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What to say (and not say) when a friend loses their pet

Your best friend just lost their beloved pet. What should you do? Until I lost my own cherished dog this summer, I didn't understand what my friends needed when they mourned lost pets.

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Our natural inclination is to try to help those we love to avoid pain, but “the reality is they have to go through [the pain] to move through it,” says Michele Pich, a veterinary grief counselor. There's no “getting over it,” she adds. In my own experiences, I would often offer words of condolence then give my own dogs an extra hug. I didn't know what else to say so I said nothing. It turns out that's the worst thing to do. When your friend or family member loses a companion, what they need is someone that's “along for the ride.” “Any type of grief or loss can be isolating, but especially pet loss because not everyone acknowledges or realizes the severity of pain,” Pich says. “A lot of times people feel like they have to go through it alone because they think people won't understand.”

When I lost my own dog, I was fortunate to have friends and family who did understand, and their support was the only thing that kept me upright after the unexpected death of our girl. Messages and Facebook comments poured in with love and well wishes. Some friends and family seemed to know just what to say, others had a knack for sending a note when I needed it most. Others, though, were oddly silent. By not saying anything to a friend, people may think they “help by not triggering tears,” Pich says, but tears are healthy. Pich goes on to say, “if they don't bring up the loss of the animal companion, those that are grieving feel like they have been forgotten, and that people aren't acknowledging [their pet's] importance.” So what's the right thing to do? Your friend needs a safe place to experience their emotions, Pich says. “Even though it's hard to see someone you love going through pain, and know there's nothing you can do to lessen that pain … It's important to acknowledge that you're OK with their tears, that they don't have to hide their emotions or 'be strong' or avoid the issue.”   Let them know what they're feeling is normal, Pich says. And while it's OK to empathize if you've also lost an animal, know that there’s a fine line between sharing your feelings and taking focus from your friend’s situation. “You don't want to turn it into 'oh you think yours is bad.' This is a place where self-disclosure can be OK if it's in the interest of healing and that individual not feeling alone.”

And while the world keeps on turning, “grief doesn't have a timeline,” Pich says. There's often a flood of support in the first day or two, she adds, “but then [friends] forget or assume it's no longer upsetting. Grief is going to take as long as it takes, and often that's weeks, months, or years.” So check in on your friend on the third or fourth day, or even a month later. This gesture can be as small as sending a text—like the one I received from a friend that was just heart emoticons. Milestones like the pet's birthday, the date your friend brought them home, as well as holidays, can all trigger fresh waves of grief, Pich says. To your friend, it may feel like the loss has just happened all over again. What about keeping them occupied? It's normal to want to help your friend by distracting them, but it’s important to understand that your friend may not feel up to it. Pich says it's the potential to stay busy that helps, without the person feeling like they have to commit, which can seem overwhelming. Other ways to show support can include helping with everyday tasks or even just coming over to make them a cup of tea. And when it comes to talking about the pet, Pich says go for it. Your friend is likely focusing on the final days, on guilt and pain. Help them remember what a loving home they provided for their pet, what good care they provided for that animal in its lifetime. Share stories about the pet. I'm grateful for every friend who assured us  what great parents we were, who told me things they remembered about our girl.

So now, what shouldn't you do when it comes to pet grief? Never “try to minimize by saying 'it's just a dog or cat,'” Pich says. “[People] think they're putting it in perspective by saying 'it's not like you lost a person.' That's not only saying your grief is not valid but you're silly for feeling this way.” And leave the clichés behind, she says. “This idea of ‘time will heal all wounds’” is not helpful, she goes on. “Time will change the grieving process, but by saying time is going to heal everything implies there comes a point you feel like the pet never existed. That's not what people are looking for.” Pich adds that unless you know your friend's beliefs about life after death, it's safest to assume comments about afterlife will not be helpful. And the biggie: should you encourage your friend to get another pet? “A lot of times people tell someone to get a replacement,” she says. “I'm not saying someone should or shouldn't get another pet but the reality is nothing can replace the pet they lost. That implies animals are interchangeable, that's not helpful. By the same token, it's also important if that person does feel they want to get another animal, try not to shame them for that either.” If all this seems overwhelming, just remember this advice from Pich: “Really, it's not so much what you say, but showing you're comfortable with their emotions.” So just show up and be there to listen. That’s what a pet would’ve done, too.

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While the world keeps on turning, grief doesn't have a timeline.

Dana McMahan

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