By Coleen Ellis, Pet Loss Pioneer and Founder, Two Hearts Pet Loss Center
Periodically I’m asked if the death of a pet is just like losing a human loved one. I used to answer that with, “Yes. It’s just as bad.”
However, I’ve learned that the loss of a pet really is different.
The death of a pet, just like the loss of any human relationship, comes with its own unique characteristics. Our pets, just like the people in our world, all come with their own connections.
Every person in our life –– parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, and co-workers –– is a different relationship, so the feelings of grief will vary with all of them.
Therefore, the death of a pet will be the same: it’s another loss with the depth of the emotions varying because of the type of relationship shared. Like people, we connect more deeply with some pets than we do with others.
I can’t even count the times I’ve heard from pet parents that a certain animal was their “heart cat” or their “heart dog.” Those connections and relationships are real, meaningful, deep –– and the pain at their loss is heartbreaking. Some pets are a member of the family. They are special friends, best friends, and beyond.
The happy memories, the special bond, and so much more are difficult to let go as a furry friend crosses the rainbow bridge.
Here is why the loss of a dog or cat, or other pet, can be so hard – and how you can help your friends through this difficult time.
Pets Teach Us How to Be Our Best Selves
Our pets represent many things in our life.
They represent chapters in our life, with their existence marking various passages throughout our journey.
They mark the time of our youth, dating, engagements, broken engagements, marriages, births, illnesses, aging children, aging spouses, deaths, divorces…
As a result, their death will also be a marker to end a chapter, or as a reminder of other life events during that time.
For instance, if the pet was the absolute love for a deceased spouse, the loss of that dog will possibly feel like the death of the spouse again, a reminder that yet one more element of that chapter is gone.
Furthermore, pets represent all that is good, or all that we wish would be good, in people and our society. They are organic in presenting unconditional love, trust, forgiveness, the ability to “just be” and connect with their humans without words, but by heart alone.
They don’t judge, they just love, regardless of who we are, what we’ve done, how we look, and any of the physical aspects that so many people place priority and significance on. They are faithful friends to the end.
When they die, the absence of this special spirit and presence, who delivered all the elements a human loves, needs and craves, is devastating.
Grieving Pet Loss is Necessary, Never Shameful
More and more of our society is throwing shame to the wind, and giving themselves permission to grieve, mourn, and honor their special pet love(s).
70% of the U.S. population has a pet today, so more than half of our country “understands” loving an animal. They just “get it.” That means that 70% of Americans understand that the death of a pet can rock one’s world.
Don’t ignore it, don’t downplay it.
Give yourself permission to “feel” and listen to your heart. Let your heart be the guide and get your own head out of the way. Your head will tell you all that you project society might tell you: “it’s just a dog. I shouldn’t be feeling this way.”
Ignore all of that.
This is real, and the loss of your pet and true friend is important and life-changing.
For a pet lover, just jumping out of bed in the morning can be a harsh reminder of the death of a pet and the new normal.
Animals make us routine with their daily needs.
I’ll never forget a companioning session with a broken-hearted woman after the death of her “heart cat.” She said to me:
“The mornings are the hardest. That was OUR time. We’d get up, I’d get my coffee ready, and we’d go out to the back deck. I would smoke my cigarette, and she would sit on the railing of the deck taking in the morning. Every morning, this is what we did. Getting up in the morning now and getting my cup of coffee is just heartbreaking. I want to see her sitting on that railing of the deck so badly.”
By the way, here’s the permission I gave her as she mourned her cat.
I told her to pour that cup of coffee, light up her cigarette (I’m not promoting smoking, but this was her world and not for me to judge!), and take a photo of her cat to sit on the railing. Spend time talking or doing whatever it is they did together.
We re-framed the loss, and I gave her permission to ease into the loss, to embrace this sad time, and to cry her eyes out in these heart-wrenching morning sessions. Beautiful mourning work!
Pets Become Our Identity, Our Family, How We Define Our Lives
There’s another part of our being that gets rocked with these losses.
For some pet parents, pets define us and our identity. If the animal and treasured friend is a part of a sport, such as dock diving, agility, or therapy work for instance, the death might also represent the reshaping of the inclusion, or exclusion, within these groups.
Or possibly, the guy who’s known by his dog to the community as “Bruno’s Dad.” When Bruno dies, this guy struggles with the morning routine as he doesn’t have his amazing dog Bruno to lead the neighborhood walk. He struggles with “Who am I now in the neighborhood as Bruno was my admission to the social discussions? Am I still Bruno’s dad?”
Here’s the permission I give folks who share this sentiment with me.
Get that leash, put it in your pocket and continue those neighborhood walks.
If your dog liked tennis balls, hide tennis balls throughout the neighborhood with a note “In memory of Bruno. Please enjoy your game of fetch.”
If you carried doggie treats for the other canine friends along the way, keep doing that, only now the treats are in memory of Bruno. You can still be Bruno’s dad!
Or lastly, the harsh reality when one doesn’t have to rush home from work to take care of the pet. Dinner time, play time, or just the proverbial time outside to “do their business.”
Side note: I just love that saying… I think it’s even funnier when you pull this into the human world and envision a co-worker walking down the office hallway announcing they’re headed off to “do their business!” Funny! I digress!
It’s the end of the day and someone finds themselves quickly getting up from their desk, gathering their belongings and ready to bolt out the door to head home. Reality hits and the new normal comes crashing in again. It’s not necessary to rush home anymore.
Be mindful. These changes in routine takes time.
I encourage people in their self-talk to talk to themselves like they would talk to any loved friend.
Don’t be harsh.
Don’t be mean.
Don’t be demeaning.
Be loving, caring and gentle as the new normal becomes more normal.
What To Say (and Do) When Someone’s Pet Passes Away
When we experience this type of loss in our life, so many people are at a loss for what to say, and how to act. Here are five ways to be a loving, supporting friend to someone whose pet has recently passed.
1. Simply listen.
It’s really that simple. Just be, and just listen.
Take some valuable, precious time to just be and listen to their stories. You might have to listen countless times to the same story.
Be “animal-like” in this act of kindness. Don’t judge, don’t correct, and practice unconditional love in just listening.
Ask questions like:
Remind me, where did you get Fluffy from?
What drew you to get her?
How did she get her name?
What’s your favorite memory?
What was his personality when no one else was around?
You said she was your saving grace during that rough patch you had in life. What did she do?
What lessons do you think he taught you?
I can’t stress this enough… when you ask these questions, listen. I mean REALLY listen to the answers.
And, don’t listen waiting so you can respond with your own experience. LISTEN to their answer! Truly listen.
And remember, one of the sweetest sounds in all the world for anyone is a name. Use the pet’s name with love and meaning.
And please, make sure you get the gender of the animal right when you’re asking questions and providing support. I had an acquaintance that told me “all cats are girls and all dogs are boys.” Head smack!
2. Help them find ways to remember the pet.
While a grieving person feels like the world has stopped, they also feel like the world is flying right by them. Help them with things that they can do to actively mourn for their pet friend.
Possibly you also help them create a special memorial section in their home. Where did the pet like to lie? Create a special place there with a candle, a photo of the pet, their special toys or blankets.
3. Send a pet sympathy card, deliver food, send flowers, or donate to an animal charity in that pet’s honor.
Do something. Show you care!
It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture, but something that shows you are thinking of them and their pain at this very difficult time. It might not seem like a lot, but it helps to know that you are on the minds of your friends and family and not alone when you are grieving.
Pet sympathy cards are a great idea! And take only a few moments of your time. Do what you can to recall fond memories your friend has told you they had with their beloved pet. Express your deepest sympathy, and be specific.
Recall small things you remember about their pet best friend, acknowledge the time of grief as a difficult time, their loss as that of one of the family, and end perhaps with "Thinking of you."
Condolences certainly help, but more so do actions. Greeting cards where you find the right words (or explain how you can't), anything that acknowledges the suck of the loss of their pet, will be helpful during this time of loss.
4. Help create a ritual or ceremony.
Create a special ceremony or Celebration of Life in honor of the pet. Ask the bereaved what they loved to do together and how they would want to remember this chapter of their life they shared.
Possible ideas would be:
Hiding tennis balls in the local dog park.
Planting a tree in the local park in the pet’s honor.
Inviting friends and family members over to share stories.
Reading poetry or scripture that’s meaningful.
Volunteering at a shelter together to help the homeless pets.
Creating a meaningful ceremony, with all the same elements of a human funeral or memorial.
5. Create a permanent memorialization piece.
The paralyzing emotion of grief and loss can be overwhelming.
Be a resource and help the grieving heart in creating the perfect, permanent memorialization piece to honor the pet, things like a rock with the pet’s paw print or nose print on it, a canvas portrait, a memorial blanket throw or a diamond to set in jewelry.
All of these can be treasured for our whole life.
What NOT To Say and Do When a Friend is Going Through Pet Loss
At this time, it’s important for folks who are grieving a pet loss to find those that are more understanding. It will be key to a healthier grief journey.
Knowing there are certain people in every person’s circle who won’t get it means that there will be these same people who we should not expect to understand nor be empathetic to our plight.
No matter what, if you have a friend of someone close who has recently lost a pet, please be aware of the things not to say or do.
Grief and mourning can be difficult and awkward for those watching their friends and family go through it. But, it doesn’t have to be. There isn’t a lot you can do wrong.
Listen, ask questions, and then don’t do the following things.
1. "It was just an animal."
Pets have become family for so many people. For pet lovers, they are way more than “just” an anything!
What this really showcases to the person grieving is how much you do not understand the important relationship they had with their pet. T
his can very much hurt your relationship with this person moving forward, and it will make their grief harder to bear as you make them feel as though it is unworthy to have.
2. "You can always get another one."
Saying this minimizes the relationship one has with a pet. This is never something we would say to a human grieving the loss of a loved one.
I always jokingly say that as I stood by my father’s casket with my mother, not one time did anyone come up to her and say, “You can always get another.” Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Getting another animal does not mean the grief we feel for the loss of this precious pet will magically disappear. Even though we live in a replacement society, this is one area that a replacement will not do the emotional trick. Nor should anyone believe it will.
3. "You knew his life would be short."
When a person first picks up her new puppy or kitten, the last thing on her mind is the number of years they'll have together. However, as pet lovers, there is one thing we absolutely know… we will most always outlive our pet friends.
We just don’t need uncaring hearts reminding us of that reality.
This is yet another way to try and talk someone out of the way they feel and point out why they shouldn’t be sad as they knowingly signed up for this heart ache.
4. "You'll have so much free time now that he's gone."
You may mean well but pointing out the positive aspects of the pet's absence, but this can come off as insensitive.
A major no-no: reminding your friend that she'll be free to go on vacation, or she’ll have more money now because those funds won’t have to be earmarked for veterinary care.
When we commit to care for a pet, we do so fully and to the best of our financial, physical, and emotional capabilities. All of those are conscious decisions we WANT to make.
5. "I can't believe how much you spent on treatment."
It's never a good idea to question how much or even how little your friend put into treatment for her terminally ill pet. With pet hospice now being readily available for pet lovers to create a special end-of-life walk, to the point of euthanasia or assistance with death, every one of those decisions are the pet parent’s to make.
Well-meaning friends wouldn’t argue with someone on what they spent on prescription glasses, car, wedding, or a piece of furniture. Those are all personal decisions.
Having a thought on what should be spent on a pet for end-of-life care is yet another one of those areas that’s off limits for discussion and judging.
7. "Why do you still have those toys, food bowls, litter box, photos?"
Holding on to items like these can be very healing and cathartic for a broken heart. They are physical reminders of a beautiful life shared.
Much like the loss of a human being, I always counsel the family to not immediately clean out the closet. That’s such a move of “Whoosh, that part of your life is done and gone.”
It’s too much change, and too drastic, when one is preparing their heart for the new normal.
Furthermore, if you as a friend or family member disagree with these things being held onto by someone, my recommendation is for you to not go to that house! Period.
8. "I can't believe you'd keep the remains in your living room!"
Creating a beautiful memorial, complete with an urn, is another personal decision. This is yet one more area that if you don’t agree with this decision by a loving pet parent, at least respect their decision.
You don’t have to agree with it, but it’s not your house! Have some respect for where they are at and leave it at that.
9. "Why are you not over this already?"
After having a loyal and loving animal by your side day and night, it can be extremely trying as an owner to cope with the death.
Steer clear of chiding your friend about moving back to reality and acknowledge the hardship she's experiencing.
Honor her story by asking about the pet and letting her share. Love is love, and grief is grief. There is not a magical time where it will be over or done. Be patient and caring throughout whatever time it takes.
In conclusion, remember that grief is grief and love is love. They are truly equal.
Grief, they say, is often the price we pay for deep, meaningful relationships that change our lives for the better.
And it’s not even a price we pay –– it is our brain’s way of forever remembering the connection, and honoring the value it brought to our lives.
In that way, grief is worth its struggle.
If you are experiencing the loss of a beloved pet, be kind to yourself, know that where you are is exactly where you should be, and honor the life and time you shared together with a special love.
If you are walking with someone on this journey, be kind, be supportive, and “just be.”
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