Loss and death are always difficult, whether we’re the ones facing the loss of a beloved friend, pet, or family member ourselves or whether we’re trying to support someone we love through that process. Every person approaches loss and grief with their own history, worries, and combination of emotions, and just like there’s no one right or wrong way to grieve, there’s no one right or wrong thing to say or do to support someone through grief. There are, however, some things that can be generally helpful in most situations, and some that may seem helpful but can actually make things worse.
So – what should you NOT do to help someone you love through the loss of a pet?
*Don’t suggest that they get another pet. While for some people getting a new pet may be part of their grieving and healing process, this isn’t true for everyone – and more importantly, the time to bring a new pet into the family (if they choose to do so) is different for everyone. What may seem like a practical solution to you can come across as suggesting that pets are interchangeable and replaceable, which can seem dismissive of the pain and loss the person is feeling.
*On that same note, don’t try to reassure them by telling them it was ‘just an animal’ and that it could have been worse, by comparing it to other losses. There’s no universal scale of loss or grief, and everyone is allowed to feel their own pain. One person’s loss of a pet may be as traumatic to them as another person’s loss of a human. Grief is not a contest or a zero-sum game.
*On the other hand, do not tell them “I know exactly how you feel.” Even if you’ve been through a similar loss yourself, even if you feel that you have a deep understanding of their emotional state and want to be supportive, no two people experience grief and loss the same way. Their emotional response is theirs and unique, just like yours was and is. Don’t dismiss their feelings by suggesting that they’re the same as yours.
What CAN you do to be helpful?
*Listen. This is the most important thing that a supporter and friend can do. Let the person know that you are present, that you care, and that you’re able to be an ear and a shoulder for them. If they want to talk, listen without judging or trying to problem-solve. If they need reassurance, give it to them without straying into personal anecdotes of your own. If they need quiet company, be present without pressuring them to behave in any particular way.
*Validate their feelings. Let them know that it’s okay to grieve, and that you understand that their loss is significant to them. While ‘I know how you feel’ is an unhelpful response, ‘I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you’ or ‘I can only imagine how you must feel’ are open-ended, supportive statements that let your friend know that you empathize with their loss without second-guessing or hijacking their experience.
*Ask what they need or want. What’s helpful to one person may not be helpful to someone else, and we run into the biggest problems when we assume that what we would want in a given situation would also then be best for another person in a similar situation. Asking instead of assuming lets you give the most useful aid. It also makes sure that the help you’re giving is focused on the grieving individual, rather than yourself. Often in situations of caregiving we want to help in ways that will make us (the caregivers) feel better, but the most important focus should be on the person suffering the loss. While we are hurting too, and are allowed to seek our own aid, the help we offer should be focused on those we’re helping rather than on ourselves.
*If the grieving individual isn’t able to focus enough to give you a specific answer to what they need or want, ask about specific ways you can help, but offer them as choices. (“Would it help if I came over to keep you company? Do you need someone to run errands for you? Do you want me to return Smudge’s medicines to the vet so you don’t have to go back to that office so soon?”) – and be prepared to accept whatever answer they give. This empowers them to have some say in the help they receive while taking the burden of coming up with ways to be helpful off of their shoulders.
*Most of all, be patient. Grieving takes time, and sometimes – as much as we want to help – there’s nothing we can do except be present, let the people we care about take the time they need to heal, and let them know that we’ll still be there, still care, and still be part of their life when they’re ready to engage with us again.
*Take care of yourself. Even if you didn’t suffer the loss personally, having a friend or family member grieving the loss of a loved one (human or pet) can be stressful, challenging, and bring up memories of our own losses. Make sure that you’re getting the rest and support you need – you can’t be a good caretaker and supporter if you’re not also taking care of yourself.
*If you’re concerned that your friend or family member is in danger, reach out to a professional. Whether that’s a grief counselor, a religious leader, or a suicide hotline, if you’re seriously concerned that someone may be at risk of self-harm or falling into clinical depression or suicidal tendencies, don’t try to tackle that alone. Encourage them to seek professional help, or if need be, reach out to a professional yourself.
Grief is something we all have to face at some point, both our own and that of our friends and loved ones – hopefully this can help make navigating that path a little easier.