If you have ever lost a companion animal, you will likely have some stories of what people did or didn’t do, things that either helped you feel better or made you feel worse. But in case you aren’t an “animal person” and simply want to be a good and supportive friend, here are some basic guidelines for helping a friend who has lost a pet.
1. Do not say “It was just a dog!” or “It was just a cat.”
Not only is this disparaging to animals, but it will likely offend a pet owner. This is an underhanded way of telling someone they are silly for loving an animal—and there is nothing silly about love for an animal. If you’ve never tried it, you might not understand what the big deal is. But out of empathy for your friend, try to understand that the bond between person and animal can run very, very deep.
2. Do not say, “Don’t worry, you can just get another.”
This is not comforting. It implies that an animal is replaceable, like a library book that you check out and then return and exchange for another. Some people do, in fact, adopt a new animal when one dies. But this is generally not a “replacement” and grows out of the desire to live with and bond with an animal companion.
3. Do acknowledge their grief.
Grieving over an animal is not as socially accepted as other forms of grief, so people who lose a pet often get less support than they need. We can forget that losing an animal can be profoundly distressing and the grief can be as intense, if not more intense, than after the loss of a human friend or family member.
4. Do offer words of sympathy.
You can say much the same sorts of things you might say if a human companion had died. Offer words of sympathy; tell them you are sorry for their loss; write down some specific memories or impressions that you had of the animal or of what the animal meant to your friend; offer to listen if they want to talk about their loss.
5. Do send a sympathy card.
When my buddy Ody died, I received three cards: one from the vet who came to my house to perform the euthanasia, one from Ody’s veterinary office (where I picked up his ashes), and one from my mother-in-law. These three cards meant a great deal to me—even the “boiler plate” card from the vet. I think sending a sympathy card is a lovely way to express your support.
6. Do think creatively about other ways to help your friend celebrate and memorialize their animal’s life.
One of the nicest ways to memorialize a deceased animal is to plant a flowering bush or fruit tree in their memory. It is a living, beautiful testament to their life, and one that will bloom year after year. You might send a poem or other meaningful piece of writing that celebrates the human-animal bond. You could also offer to help your friend plan a memorial service, and offer to be present for the burial or scattering of ashes.
7. Most of all, realize that those of us who have lost a pet are suffering and will be grateful for the support of our friends.