Have you ever seen a friend or neighbor distraught over the death of a pet? If you’ve never had a pet, or have considered having one, were you surprised to see someone crying? In reality, this response is as normal as when a close friend or loved one dies.
Here’s what you need to know about helping someone mourning the death of a pet, as there is great grief involved that can last for long periods of time.
1. As in the death of a friend or relative (and most animals are considered part of the family), pain is to be expected due to the degree of emotional investment in the object of loss. Emotional investment means care and concern; it is love in depth. Only the bereaved knows the depth of that investment. Sometimes the pain of a pet is more intense than the pain associated with the death of a loved one.
2. Give permission to show emotion for something you say or do. Give the person a hug and say, “This must cause him deep pain” or “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Use the pet’s name when you can. Acknowledge how close the relationship was between the pet and the bereaved and encourage them to talk about the illness or what led to the death.
3. Offer to be helpful in some way. Bring food home, if appropriate. Go with the owner to the pet cemetery. Provide transportation. Simply showing that you are aware of the impact of death will be of great help to your friend.
4. Review the relationship the person had with the pet in a kind and loving way. Ask questions about how long the pet was part of the family and where it came from. Encourage storytelling that involves what the pet did or did not do. All of this will give you a better idea of what the loss means to the person.
5. Grief over the death of a loved animal is as individual as grief over the death of a family member. There will be a wide range of differences, some demonstrative, others very secretive. Don’t judge the depth of pain by outward appearances. Respect all expressions of pain. Some people will hide their pain for fear that others will ridicule their behavior. Be sure to include children in learning about grief and death through the death of the pet.
6. Be aware, especially with older adults living alone, that some pets may be the only family the person has. Therefore, the animal is one of the few or perhaps the only one from whom the bereaved received unconditional love.
7. If other losses have preceded the death of a pet, this can make it more difficult to deal with the death of the pet. For example, if a pet owner has had to stop driving, had a debilitating illness, had friends who have moved, or experienced the death of a loved one, these or other losses can easily result in an overload of duel. The bereaved will especially need a caring and caring community at this time of transition.
8. Guilt, anger, or depression can also be associated with the loss of a pet. Guilt is the most common reaction, especially if the owner had to euthanize the pet, was not present when the pet died, or did not recognize the illness until later stages.
9. Help create or suggest a monument. A picture, toy, or necklace can be worn as a way to honor or remember the pet. An object belonging to the animal can be encased in Lucite or placed on a shelf that can be easily seen.
Pets no longer play a key role in homes across the country. Rather, they have come to play the role of companion, support, and old friend. Consequently, the death of a pet can become a great grieving experience for both young and old. Be sensitive to the role the animal played in the life of the family and you will be better equipped to provide ongoing support and appropriate memories that will be of great help for months to come.