When June Greig’s beloved dog, Baily, passed away, one of the most touching gestures she received was from a woman she’d never met.
“It was the mother of my daughter’s co-worker. None of us had met her,” recalls Greig, of Longmeadow, Mass. “She wrote that she had experienced a similar loss of her dog, and understood what we were going through. Her note brought tears to my eyes.”
Anyone who has experienced the death of a pet knows how painful the experience can be. In the absence of established social norms — such as those that accompany a human loss — uncertainty often worsens the situation. Family and friends are unsure of how to act, and the owner may hide his or her true sorrow, for fear of being perceived as silly or dramatic.
But as with most major traumas in life, outreach provides needed comfort. Whether it’s your closest friend, or that person you nod hello to each morning, here are some ways to show support.
1. Recognize their loss
Whether the person appears visibly sad, or is cheerfully going about a daily routine, always acknowledge the loss. Reach out in person, by phone or even through a tasteful post on social media. After the death of two cats, Mary Beth Cooper of Peoria, Ill., recalls, “Facebook turned out to be one of the most helpful resources. Late at night when your mind wanders to sadness, you can go back and read all of those words of support.”
Going one step further — offering to listen — is even better, says Russell Friedman, executive director of The Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Reach out in person, by phone or even through a tasteful post on social media.
“Grievers want and need an opportunity to talk,” says Friedman, who suggests extending a non-judgmental, open invitation, such as: “I can’t imagine what this has been like for you.” Be ready to listen, both at the time or if the person follows up later.
2. Send something
Any connection to the departed pet will be welcomed by the owner. Offer a simple memento: a card, special photo frame (optionally, with a photo), relevant book, plant or flowers.
Greig recalls a heartwarming gift from a neighbor: “a two-sided frame, half with the Rainbow Bridge poem about loss and the other half for us to put in a photo of our dog.”
Another gesture is a monetary donation to a veterinary cause in the deceased pet’s name. Most veterinary hospitals maintain a donation-based emergency fund for pets in need; other worthy recipients include a local shelter or rescue, a veterinary school or a food bank (for pet food purchases). Confirm that the organization will send an acknowledgement card to the pet owner.
3. See what they need
When a person’s life is shaken up, everything becomes that much harder — from picking up the week’s groceries to dealing with the departed pet’s belongings. Any offer to help may be appreciated.
Soon after Cooper’s beloved cat, Bilbo, passed away at home, a thoughtful neighbor spared her the pain of transporting the body to be cremated. “It was the kindest gesture that any friend could have ever offered,” Cooper recalls, adding that the same neighbor also checked in on her periodically.
4. Memorialize the pet
In the absence of formal services, it’s hard for a pet owner to gain a sense of closure. A project can help. Suggest doing something to commemorate the pet, such as prepare a scrapbook, edit video clips or set up a memorial garden in the owner’s yard or favorite park. You may be surprised to hear that your friend has an idea, but has either procrastinated or felt too sad to embark on it alone.
5. Keep your friend social
For empty-nesters or those living alone, the pet may have been a go-between to society; a walk or trip to the park seems more acceptable with a dog in tow. Inviting your friend out is not only good for his or her mindset, but will help your chum learn new patterns of socializing without the missing companion.
“One of my best friends called me at intervals throughout the day for several days, and he and his husband had me over for dinner to make sure that I was not isolating. Just being in the company of friends took me to a much better place mentally,” Cooper recalls.
While there’s no protocol for reacting to a friend or family member’s pet loss, you’ll seldom go wrong by stepping forward in some manner.
Five Things Not to Do
Unfortunately, the unease of the situation can give rise to blunders. Here are five common reactions that won’t make the saddened owner feel any better.
- Avoiding the topic, or the person in general. “Grief is compounded by the fact that friends and family don’t bring up the subject,” says Freidman.
- Making light of the situation or calling the deceased pet “just a dog or cat.”
- Claiming to know how the person feels, says Friedman: “Even if you’ve had a parallel loss, you don’t know how another griever feels.”
- Mentioning the topic of getting another pet.
- Becoming impatient if the person is still hurting after six days/weeks/months.