“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” — Roger Caras
I still remember the heartbreaking day I had to say goodbye to Golda, my childhood dog. For 16 years, she was my loyal, lovable rock who showered me with affection, comfort, and, most of all, unwavering devotion. And though it’s been years since her death, I feel a prick of sadness every time I spot a sweet, sprightly tri-colored Corgi.
For as those of us who have lost a pet know, the experience is shattering. Our furry companions are more than just animals; they are family. Sadly, pet loss is not treated with the same sensitivity as the loss of a human being, which only compounds the suffering. As a pet loss researcher, I hear this all too often. And while friends are well-meaning, sometimes they just don’t know how to help or what to say or not to say.
So how can you comfort — and avoid hurting — a friend whose dog has recently died? Here are some tips.
“It was just a dog” — You would never hear someone say, “She was just your sister.” Unfortunately, some people who have never had a pet have difficulty understanding the depth of the human-animal connection, and because of this they can appear insensitive. While a necklace may hold sentimental value, for an animal parent, reducing a beloved furry companion to an object is unfathomable.
“You should get another pet” — There is no timeline for grief. Whether your friend chooses to get another dog weeks, months, or years from now (or perhaps never), honor and respect her process.
“You need to move on.” — It’s normal to feel a variety of emotions after losing a pet. Some may feel better sooner than others, while others might find themselves still welling up in tears years later. Do not impose a timeline. If your friend is really suffering, gently express concern. Share information about grief-support resources or help her find a support group or mental health professional. But don’t lecture her.
“Well, we all know that dogs do not live as long as people.” — Of course we do. But being reminded of this when you’re in the throes of grief does not help. When one is grieving, especially in the beginning, having someone remind you that this day was imminent is devastating.
“It was time.” — For some, there may be comfort knowing their dog lived a long, joyful life, but the reality is there will always be a void when that special animal is gone. No time is good to lose an animal.
“It’s not like losing a child.” — For a grieving pet owner, this remark can feel awfully trivializing. In fact, pet loss research reveals that for many pet owners, the loss of a furry companion can be even more painful than the loss of a human. And similar to losing a child, the dog is irreplaceable.
Validate — Grieving pet owners often ask themselves if there was anything they could have done differently, especially when it comes to euthanasia. Continually reminding them of what a devoted pet parent they were and that they did everything they could for their pet can be reassuring and soften the painful, guilty feelings they are experiencing.
Reminisce — Sharing treasured memories of how a friend’s dog inspired, humored, or touched you not only is comforting for the pet parent, but also helps shift the focus away from the anguish of the loss to the memories of happier times.
Listen compassionately — For a bereft dog owner, a friend who listens non-judgmentally is consoling beyond words. Talk less and let your friend tell her story as many times as she needs to. Hold her hand or provide a hug if it seems appropriate. And don’t be afraid to cry along with her.
Help celebrate the dog’s life — You can help your friend create rituals to memorialize her pet by:
Reach out — While a text or Facebook message is a common way to connect, taking the time to call or write a handwritten note is much more personal. Or send flowers. Or make a donation to a pet charity in the name of the deceased pet. Over the next several weeks and months, continue to ask how you can help. These simple, thoughtful gestures mean the world to a grieving pet parent.
And while you cannot take away your friend’s sorrow, knowing you are wholeheartedly there for her is meaningful beyond measure.
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About the author: Rachel Katz is a San Francisco-based spiritual director in private practice, a human/animal bond researcher, a writer, and an end-of-life volunteer caregiver with the nationally recognized Zen Hospice Project. She is also a besotted mom to her Labradoodle, Charlie, and certified therapy cat, Bodhi — her two most playful, inspiring teachers. In her spare time, Rachel can be spotted roaming the streets of San Francisco in search of urban adventures, great thrift finds, anything shark related, and other dogs to love on. Learn more about Rachel at theurbanspirit.com.