How to Talk to Someone Who’s Lost a Pet
By: Jessica Vogelsang
We’ve all been there: a friend comes into work, seeming a little quieter than usual. You might ask, “Is everything ok?”
“Yes,” she might say, sniffing. “It’s just ... we had to put Travis to sleep yesterday.”
And you know Travis -- your friend's workspace is covered with pictures of the handsome dog: in Christmas sweaters, at the park, posing with Santa. She and her husband loved their dog tremendously, as we all do.
“Oh,” you say. “I’m sorry.” Then you stand there, and she stands there, and she shuffles off to her meeting. When she asks for the afternoon off because she’s having a hard time dealing with her grief, the boss rolls his eyes and sends her on her way before grumbling under his breath, “it’s just a dog -- geez.”
Losing a pet can be tremendously isolating, because pet parents are not really allowed in our society to express the depth of grief so many of us face. It’s not “just” a dog; our pets are companions, confidantes, family members who have loved us, sat with us while we laughed and cried and rejoiced, and made our lives richer. But to some in the outside world, a dog is just an animal who sheds all over their purse and chases the UPS man away from the front door.
As a friend, you have tremendous power to make the situation better or worse for someone when they tell you that they have lost a pet. Here are the worst, and best, things to say to someone when they share sad news with you.
Worst Things to Say to Someone Who Loses a Pet:
1. “Well, we can go get you another one.”
Some people may want to get a new pet right away while others may not. Theirs was a unique relationship, and no pet will ever replace the one that was lost.
2. “Why are you so upset? It was just a dog!”
It’s impossible to really fully understand the depth of another person’s grief and the pain they are going through in a time of loss. For many people, their pet was there for them during milestones such as moves, marriages, divorces, and new babies -- and many memories come bubbling back up during this time. Their pet was the one being in their life that never judged them and provided unconditional love. No pet is ever truly “just” a dog.
3. “Did you try chemo/holistic food/animal communicators?”
Does it matter? All this does is satisfy your own curiosity at best, and at worst it makes your friend feel terrible for not trying something that you feel might have helped. Let it go.
Sometimes the ambivalent awkward silence of someone who doesn’t know what to say is even worse than someone saying the wrong thing. People may interpret it incorrectly as “I don’t care.” If you’re stuck for ideas, here are some wonderful things to say to someone:
Best Things to Say to Someone Who Has Lost a Pet:
1. "I’m so sorry."
It’s true, right? And honest, and simple. When all else fails, this is always a good thing to say to a friend in pain. This is the best statement of empathy. A card is also lovely and something many people cherish for years.
2. "I really loved how he…"
People who are mourning a pet may feel very alone, that no one else will understand how much they are going to miss their pet, and no one else will remember him. Sharing a memory, even something as simple as a mannerism that always stood out to you, is a lovely way to tell someone, “Your pet impacted me as well.”
3. "I would like to make a donation in his honor."
Pet lovers tend to be very empathetic people. While it may be hard to pick out a flower or an item to give to someone who has lost a pet because they are such personal choices, offering to make a donation to a rescue or shelter in a pet’s honor is a lovely way to honor his memory.
4. When all else fails, give a hug.
I grew up in New England, where hugs from strangers are as welcome as a fork in the eyeball. It’s slightly more acceptable from friends and family, however. In situations like these, when talking to someone you know, hugs are almost universally acceptable. It’s the wordless equivalent of “I’m sorry”.