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Why the Death of a Pet Matters (and Why Your Sympathy Does Too)

Death is a part of life. Loss is all around us, but people struggle to know how to show sympathy and empathy, especially when it pertains to the death of a pet.

I opened my private psychotherapy practice 15 years ago. Back then I specialized in bereavement and worked with many children who had experienced significant loss. A seasoned colleague told me, “If you are willing to work with children, especially around grief and loss, you will be busier than you know.” She was right. My caseload grew quickly.

In my office, a mother tearfully described her 9-year-old’s mood swings. These began after the family dog, crippled with arthritis, was euthanized. It was a heartbreaking decision for the mother and father, who decided it was best done while the little girl was at school. The child struggled to accept their decision. She blamed her parents and became very mistrustfulof them, believing they did not do enough to save the dog. The mother was also very upset by a friend’s suggestion that they get another dog to help their daughter get over the loss. “Why do people say such stupid things?” she asked.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ research on grief remains the quintessential body of work from which I draw information for use in both my professional and personal life. Many people are surprised to learn that there are phases to the grieving process. These include shock, anger, sadness, and bargaining. They may repeat cyclically and in a nonlinear pattern, as people struggle to accept the permanence of death. Most of the phases of grief are self-explanatory and easy to identify. They aren’t, however, easy to address. There is an emotional uncertainty that exists for many who wish to express their sympathy to someone who is grieving.

I have a model for thinking confidently when we struggle to know what to say. I call it IDK. The letters stand for three words: “I don’t know.” In these moments, it is fine to say, “I don’t know what to say to convey how sad I feel for you.” It certainly captures an authentic desire to be helpful, without running the risk of offending.

Many people have complained that they have been disappointed when close friends or family showed little or no sympathy after the death of their pet. Well-intentioned suggestions to get another pet have, generally, not been well-received. One person went so far as to make a sarcastic comparison: “Next time someone says this to me, I am going to say, ‘Sorry about the loss of your brother, but you can always get another!’ This is outrageous. No one would ever say this when a person dies.”

The school of thought regarding the subject of intense pet love and connection teaches us that pets are “members of the family.” Many who express this sentiment mean it. These animals receive the utmost care and attention from their “owners.” I hesitate to use the word “owners” here; hence the quotation marks. More often than not, people have referred to themselves using parental terms such as “Mom” or “Dad.” The pet, in these cases, is of course the “child.” Another familiar term when referring to a beloved pet is “best friend.” On a continuum of behavior, there are many gestures that leave no doubt as to an animal’s importance, actions that confirm a pet’s priority status in a family system.

In case you find yourself at a loss for words at a time when you want to be thoughtful in your expression of sympathy to a friend or loved one who has lost a pet, there are many cards available online. It’s thoughtful to periodically check in with someone whose pet has died. Many who have lost pets report feeling appreciative when others (coworkers, family, and friends) ask how they are doing.

Empathy, the expression of concern and support from a perspective of similar experience, is welcome, especially when story sharing is invited. A good rule of thumb, however, is to hold back telling about your own accounts of pet loss and grief. I encourage use of the “get more before you give more” conversation style. Asking a grieving person to share a fond memory of the animal is very considerate. This allows the grieving person to have a reflective moment of reminiscence, reinforcing the reasons this pet holds a special place in his or her heart.

© Copyright 2014 by Pandora L. MacLean-Hoover, LICSW, therapist in Lexington, Massachusetts. All Rights Reserved.

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