How to support somebody whose pet has died
“You’re my dog. Sure, I do things for you, but you get me through my day… You are my pet, but you are also my best friend.” – Carl Fredrickson, ‘Dug Days’ (Pixar)
In March this year, my cat Kit died after a short illness. He was just shy of ten years old, and I’d brought him home three years previously when I’d decided I was settled enough in Madrid to consider getting a pet. During the 2020 lockdowns he was the only one I’d see or speak to, and when he was diagnosed with a stomach tumour and died three months later, I was emotionally destroyed.
When it comes to pets, it isn’t always easy to know how to support somebody who’s lost their animal companion. It can even be confusing to see somebody we care about grieving deeply over an animal. Sometimes well-meaning people will try to cheer up someone who’s lost their pet with phrases like “it was just a pet”, “there’s no need to feel this way” and “you can always get another one”. While we naturally want to cheer up somebody who is upset, pet loss is still a bereavement since it’s the loss of a loved one who was cared for. Throughout daily life and major changes, high and low points and everything in between, the bond between a person and their pet is a constant, and they become more than just ‘animals’: they become family. Acknowledging and valuing this bond that a bereaved person had with their pet is key to supporting them, rather than trying to cheer them up.
Whether we knew a pet was ill beforehand or whether their death was unexpected, grief is a normal reaction. To grieve for a pet is a normal adaptive individual process, which needs to be experienced in order to come to terms with a loved one’s death. As with the loss of a person, a bereaved pet owner goes through phases of grief:
Denial. To protect the person, the brain tells them that this cannot be real, that there must be some mistake, and they hold on to any hope that their pet is still alive.
Acute stress reaction. Strong crying spells, sadness, and anxiety are all very normal reactions to losing a beloved animal companion. Anger at how unfair it is that their pet died and guilt that perhaps they could have done something different are also common reactions. It’s not uncommon to ‘see’ or ‘hear’ the pet after they’re gone – this can feel like having a phantom limb, in that you can ‘feel’ the animal there but are aware that they’re not there in reality. This phase can last for days, weeks or even months, as each person processes grief in their own way.
Recovery. In this final phase of grief, the person begins to accept the bereavement, acknowledging the importance that their pet and their loss had to their life, and starts to move on from a world where their pet has gone and is noticeably absent toward a new world without their pet.
How can we best support somebody who has lost a pet? The most important thing is to validate their grief. It’s normal that they would cry on seeing one of their pet’s possessions or thinking about what they would usually be doing with their pet at that moment; they’ve lost somebody very important to them and their world has changed for the worse. Even without understanding the person’s relationship with their pet, asking them if they want to talk and giving them that space to express their feelings and talk about their memories of their pet without judgment can go a long way.
Things can seem scary when you lose a pet: one person told me the day their pet died that they had no idea what to do now and was worried about how they’d get through the following weeks. It can help to reassure the person that it’s normal to feel this way and encourage them to take things one day at a time. While things will feel better for them, it won’t be straightaway, and it’s valid and normal to feel sadness, anxiety, anger and guilt at the time of the death, the days and weeks after, and even at moments months and years afterward. Time and patience during these times are key.
A very common thought in grief is that we could have – or should have – known or done something differently that would have prevented our pet’s death or made things less distressing for them in their final moments. When somebody who’s lost a pet tortures themselves with these what-ifs, it can help to provide reassurance that they did the best they could for their pet with what they knew at the time, while acknowledging their feeling of guilt as normal.
When it comes to practicalities – deciding what to do with the pet’s possessions or ashes for example – there is no right way of doing things. Much as we may want to advise them on what we think would be best for their grieving process, all we can do is be there to bounce ideas rather than give advice. When I was asked about what I did with Kit’s ashes by somebody who’d recently lost their pet, I explained my experience and my reasoning at the time. After speaking with others and hearing their experiences, this person decided that they would rather do something different which they felt would help them more. What’s best for the bereaved person depends on the individual.
Pets become family to us, and when they die it’s normal to feel grief at the loss of our loved one. Bereavement is a personal process, there’s no ‘best’ way of going through it, therefore the best thing we can do to support somebody who’s grieving is to listen non-judgmentally and reassure them that they have our support so that they don’t have to feel alone as they go through this heart-breaking journey.