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One of the most difficult days for any pet owner is the day their pet passes away. That’s because pets are more than just furry creatures that live in our homes — they’re part of our families.
If we take a moment and think deeply about our relationships with our pets, it’s easy to see why they’re so beloved. If we’re upset or depressed for any reason at all, our pets can often cheer us up. Their loyalty and devotion are unmet by most humans, and they each have their own personality.
Because pets play such a pivotal role in our lives, our grief when we lose them is genuine and devastating. For most pet owners, our emotional ties to our pets are powerful.
But there are some people who don’t understand that grief, often because they have no pets of their own and simply don’t quite understand the pull they have on our lives. In turn, they don’t understand the empty spot in our hearts that immediately appears when they pass away.
When someone you know is grieving the loss of their fur baby — which is bound to happen, as their lives are impactful but far too short — here are a few tips to keep in mind:
ACKNOWLEDGE THE STRENGTH OF THEIR BOND
For some people, it can be hard to comprehend the closeness between pet and human. But pets are part of their owners’ lives day in and day out. They interact constantly, and pets are deeply intertwined with their humans’ daily routines. There are habits that both human and pet develop together, and when a pet is no longer there to snuggle their owner on the couch when they’re sick, or keep them company when they do yardwork, or curl up on their lap while they’re reading a book — that absence is jarring.
Once outsiders understand how ingrained that relationship is, the more they can appreciate how that person is grieving.
Some people are honestly closer to their pets than human members of their family.
Jill S. Cohen, a family grief counselor, explains how the relationship between an animal and a human can be more fulfilling than a human and a human:
“There is an unconditional love that a pet provides, where often a human relationship does not necessarily provide that. Also, a pet is reliable and has provided the security and stability through the owner’s life which often transcends other relationships. Children may leave home, a spouse may leave or be absent for a period of time. Parents may die. Friendships may drift. But the pet is always there — a source of comfort, a source of continuity in life, of constant companionship, a way for the owner to show love to a living being. A pet also provides a sense of routine for its owner. This may give the owner some consistency in life — feeding, walking, caring for the dog, tending to the pet’s needs. The bond between a human and a pet can sometimes be like none other.”
Our relationships with our pets are actually complex, and it takes time to cope with their loss.
BE MINDFUL OF YOUR WORDS
It’s crucial to recognize and validate the pain that someone is feeling after the loss of a pet — even if you yourself don’t quite understand the loss. Avoid comforting them by offering “solutions” that only make it worse — things like, “You can pick out a new pet now, though, right?” or “It was only an animal.”
Every pet is unique, and has its own habits, quirks, and preferences. Even though someone who lost a pet may indeed eventually bring another pet into their lives, mentioning that as a solution for their current grief or implying that their lost pet can be easily replaced only hurts them further. Yes, a person can get a new pet, but it’s not going to be the same as the pet that was lost. Suggesting that is callous.
If you’re unsure what to say, then listen to what they have to say. Sit with them and let them talk. Sometimes comforting someone comes down to simply being in their company.
TRY TO UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS
This is an important tip to remember. Grief doesn’t have a time limit, and there is an incredible amount of grief when a pet is lost. It’s impossible to rush through it or ignore it — otherwise you can’t fully heal. Some people may be able to lapse back into their daily routine with relative ease, while others may take days or weeks or months to adjust.
Cohen offers additional advice:
“Hold a gathering for people who knew your pet and would want to share stories or provide company for you during the beginning days of the loss. Make a photo collage. Frame or share with your friends through email or regular mail. It will tell the story that they may not know about your relationship and love for your pet. Visit friends who have pets and play with the animals. It will bring back the spirit of joy that the animal once provided for you.”
She also mentions that grief support groups can help those who are struggling to cope with pet loss.
Most pet owners value the special role pets play in their lives and see them as just as important as the humans in their lives. Trying to understand this unique bond will helps you empathize with them as they try to heal.