After the unexpected loss of my beloved Standard Poodle named Faith 2 months ago, it became clear to me that there are many ways that friends, family members, and colleagues try to help a person experiencing grief. The loss of a pet is incredibly painful because we do not simply lose our pet; we also lose our constant companion, source of unconditional love, and “life witness” who offers security and comfort. When we lose a pet, there is also a disruption in daily routines that is much more profound than some losses of friends or family members. The couch snuggles, nightly walks, and other daily cues are starkly missing and this change in lifestyle and routine contributes significantly to stress.
Grief is a difficult subject for most people including those experiencing it, as well as those who are trying to offer support. However, some of the ways in which support is presented can come across as hurtful, oblivious, or insensitive. This is not because they are intended that way, but because most people are uncertain of what they should do in the face of another person’s grief. Thankfully, there is extensive research in the field of grief counseling that has helped to ascertain the dos and don’ts when offering support or assistance to someone who is grieving. So, whether you know someone who has lost a cherished pet or person, please consider the following suggestions:
· Offer platitudes such as “time heals all wounds” – this can come across as trite and diminish a person’s experience
· Say things like “they are in a better place” – the person might share a different idea of what happens after death and this statement can feel irritating
· Make suggestions such as “maybe you should get another dog” – this can lead to further isolation and feelings of “I should be over this by now”
· Put a timeline on grief – everyone is unique in his/her response to grief and there is no “normal” period of time during which someone should recover
· Try to fix the other person’s feelings – grief is something that must be experienced in order for healing to take place
· Ask about the circumstances surrounding the death – the events leading up to the loss of a pet, especially if euthanasia is involved, are very personal and it might be triggering to be asked to share them, especially soon after the loss
· Listen – people want to be heard and having the chance to share their feelings of grief can be helpful
· Share memories – most people want to talk about the person or pet they are grieving and this can be a nice transition into that
· Check-in regularly – whether it is by text, email, phone call, or snail mail
· Offer to “be there” – telling the person you are here for them if they just want to be in company can be comforting, especially if they are not ready to talk
· Send condolences – the simple statement “I am so sorry for your loss” is all a person who is grieving needs to hear
· Ask what the person needs – the above statement can be followed by “what can I do”; an open-ended question that invites the person who is grieving to let you know what they might need
Probably the hardest thing for people who might not have previously experienced the loss of a pet is the lack of social acceptance around grieving the loss of an animal. There is the perception that people will think (or worse say) “it was just a dog”, when research suggests that for people the loss of a dog is in almost every way comparable to the loss of a human loved one. Unfortunately, society has not yet normalized the cultural grief rituals that we would apply to the loss of a human in situations when a person us lost a pet. This can cause people to feel embarrassed about their emotions and reluctant to discuss the grief they are experiencing. The very best thing that you can do is to ensure that the person who is grieving the of their pet recognizes that their feelings are normal and nothing to resist or be ashamed of.
Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher who has an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals. She facilitates wellness workshops, boot camps, and retreats for veterinarians, technicians, students, and other veterinary care providers. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here. More information can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca.