By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
Pet loss can be a very emotional experience for everyone whose lives they touched. According to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey from the American Pet Products Association, 68 percent of US households have some type of pet, which suggests that a majority of people likely understand the special bond you can have with a pet. However, in an attempt to sympathize, even fellow pet parents can unintentionally say things that come off as insensitive.
Grieving a pet is a highly personal experience. “Pet loss really falls into the category of disenfranchised grief,” says Eric Richman, a social worker at the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University in Grafton, Massachusetts. “Disenfranchised grief is that which cannot be easily publicly mourned.”
The reason people may blurt something out before thinking is just not knowing what to say, even though most people have experienced grief themselves. “Oftentimes, it is from the fact [that] people are not comfortable with grief,” says Richman. “Words that seem comforting in the mind might come out as insensitive.”
Here are 7 things people sometimes say to someone who is grieving a pet, along with suggestions for what to say instead.
Richman says that this is inappropriate because no matter how many other pets someone has, the person or family had developed a special relationship with that pet that can’t be replicated. “It’s pretty evident [that] people have different relationships with pets, just like they do with different friends or family,” says Richman. “That pet may have had a significant impact or helped someone through a traumatic event. The context of the pet’s relationship has to be considered.”
Richman suggests this instead: “I realize that your pet was very important to you. I’m very sorry for your loss. I hope your other pets can help you through this most difficult time.”
Dr. Kriss Kevorkian, who holds a doctorate in thanatology (the study of death, dying and bereavement) and lives in Gig Harbor, Washington, says this is one of the most insensitive things she’s heard said to those who are grieving a pet, but also one of the most common. “People wouldn’t say that to someone who had a human family member that just died,” says Dr. Kevorkian.
Angela Eldering, a freelance writer in Haarle, the Netherlands, lost her nearly 11-year-old mixed breed dog, Ted, in September 2017. She grieved his loss especially hard throughout the winter. “I received many nice messages of sympathy, but the ‘oh, you can just get another dog,’ as if I’d lost an inanimate object, was really hard to hear.”
Dr. Kevorkian suggests this instead: “Say what you would say to someone who’s lost a human loved one. ‘I’m so very sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do to help you through this time?’”
Dr. Kevorkian says no matter what your feelings are for the person’s pet, avoid judgement. “The judgement is just so insensitive and rude and is not what someone wants to hear.” She says, “The person didn’t adopt the pet because it was cute or based on your feelings for him. They adopted him because they liked him and developed a special relationship.”
Dr. Kevorkian suggests this instead: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Richman says he has heard this a lot from people in support groups. “They might get phone calls or check-ins for a short time, but that stops pretty quickly,” says Richman. “It’s never appropriate to put a time frame on anyone’s grief, as everyone grieves differently.”
Richman suggests this instead: “Ask them how they are doing and how they are feeling, and continue to check in with the person.”
Jessica Winn, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, lost her childhood dog, Licorice, a 13-year-old black lab mix, in 2005. When Winn tried to call in to work the day Licorice passed, her boss said this to her. She has never gotten over the apparent insensitivity to the loss she experienced.
Richman suggests this instead: “Bosses should always honor the loss and offer condolences. If the person doesn’t have personal time, or company policy doesn’t allow them a day off, a boss can ask, ‘Is there anything we can do to make the day easier for you?’ and maybe ask co-workers to step up to help.”
“A lot of people find comfort and meaning in the afterlife,” says Richman. “But many people do not, nor do they believe in it. This really comes from a sense of not knowing what to say.”
Richman suggests this instead: “If you don’t know someone’s belief system, ask them. If the person is willing to talk more about it, ask them if they believe pets have souls. Their answers can guide you. You might even offer to participate in a ritual with them. Rituals are important and help people know they’re not alone in their mourning.”
“People say this quite often, especially if euthanasia is involved,” says Richman. “While it may be true, it’s still a significant loss, and [saying this is] not meeting the person where they’re at in their grief.”
Richman suggests this instead: “This must be such a difficult time for you. You were with them during such a difficult illness. This must be so hard.”