Monday, September 24, 2012

Offering Support: What to Say (or Not) to a Grieving Animal Lover

[Reviewed and updated April 7, 2024]

Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.  ~ Elie Wiesel

Recently I was asked for my thoughts on the importance of language and the words we use to comfort and support another in grief. Specifically this individual wanted to know what I would advise someone to say (or not say) to an animal lover who was anticipating or coping with the loss of a pet.

No matter how good our intentions, we may find it difficult to know what to say or do in these unpleasant circumstances. It’s not that we don’t care or don’t want to help, but oftentimes another person's grief can leave us feeling awkward and uncomfortable, most especially if we’ve had no prior experience with loving and losing a cherished pet. Still, words and actions do matter, and saying or doing nothing at all (for fear of making a mistake) conveys a total lack of caring.

As a grief counselor who’s worked with many bereaved animal lovers over the years, and as one who’s loved and lost more than one animal companion myself, I’ve learned that the needs of those struggling with the pain of pet loss are really very simple: They need a caring individual who can identify with them, and one who will listen without judging them.

Some General Guidelines

When someone is mourning the loss of a much loved animal, it’s important to acknowledge the person’s pain as legitimate and real, no different from that of losing a cherished friend or special family member. We must recognize that the bereaved person is the one who knows best the heartfelt place that was occupied by an animal companion, so only that person can measure just how much has been (or will be) lost.

It also helps to be aware of what is not helpful to the person mourning the loss of a beloved animal (see below). Such statements may:
  • invalidate the pain the person is feeling now 
  • upset the person even more 
  • diminish how the person is feeling 
  • deny or minimize the extent of the loss 
  • squelch whatever the person is really thinking or feeling 
  • imply the person isn’t “doing” grief the “right” way 
  • encourage the person to avoid the pain of grief all together 
  • draw assumptions about the person’s faith or spiritual beliefs that may not be accurate 
A List of Don’ts – Do not:
  • Expect the person to mourn or heal in certain ways or within a certain time frame (“Give it time,” or “Time heals all wounds.” ) There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and grief has no specific timeline. What is more, the passage of time does nothing to heal pain. Time is neutral; it’s what we do with the time that matters. 
  • Deliberately avoid the subject of death, change the subject or act as if nothing has happened. Saying nothing at all can be worse than saying the “wrong” thing, as it conveys a complete lack of caring.
  • Talk about your own losses, especially early on; this shifts the attention onto you. 
  • Say “I know how you feel. “ Everyone’s grief is as unique to them as their fingerprint. No one experiences grief in exactly the same way. 
  • Use judgmental words like “should” and “shouldn’t.” 
  • Begin a sentence with the words “At least . . .” 
  • Offer unsolicited advice. 
  • Compare one loss with another, or offer judgments about which or whose loss was worse. 
  • Try to change whatever the person is thinking or feeling. 
  • Talk down to the person in a patronizing way, as if you are the expert. 
  • Try to fill up every moment with conversation. Become comfortable with silence. 
  • Stifle the person’s tears by saying “Don’t cry” or handing the person a tissue. Tears may make us uncomfortable, but they are an important and natural expression of sadness that can be very healing for another. 
  • Wait to be asked for help; this places the burden on the mourner. Besides, the person may not know what is needed, or may not have the energy to reach out and ask for help. Better to offer to do something specific (cook, clean, run errands, call or stop by to check on the person). 
  • Imply that the animal is “in a better place” or that the loss was God’s will. 
  • Suggest getting a new animal. We wouldn’t think of saying this to someone whose human family member has died! When and whether to bring another pet into the household is very much an individual decision, as is the timing. 
Words to Avoid 

These overly simple, empty phrases minimize the mourner’s feelings, diminish the importance of the animal who died or was lost, and take away the person’s right to mourn:
  • Give it time / You’ll get over it in time. 
  • At least she didn’t suffer / he is not in pain anymore. 
  • It’s time to put this behind you now, to move on, to let go. 
  • He lived a good, long life. 
  • Try not to think about it / dwell on it / talk about it. 
  • Be thankful you had her as long as you did. 
  • He wouldn’t want you to be so sad. 
  • It was God’s will. 
  • Everything happens for a reason. 
  • She’s in a better place now. 
  • Time heals all wounds. 
  • I know exactly how you feel. 
  • You can always get another. 
  • Let me know if you need anything / if there’s anything I can do. 
  • You must not / should not feel that way. 
  • It was only a dog. 
  • You shouldn’t be this upset over a dog. 
  • You didn’t react this way when your relative / friend / neighbor died! 
Words of Comfort

These words can be spoken in person or shared in a card, a text message or an email:
  • I’m sorry. 
  • My heart goes out to you. 
  • I care. 
  • You are so important to me. 
  • I wish you comfort, and I hope to be among those you find comforting in the weeks and months ahead. 
  • I want you to know that I am thinking of you. 
  • I want to help. 
  • I’m glad you feel like you can talk to me about your dog’s death. I’m here for you and ready to listen whenever you’d like. 
  • I want to know what happened. Tell me about it. 
  • I’ve lost a dog, too, and I remember how devastating it was. What is it like for you? 
  • I understand your need to cry, and I’m okay with it. You can cry in my presence whenever you need to. 
  • It’s okay to feel the way you do. 
  • Of course you’re angry. I’d feel the same way, too. 
  • It’s good to let those tears out. 
  • I want you to know that I loved and miss (name), but I know my missing can’t compare with yours. Tell me what it’s like for you. 
  • I understand and respect your need for privacy as you grieve. If you need to be alone, please say so. 
  • I’d like to lend a hand with some of your yard work. How about one day next weekend? 
  • I know (name) died six weeks ago today, and I am thinking of you. 
  • How are you surviving? 
  • What do you miss the most? 
  • When is the worst time for you? 
  • What helps you during such a difficult time? 
  • What memories are most special? Most difficult? 
  • You may not have any hope right now, but I will hold it for you until you’re ready to hold it again on your own. 
When the Mourner Is a Child

For suggestions on what to say to a child, see Helping Children Cope with a Pet's Euthanasia.

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1 comment:

  1. Marty: I echo your sentiments about what to say or not to say; really important points you make. Here are some of my ideas for helping.

    (Awareness May/June 2010,”Saying Goodbye”)
    Marian Silverman


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