As steadfast companions who see us at our best and our worst, pets give us uncomplicated love in return for daily care and attention. The bond is so special that it can be devastating when it’s lost through sickness or death.
“On a daily basis, I’ll hear people say that the loss of their pet is being felt in a more heartfelt way than even a human being in their life,” said Christina Disla, a grief companion and pet loss coach who works at Lap of Love, a nationwide veterinary hospice network that does in-home euthanasia. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that our animals are truly a part of our self-identity and a part of our daily routine.”
That’s why it’s important to know which seemingly positive words of comfort actually cause more harm than good — and what you should do and say instead when you know someone who experiences pet sickness or loss. Here are some of the biggest offenders to watch out for:
1. ‘It’s just a cat’ or ‘It’s just a dog.’
For so many people, a pet is a member of the family, and the loss can be felt even more deeply than some human losses.
“It’s really dismissive to minimize the loss as ‘less than’ or not valid,” said Jennifer Breslow, a New York City-based psychotherapist who works with clients dealing with the loss of a pet.
2. ‘You gave them a good life.’
“This sounds nice on the surface, and while probably true, this kind of statement is often said with the well-meaning intention of trying to take away someone’s pain,” Breslow said.
“The truth is there is no way to avoid the painful feelings of loss, and what a grieving pet owner needs most is space to feel their feelings and to have the people around them acknowledge how much it hurts.”
3. ‘You could get another pet.’
Disla said this is one of the most common types of comments people think will be comforting but “hit like knives,” because a new pet will not replace the grief from the pet that was lost.
Disla shared a similar hurtful comment she experienced when she got a new puppy a few months after the loss of her beloved poodle Oscar.
“’Oh, my gosh, this is the rebound puppy.’ Wow, did that hurt. A lot of times we are expected to laugh it off and move on, but it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “Sometimes, the people in our lives that haven’t had a relationship with an animal seem to all of a sudden be an expert on how to face this and will insert opinions.”
4. ‘It’s time to move on’ or ‘It just takes time.’
Disla said that too often, people question the time it takes for someone to grieve the loss of a pet.
“We have people in our group that they come to one group a week, and we’ve had them coming for months,” she said. “They feel that in their families and in their circle of friends, they’ve exhausted the people that will still listen to them. [Those people] say things like, ‘Why are you crying over this animal?’”
5. ‘You were lucky to have him for X years.’
Making statements about the bright side of a tragic death of a pet are not helpful when a pet owner is grieving.
Saying someone is lucky to have gotten many years with their pet, for example, “implies that a person’s grief and pain is more valid if they had their pet for a longer amount of time, when the connection can be just as strong for a pet that lived for five years as it is for one who lived to 15,” Breslow said.
6. ‘Was that the best choice?’ ‘Maybe you should have...’
When a pet escapes from their home and gets lost, pet owners often struggle will extreme feelings of self-doubt and guilt over the door left unlocked or the window that got opened.
“Guilt is a large part of grief,” Disla said. “Even in a perfect passing, questions pop up, like if you were to choose euthanasia: ‘Did you choose the time too soon?’ An animal was lost: ‘Why did I not lock the door?’ ‘Why did I not hold that leash tight enough?’ We tend to beat ourselves more than anything in those situations.”
Don’t make a pet owner feel worse by litigating or strategizing what they could have done better. A kinder, more compassionate reminder is to acknowledge that accidents happen and to point out that if anything could have been done in that situation to make the outcome different, they would have done it, Disla said.
Before you speak in general, consider if what you are about to say is for you or for the person you are trying to help. Anne Cattarello, a Clearwater, Florida-based psychotherapist who works with people going through pet loss, said that passing judgment on a grieving pet owner says more about you than the pet owner: “It’s about a person not being able to deal with sadness and loss and mistakes themselves.”
7. ‘Be grateful for the time you had together.’
Resist the urge to focus on gratitude the person should feel about their pet instead of the sad parts. It comes from a place of wanting to help someone feel better quickly and put a positive spin on the loss, but “there is no positive spin when you lose someone you love,” Cattarello said.
Cattarello noted that during the pandemic, when more people are working from home, someone might think it’s helpful to say, “At least you got to spend a lot of time with your pet during the pandemic” ― but it’s not. What this communicates to the person is basically “‘get over it,’ because they are not able to go there or have not gone that deeply in themselves. Most people don’t do grief very well,” she said.
8. ‘At least they aren’t suffering anymore.’
Breslow said that this is another statement that initially seems like a nice thing to say, but implies that “because the pet is no longer suffering, the grief and pain should somehow be lessened.”
“It’s much more effective to say something like, ‘I wish I could say something to take your pain away, but I know I can’t.’ ‘It is so hard to say goodbye to a pet. I’m here for you,’” she said. “It’s a natural instinct to want to take away pain, but with any kind of loss, being with difficult feelings and having permission to feel them is the only way to reach a place of acceptance and healing.”
Instead of invalidating the pet owner’s feelings, be there for them.
Affirm that you are sorry and this is hard.
Validating words like “This must be so hard” or “This is a lot to go through” can help affirm their grief and express that you want to be there for them, Cattarello said. And if you are thinking of actions, try bringing the person a meal, just like you would do if they had lost a human.
Acknowledge that grieving doesn’t follow a tidy or linear timeline. Be there after the immediate aftermath.
If you want to show support for a loved one going through a pet loss, keep being there for them in the weeks and months after their pet tragedy occurs.
“The first time they walk a familiar route without their companion, or adoption day, or birthday can trigger intense emotional grief and the pain of loss,” notes Lap of Love’s guide for helping people through pet loss.
It suggests words of support like, “It may be hard the first time you go to the park, or for a walk. I’d love to join you if you feel that may help, whenever you’re ready.”
Share memories you have with the pet.
One thoughtful way to show care for someone going through this loss is to share memories you have of the pet. Sometimes, people say nothing out of fear of saying the wrong thing, but you can’t go wrong with sharing a positive memory.
“‘They were beautiful and I remember this about them.’ My goodness, it will hit in a way that makes you remember their beauty and makes you realize that while they touched your life, they touched others as well, and that’s profound,” Disla said.