November 2, 2015
In July 2015, the Inquisitive Canine team supported CEO Poncho the dog’s entrepreneurial decision to start his own ventures in the great beyond. A philanthropic pooch through and through, he left behind a letter to his dear readers and fellow inquisitive canines, along with a three-part series in his Last Woof & Testament that generously included the following valuable advice for dog parents and their inquisitive canines.
Poncho the dog here. I’m always happy to be speaking up for those who want to be heard, and this time, I’m doing so from my new residence: the great beyond. I dearly miss my parents — they shared the best cuddles and warmest smiles — but I’m happy to report I’m comfy here, so please tell them not to worry!
Speaking of my mom and dad, some of you, especially those of you hearing this news for the first time, may be wondering what you could possibly say to them to comfort them during this difficult time. I’m happy to answer that, and since my answers apply to any animal parent who is grieving, here’s what to say — and maybe what to avoid saying — when talking with a pet parent who recently suffered a loss.
The loss of a pet can be devastating to a family. For many animal parents, it’s like losing a child. So try to think empathetically before you speak. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine what you would like to hear if it were you.
The Simpler the Better
Just as I hear many humans talking about how important it is to listen, that’s the best approach here. Ask how the person is doing and just listen. Don’t try to be a problem-solver. Just listen. The shoulder and/or ear you lend might be exactly what‘s needed in that moment.
Personalize Those Clichés
When you’re talking with a grieving friend, I know it can be difficult to think of something to say. We’ve all heard the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss,” but try to personalize it a little. If you’re not feeling creative, say, “I’m so sorry that you’ve lost [pet’s name].” It’s a good start, and you can follow it up with a sentence that asks about their life together (ex. “Where did you get Poncho?” “What did you guys like to do together?”) These are great conversation-starters that will allow pet parents to focus on fond memories.
If the person isn’t ready to talk, honor their feelings. Some people might say, “I just don’t know what to say …” That’s perfect! Don’t say anything. Just offer a shoulder or a hug.
What to Avoid Saying to Grieving Pet Parents
Oftentimes people will try to sugarcoat the situation by trying to find a bright side. This is human nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s what a grieving pet parent wants to hear. Some typical phrases to avoid:
- “He was old …”
The longer you’re with an animal, the stronger the bond between you, so hearing this makes that reality more painful.
- “He was sick and you did all you could …”
Reminding pet parents that they tried everything could backfire, because it might make them wonder if they could’ve done more.
- “That’s why I always have more than one dog at a time, to help with the transition.”
Maybe this approach works for some, but the choices pet parents make to suit their lifestyles are personal. And so is the grief that follows a loss. No two animals are the same, so however well intentioned, this diminishing statement mistakenly assumes their lives are interchangeable.
- “He had a good life …”
This statement brings up a flood of memories, causing the recipient to compare the good moments with the bad, which can be painful.
- “Just know he’s in a better place …”
I know this is meant to comfort, but it often reminds pet parents that their loved one isn’t with them.
Helpful Tip: Tap into Pet Loss Recovery Resources
I know my parents found grief-counseling groups super helpful in those early days. They attended an animal grief-counseling group lead by Kathleen Ayl, Psy.D. The group sessions helped with anticipatory grief and connected them with other wonderfully supportive pet parents. Look for pet loss recovery specialists and pet grief-counseling groups near you for both pre- and post-loss support.