What Not To Do if A Loved One Loses A Pet

My cat Callie passed away last week after eighteen wonderful years and I’ve received some incredibly kind messages offering help or to talk about my loss. However, I’ve also received some less-than-helpful interactions that, unfortunately, made me feel a bit worse. Death makes people uncomfortable, and if you’ve lost a loved person or animal then you’ll know that it brings out the strange in people—no one knows how to react. There are bound to be some awkward interactions, and that’s okay. However, if you want to avoid being that person who makes a grieving friend or loved one feel uncomfortable or upset, here are a few guidelines I would recommend for helping with the loss of a pet.

DON’T make the conversation about you

DO listen to whatever they have to say

As much as you might think it would help make a grieving person feel less alone, talking about yourself can make them feel unheard and unsupported. I found it helpful when people spoke about losing a pet themselves when it was coupled with advice or descriptions of coping mechanisms that helped them. However, I did not find it helpful when people simply said “I get how you feel, I lost a fish when I was ten,” or started talking about themselves or their own problems.

The most important thing you can do for your loved one is listen to them; they probably don’t know how to process this and may want to talk about it even though it might be uncomfortable. Try your best to sit back and let them control the conversation. Fight the urge to reflect what they are saying back on you; that is, unless the person explicitly asks for this. They might say some strange things or be unable to address the loss at all, and that’s okay too. The BEST thing you can do for someone who’s hurting is to listen to them, even if that means providing a distraction.

DON’T immediately attempt to distract them

DO ask them what they think they need

Speaking of distractions, keep in mind that someone who’s just lost a loved pet is going to need to do a lot of processing before they can go on “as normal.” If your immediate urge is to ignore the loss and focus on everything else in their life, that is understandable, but don’t start with distraction unless your loved one explicitly tells you that is what they’re looking for from the conversation. I recommend beginning with questions asking how they’re doing and what you can do for them. If the person doesn’t want to talk about their pet or asks if you can talk to them about something else, THEN gear the conversation in a different direction. If in doubt, just ask! Feeling heard is an incredibly important part of grieving, and your loved one won’t be offended if you ask what kind of support they’d like from you. I recommend sticking to the idea that you’re going to put their needs first, even if it makes you uncomfortable to talk about loss and death. If it does, you should address this with them right away so they know to go to someone else for support in that arena. Communication is key!

DON’T ignore them because you think they want space

DO reach out first

I think everyone can relate to the feeling of being insecure or unsure about asking for help; however, when it comes to serious losses in one’s life, it is incredibly vital that the grieving person feels they are supported. Talking about death can feel like a burden, so it can be very hard to reach out. So beat them to it! Even if the message is as simple as “Hey, I was just thinking about you; let me know if you need anything” you could make a crucial difference in their grieving process. Yes, it’s easy to assume everyone grieves the same way you do, but don’t assume your loved one wants space unless they tell you. It’s far more important to ensure they know you’re there to support them than to give space and risk adding self-reflexive anxiety to their plate about why you’re not messaging.

DON’T console them in the way that makes you feel good

DO pay attention to their needs

The most important thing you need to address when someone has lost a pet is your loved one’s needs. As obvious as that sounds, many people tend to try to then comfort their friends in ways that make them feel like they are doing the “right things” rather than providing the support the loved one actually needs. A key example of this is assuming the authoritative role in providing support; it’s incredibly disempowering when people over-comfort their friends or offer unwanted advice when it is not what the grieving person wants or needs. Sometimes it felt like people would think the right thing to do was to repeat that they “wish there was something they could do” or they “feel so bad for me”—two sentiments that actually made me feel a lot worse. Even though their intentions were fantastic and I know they wanted to help me, at times it felt like they were running through a script of the clichés they were “supposed” to say rather than listening to me when I was telling them that wasn’t what I needed to hear. I believe that the best thing to do is listen to what the grieving person needs. If you do your best to help and follow their lead, I guarantee you will be an extremely valuable source of support and help them recognize that everything will be okay in time.

DON’T try to be overly positive

DO acknowledge your loved one’s pain

When someone is grieving, it is not always the best idea to force positivity on them in the hopes of forcing them to realize that other things in their life are good. Your loved one has just lost a pet and might be feeling as upset as they would if they lost a family member. As much as it is important to remember that this isn’t the end of the world, grief is an important stage they must experience, and brushing it off with positives can make them feel unheard and unsupported. For me, positivity is a little hard to come by right now, but I know that I’ll be alright and that I can get through this with the help of my friends, family, and time. I think that is a good limit for the positivity that others should try to imbue in their grieving ones: that everything will feel better again eventually, but it is okay to grieve and be unhappy for awhile. Validating their loss in this way helps make your loved one feel they are being listened to and understood, which is a necessity in times of grief.

Ultimately, everyone grieves differently, and it is not always possible to tell what someone needs. However, I believe that these basic guidelines will help anyone who wants to fully support a loved one and might be unsure about how to go about it and what to avoid. Death isn’t always a comfortable topic of discussion, but it’s a necessary part of life. I think we would all do better to have conversations about tough subjects, learn how best to support each other through loss and look forward to a happier road ahead.

For Callie. <3

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