What to Do or Say When a Friend's Pet Passes Away

How to really be there during this difficult time.
By: Katherine Tolford
A man and his beloved cat.

For many people, the loss of a pet is a painful and devastating experience. The grieving process can be especially difficult if a person who has suffered the loss feels a lack of support from their friends and family. In fact, Sandra Grossman, PhD, a pet loss and bereavement counselor, says pet loss is often overlooked in our society.

“Your pet gives you an unconditional love that you don’t get with people,” says Grossman. “People who don’t have pets may often have a hard time understanding how strong the bond is. We live in a replacement society — if you crash your car, you can go out and buy the same one. If you lose your phone, you can replace it the same day. There [can be] that attitude with pet loss, as well.”

Grossman experienced this first-hand when Mazel Tov, her beloved 17-year-old Siamese cat, passed away from Lymphoma. “My friend called me and said, ‘Get dressed — I’m going to pick you up and take you to the shelter and we’ll pick out a cat who looks like Mazel Tov.’”

Although it was not what she wanted to hear, Grossman understood that grief makes people feel uncomfortable for many reasons. “They may have never experienced grief, or they just don’t know how to help. They may have had a bad experience that they don’t want to remember. Or they may have an older pet or have lost a pet of their own and they can’t deal with what their friend is going through,” she said.

After losing her cat, Grossman became a certified pet loss counselor through the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavementto help others with their grief and to provide a safe haven for them to express and process their feelings. She also co-founded petlosspartners.com, which offers workshops, individual counseling, telephone sessions and support groups for pet parents dealing with loss or the anticipated loss of an elderly or sick pet.

Here are some of Grossman’s general guidelines for helping to comfort a friend who has lost a pet:

Suggestion 1:Don’t judge. Allow people to talk about their concerns and feelings without comparing or saying what is right or wrong. Let them tell their story. Listen without judgment. Don’t try to fix their feelings.

Suggestion 2: Just be there. Show up for your friend, and give of your time and attention. That may simply involve sitting quietly with your friend in a garden or somewhere peaceful.

Suggestion 3: Listen. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do for a friend is to just listen to them and make sure the conversation stays about them. Grossman advises not to share your personal story, unless you’re specifically asked. “Your friend’s grief may not be what you’ve experienced, and vice versa.”

Suggestion 4: Avoid clichés. Grossman says we all know some standard clichés that we think we can say to make it better. However, the person who is grieving may interpret them as insensitive. Examples of some of these phrases and the common reactions they may trigger include:

Just remember all of the good memories. (Your friend may be thinking: But this hurts right now.)

Time heals all wounds. (Your friend may be thinking: No, time is just another day away from my pet.)

They’re in a better place. (Your friend may be thinking: N,o the best place is with me.)

Suggestion 5:Give serious thought to what you should say. Grossman recommends starting out the conversation with a simple, “Hey, I just wanted to check in on you.” Then she encourages people to ask more specific questions, because it’s often hard for the grieving person to think of things. So instead of saying, “Do you need anything?” you might say something like: “Do you want me to go to the store?” “Do you want me to come over and straighten up?” or, “Do you want to plan a memorial?”

She also suggests sharing a special memory of your friend’s pet, telling them what their pet meant to you or, if you feel like it, even crying with your friend.

Suggestion 6: Make a donation to a charity or organization in the pet’s name. This can be a comforting and uplifting way to help the memory of your friend’s pet live on.

Even when following these steps, Grossman says one of the hardest things for people to comprehend about grief is that it’s not linear. “People get caught up in the stages of grief, but there are no boundaries. Unfortunately, there’s nothing chronological about grief.” Just do the best you can and let your friend know you are there for them during this difficult loss.

Image via Shutterstock