The hardest part of having a pet is losing a pet. And, as anyone who’s ever mourned the death of a beloved pet or is facing the prospect of euthanizing their pet knows, well-meaning friends and family members sometimes say the wrong things.
Here are eight things you should never say to someone who has just lost their pet, and some more appropriate options of what to say instead:
“It was just a pet.”
Pets are intimate family members, and any time you lose a pet, you lose a family member. However, sometimes this grief isn’t always acknowledged for the deep loss it is.
“That’s called disenfranchised grief, it seems like the reaction is too big, and people don’t know how to talk about [it],” says Dr. Valerie Russo, director of counseling and wellness and assistant professor at Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Some owners don’t necessarily expect to feel as upset over the loss of their pet as they do, which can make hearing comments like this worse.
“Many people have told me that they felt more grief at the death of their pets than at the death of their mothers,” says Joy Davy, a clinical therapist who runs a pet grief support group for the Hinsdale Humane Society in Hinsdale, Illinois. “There’s something about the relationship you have with your pet. It’s so pure, there’s no manipulation, and there is no person who is thrilled that you walked into a room because you were gone for one minute.”
Instead: acknowledge their loss.
Sincere condolences are always welcome. And if you don’t know what to say – it’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t have the words. You don’t have to understand their grief to empathize.
“There was a veterinary technician who came to the pet grief support group, and she said, ‘my dog was a member of my family. I don’t expect you to understand that, but I do expect you to respect my feelings,’” Davy says. “People might not get it, but they can still be respectful.”
“At least you had 15 years together.”
Except for certain species of birds and tortoises, pets don’t outlive you, and as a pet owner, you know from the time your pet was a small kitten or puppy that you’re eventually going to outlive them. Pointing out the obvious doesn’t help with the pain of the loss.
Instead: say “I’m sorry.”
“People think that ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough, but it is,” says Russo, who instructs a bereavement class for veterinary students and helps them manage a pet loss hotline.
Mailing a card, sending an “I’m thinking of you” text, or just leaving a kind message can be helpful.
“You will want to recognize the loss without feeling like you’ve got to make it any different from what it is,” says Karen Carnabucci, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based therapist who counsels grieving pet owners. “When something painful happens, sometimes we want to distract, but really comfort is what’s preferable.”
“Let me know what I can do.”
People who are grieving usually don’t know what they need and they don’t have time to think about what you can do to help them.
“It’s better to suggest things instead of just leaving it up to the person who’s grieving,” Russo says. “‘I can do anything, just let me know,’ sounds like a wonderful offer, but it’s too open-ended.”
Instead: do something practical.
Look at what your friend or family member needs and just do it. Pick up groceries, bring coffee, offer to run errands, babysit or just be with them.
“It’s about that human connection – I thought of you, I brought this to you, and if somehow my offering can ease some of your pain … that is so much more compassionate than ‘Hey, let me know what I can do,’” Russo says.
“Make it the best weekend ever.”
If you’ve had to schedule your pets euthanization, you know that even if your pet is acting all right, he or she is dying, and this last weekend, week or even day isn’t going to be your pet’s best weekend, week or day ever.
“This falls into the well-meaning category where someone’s trying to cheer you up, but there are some things you can’t be cheered up about,” Carnabucci says. “Your dear, sweet pet is dying, and we can’t turn that into a cheerful party.”
Instead: say “this must be really hard.”
Anyone who makes the decision to euthanize a pet usually agonizes over it.
“Euthanasia is the hardest thing, and it’s the kindest thing at the same time,” says Davy. “The biggest thing is judgment – the person who is grieving is judging him or herself already because guilt is part of grief, and with euthanasia, right away, we feel guilty because we’re not asked to euthanize any other loved ones.”
In addition, avoid asking too many questions, like whether or not someone is planning to be with the pet in the room or not.
“My pet had the same disease, and she lived for three more years because of …”
No two animals are alike, nor are their illnesses. When you’re already agonizing over the decision to euthanize your pet, receiving unasked-for advice just plain hurts.
“A lot of time people are trying to be helpful, and they don’t mean harm, but they just think they know best,” Davy says. “When someone is going through grief like this, it’s time to recognize that you don’t know best for anybody else, and they don’t really need your advice: they just need your kind presence.”
Instead: think before sharing a personal story.
If your sharing takes the spotlight off the person who’s grieving, don’t share it. Return the focus back to the person who’s grieving, not your own experiences.
“Your dead pet looks just like mine. Here’s a photo.”
If someone’s grandfather just died and they posted a photo of him on social media, you wouldn’t share a picture of your Uncle Charlie – even if he’s a doppelganger of their dead relative.
Instead: say something about their pet specifically.
It’s okay to point out what a beautiful dog or loving cat the person had – but the focus stays on the person, on their pet and their loss.
“Get over it.”
Grief isn’t a linear process, and no two people grieve for a pet in the same way. There’s no one right or wrong way to grieve, and there’s no time limit to grief, either. Davy says when she was a child, she had a Cocker Spaniel her parents gave away because it barked too much.
“I didn’t get over it for a very long time, and what I was hearing was ‘stop crying. You’re making people sad,’” Davy says.
Instead: let them mourn.
Let people cry, listen to their stories about their funny cat, even if you’ve heard them before. It’s okay to invite them to attend a pet grief support group, to share them information you’ve found on pet bereavement, and it’s definitely okay to make a donation to a pet charity or veterinary medical school in that pet’s name.
“You should get another pet.”
You can share your experiences with your own grief, but don’t give blanket advice or ask generic questions.
“It’s different to share your own experience and say ‘this worked very well for me,’ versus giving advice and saying you know what’s best for someone,” Carnabucci says.
Instead: let them decide if and when the time is right.
Getting a new pet is a very personal decision, and it’s different for each person. Sometimes, people might grieve their lost pet and simultaneously get a new pet – the two processes don’t have to be separate. Other people find they need to wait. The main thing is to make sure getting a new pet is a well-thought-out decision instead of an impulsive act.
“Sometimes, opportunities come up, and people who thought they could never had another animal get a new animal,” Russo says. “We try to help people understand that it’s not dishonoring their just-lost pet to focus on someone new.”