It’s never easy. Finding the right words, the fear of saying the wrong thing; even a lack of personal experience with pet loss leaves many people uncomfortable with the idea of reaching out to a grieving friend.
Often we feel that if we said just the ‘right thing’ we could end another's suffering for good. But what if we made it worse for them, by creating additional pain? Those feelings of inadequacy and concern cause us to ignore a simple fact: the loss of an animal companion cannot be enhanced, or relieved, by words.
Their bereavement is a process, and as a friend, parent, or close family member you can offer support and a listening ear, but there is no way to take away the pain. Rather, just being available can be comforting.
During the Early Days
Simply listen. Take time to ask about their deceased pet. They may be more than willing to share their favorite memories. Let them know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason over how they should or shouldn’t feel. They should always feel free to express their feelings, without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
Be willing to sit in silence. Sometimes the bereaved will find it too difficult to talk, but take great comfort in having someone close by. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
Let them talk about how their pet died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens.
Ask how you can help. Be willing to take over as many simple tasks as possible. Even small jobs can add to the stress of a grieving person; this is especially true for older pet owners. Be willing to take the initiative. Many people have trouble accepting help when it’s offered. You may need to simply tell them what task you are doing on their behalf, and then do it.
Mention the pet’s name. Grieving people need to feel like their animal companion has not been forgotten, and mentioning their name in conversation will also make it easier for everyone to discuss their feelings about the death.
Help them celebrate and honor the life of their pet. Staging a remembrance ceremony, or simply helping them create a memory book of photographs, can go a long way toward their recovery from loss. Many families have held monthly ceremonies in the year following the death. Others have staged an annual event, such as a commemorative ‘fun run’ in their pet’s honor.
Take the Time to Call. Try to call your grieving friend regularly. Place a call within a couple days of the funeral to let them know you are always free to talk, and then follow-up every few days to see if you can help with anything.
During the Later Months
Some people feel that recovery from pet loss should be shorter, and easier, than grieving the loss of a human being. We know that grief and mourning have their own timetable. Your friend may still be in grief months after the loss. Be conscious of their unique timetable. As they come to a more stable place emotionally, your friend or family member may feel the desire to tentatively step back into life. You can assist them by extending a helping hand.
Involve them in your activities. Invite your friend to social occasions so they have the opportunity to meet new friends and get their mind off their loss.
Plan new activities together. That way, both of you have something to look forward to, even if it's just a short walk or a movie date.
Be prepared for the day when your friend tells you they are ready to adopt a new companion. There is no hard and fast rule about ‘when’ or ‘if’ – so be prepared, and then embrace their decision. After all, only they can know when they’re ready.