine to ignore them). Grief rarely comes to a definitive end, never to be seen again. Rather, it tends to mellow or change with time, staying with us, albeit at a more manageable level.  

The concept of closure implies an endpoint or resolution, suggesting that one can neatly tie up loose ends and move on from grief. You may find solace in the idea of closure as it offers a sense of finality and the opportunity to start anew.  

However, it could be that you prefer to view grief as a continuation, recognising that the memories and impact of your pet will endure beyond their physical presence. Continuation language emphasises your ongoing relationship with them and the importance of preserving their memory. 

It can help to take the pressure off and make you more able to ignore questions such as “Haven’t you finished grieving yet?” or “Don’t you think it’s time you moved on?” 

In addition, continuation language can be helpful if you hit a rough patch in your grief or if you feel that stronger emotions associated with your loss are re-emerging. This is because grief doesn’t tend to be linear. It ebbs and flows. Anniversaries and milestone dates can trigger powerful feelings of loss, even years after the event. 

Continuation language encourages us to accept this, which can be empowering because we understand what’s happening when we hit a low patch. However, if we expect closure, it can be overwhelming when grief resurfaces. 

Again, here are some examples of closure or continuation language: 

  • Closure: Finding closure, moving on, the five stages of grief, finished grieving, get over, move past 
  • Continuation: Moving forward, honouring their memory, carrying on their legacy, integration/integrating the loss, grief journey 

Healing vs. coping 

There’s arguably some crossover in the language of loss between coping and healing. After all, many of us hope to cope until we can heal. 

Language related to healing suggests a process of recovery and restoration, implying that one can eventually overcome grief and return to a state of wholeness. You may find comfort in the idea of healing as it offers hope for the future and a sense of progress. On the other hand, the idea of complete healing can feel a lot like a point of closure, which, as we saw above, can create unrealistic expectations.  

An alternative is coping language, which acknowledges the ongoing nature of grief and the need to develop strategies for managing it. Coping language can be empowering, emphasising resilience and adaptation in the face of loss. 

  • Healing: Healing from grief, finding healing 
  • Coping: Coping with loss, learning to cope

Why words matter when we’re grieving 

While there are no words that will ever fully soothe the pain of losing a much-loved pet, it’s clear that the words we do have at our disposal can be incredibly powerful. When someone speaks to you using your preferred language of loss, it can provide: 

  • Acknowledgment of the relationship 

People often struggle with how to acknowledge the depth of the bond between an individual and their pet. Some may dismiss an animal companion who has died as “just a pet,” while others may fully recognise the pet as a beloved family member. Finding language that validates the significance of the relationship is essential. 

  • An antidote to the stigma surrounding pet loss 

Despite the profound grief experienced by pet carers, there can still be societal stigma around pet loss. If you feel pressure to downplay your emotions or rush through the grieving process, it can be helpful to hear language that validates and normalises the grief you’re experiencing, as well as helping to combat this unfair stigma. 

  • Space for mixed or confused feelings 

Pet loss can bring up complex, confused, and even ambiguous feelings. This often occurs when there is uncertainty or lack of closure, such as when a pet goes missing or when euthanasia is chosen. Language that acknowledges the ambiguity of your loss and allows space for a variety of emotions can be comforting. 

  • Inclusive language 

Not everyone experiences grief in the same way, and the language used to discuss it should reflect this diversity. Some individuals find comfort in spiritual or religious language, while others prefer more secular terminology. Using inclusive language that respects different belief systems and coping mechanisms is essential because there is no “right” way to grieve. 

  • Permission to grieve 

Receiving reassurance that our grief is understood can be incredibly validating. You may take great comfort from language that acknowledges the depth of your emotion and honours the unique bond you shared with your pet. 

Avoiding cliches and platitudes 

If you know someone who is grieving, be wary of platitudes such as “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle”, “They’re in a better place”, “At least they’re not suffering”, “At least he went quickly”, or “You were lucky to have her for as long as you did”. 

Although well-intentioned, these expressions can feel dismissive to the bereaved person. It’s important to be mindful of the language used and offer genuine empathy and support instead of relying on empty phrases. We have some pointers here to help you, as we understand that talking about loss is hard. 


The choice between direct and abstract language, concrete terms and metaphors, closure and continuation, and healing and coping can vary greatly depending on individual preferences and cultural beliefs.  

Some people prefer language that directly confronts the reality of death, while others find comfort in softer, more abstract expressions. There’s no right choice, only what feels right for you.  

If you find a certain type of language unhelpful, it may be a good idea to calmly point this out by saying what you prefer. It’s completely fine to say, “I don’t find the idea of them going to a better place or being called home” helpful! Equally, if there is language that resonates, you can model this to your loved ones by using it when you talk about your grief.  

The most important thing is that your unique way of processing grief is respected and that your loved ones can offer support and understanding regardless of the language used.  

The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group offers a safe space to talk about your grief, whatever your preferred language of loss. 

Shailen and The Ralph Site team 
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *