To many people, pets are so much more than just animal companions. They’re a member of your family. Pets are who you turn to when you need comfort or soothing after a hard day in the world. When you’re grieving the loss of a pet, it may feel like there’s no safe space for you to retreat to inside your home.
Not everyone understands the pain someone can experience when their beloved pet dies. After all, it’s just an animal that you can’t have a conversation with. But in some ways, that lack of verbal communication makes the loss even harder. Creating a bond with a living creature that transcends the need for language is really special and rare.
If you’re struggling with the best way to express sympathy for someone who has lost their pet, here are some suggestions for the best things you can say so they know they have your support.
Post-planning tip: If you are dealing with the loss of a human loved one, we have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
1. “I can’t imagine what you’re experiencing right now.”
Even if you’re an empathetic person and you’ve lost a pet of your own, it’s not necessarily accurate to say “I know what you’re going through.”
In truth, we all process grief in different ways. While losing someone you love (pet or person) is a universal experience, no two people are ever going to have exactly the same experience and suggesting that they could feel dismissive of the very real anguish your loved one is experiencing.
2. “Would you like me to help you put away their things for now?”
It can be traumatizing for a person who has lost a pet to be faced with unexpected reminders of their presence. Help them out by gathering things like kennels, carrying cases, food, dishes, leashes, collars, toys, treats, and all the other various bits of detritus that accumulates in a pet owner’s home and put it somewhere out of the way, like a garage or storage shed.
This way, if they ever do decide to get another pet, they can choose to go through and reuse some items, or they can donate what they can when they’re in a better headspace. Either way, they won’t encounter a constant visual reminder of their deceased pet at every turn.
3. “You made the right decision.”
One of the most challenging parts of pet ownership is deciding whether to help a poet fight off an illness or make the agonizing choice to put them to sleep. It’s difficult to make the choice to euthanize a pet, especially because you can’t use words to explain it to them.
That can leave a person feeling very raw, vulnerable, and without a real sense of closure. Let your friend know that their pet may not have been able to say it out loud, but they knew their owner did the best thing for them. In this case, that was to release them from pain and suffering in the most humane way possible.
4. “If you’d like to get outside for a bit, I’d love to go with you.”
Dog owners may have an especially difficult time going out for a walk or visiting local hiking trails or parks if they have memories of taking their dogs for walks in the same areas. They may avoid going outside so they don’t have to face this flood of memories.
Offering to go out with them will help them get the fresh air and exercise they need to start feeling a little better, but they’ll have you as a safety net if they end up feeling too overwhelmed by emotion.
5. “Would it help you to talk about them?”
Everyone handles grief in their own unique way. Some people won’t want to discuss the recent passing of their pet as it still feels like an open wound. Others may need to vent about how unfair it is, and how angry and hurt they are.
And some people may want to talk about happier times they shared with their pets. Prepare yourself to handle whatever reaction they might have.
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6. “Do you remember when …?”
If your friend does want to share stories about their pet, be prepared to chime in with stories of their own. Happy memories or memories of a pet’s shenanigans can be a great mood-lifter.
Talk about the time the family dog escaped from the house, and no one could lure it back inside until your friend drove home three hours in the middle of the night and caught the dog in under five minutes.
Talk about how their cat never learned what a reflection in a mirror was and would freak out and hiss at these strange cats in their domain. So much so that until your friend gave up and draped sheets over all the mirrors so it was like they were living in some weird, musty, Dickensian house. Think of stories that will help put a little smile on their face, even if it’s bittersweet at best.
7. “Would you like me to organize a small memorial?”
Funerals and memorial services are a big part of what helps us process the death of people we know. But not many people perform similar ceremonies for their pets.
Even a small ceremony may help your friend gain some of the closure they’ve been struggling to find. Invite a few people who knew the pet well—a dog walker, a house sitter, a friend from the dog park—and have everyone say a few words or share a happy memory.
If you don’t have a body to bury or ashes to scatter, the ritual itself may prove to be a comfort. You can always arrange for some funeral flowers to lay down as a symbolic gesture. Most of all, the mourning owner might derive some comfort from realizing there are other people who deeply feel their loss.
You might consider sending pet memorial gifts as well.
COVID-19 tip: If you host a virtual or live streamed funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still share your thoughts or eulogy with your online guests. Coordinate with your planning team, make sure you have the right microphones and other audio equipment, and send online guests digital funeral programs with the full speaking schedule.
8. “Your pet was irreplaceable. You’ll never have another one like her.”
When offering condolences, sometimes well-meaning people ask, “So, when are you getting a new pet?” But, some people need time to heal before they can even think about opening up their hearts and homes to another pet.
While some people are ready to go out right away and get another cat or dog, it doesn’t mean that they’re trying to replace their beloved pets. It just means that they have a lot of love to give, and are more able to take in another animal that needs a home. A new pet will enter your life when it’s the right time, but no matter what, they will never replace the pet you’ve lost.
9. “How are the kids handling it?”
If your friend has young kids, the death of a family pet may be the first time they’re being confronted with the concept of mortality. There are some great children’s books about death and books about pet loss that can help explain what has happened in an age-appropriate way.
Offer to pick some up and even to help with talking about it if your friend is too emotional to be able to do it on their own.
10. “Your pet had the greatest life because of [reason].”
When an animal dies, its owner may second-guess everything. Should they have borrowed money to pay for an expensive experimental surgery? If they had chosen a different food to feed their pet, would the pet have lived longer? If the pet had gone to people with more money, would it have had a happier life?
Pull them out of this negative circle of thinking by reminding them of concrete examples of the way they valued their dog. Remind them that they saved it from an overcrowded shelter. Point out that during thunderstorms, they’d sleep in the dog bed with the dog to keep him calm.
Show them Facebook photos of their adventures. Show them that they were the reason their pet had so many amazing days.
11. “I’m listening.”
There’s a tendency for people to downplay their own feelings after the death of their pet. They may not believe anyone else would prioritize the death of their animal, or they may worry about bringing people down.
Let them know that whenever they need to talk about their pet, you’re available to come and listen, and you truly want to be there. Sometimes all we need is proof that one person cares enough to listen to our grief to feel less alone.
Supporting a Friend After the Death of a Pet
Part of the reason we love our pets so much is because they love us back unconditionally. Your friend will be feeling the loss of that love in a very profound way. Until they’re able to feel a little better, do for them what their pet once did: love them wholeheartedly and unconditionally.