Pet loss is an inevitable part of pet ownership. Unless you’re raising a tortoise, the chances that your pet will die before your life is over are almost 100 percent. I believe we are cursed with this trade-off: we get to have unconditional love from a creature and they accept our love in return, but it is a limited-time offer.
I have lost several of my own pets over the years, but this past month I received word that two of my pet-sitting dogs had passed away. Although I don’t claim to have anywhere near the sense of loss that their owners do, I nevertheless felt a great sadness at their passing, not unlike the loss I felt when one of my own pets died.
The reactions I have encountered, both personally and professionally, regarding pet loss have been mixed. There seems to be some confusion about what is appropriate to say to someone who has just lost a pet. I have some helpful suggestions for dos and don’ts, which are partially, I’m afraid to say, based on personal experiences.
Don’t say “at least it’s not a friend/spouse/child” or any other phrase whose implication is “it’s just a pet.”
Don’t downplay the emotions the person is feeling. They’ve just lost someone they loved; it doesn’t matter that that creature is not a human.
Don’t ask them why they think they can play God and end the suffering of an animal or, conversely, don’t ask them why they didn’t euthanize the animal sooner. This was probably one of the hardest decisions they’ve ever had to make – don’t make them second-guess themselves.
Don’t ask them when they’re getting a new pet – unless they bring it up first.
Do listen. Much of the time, the owner(s) only want to talk about their pet; just being there to listen is one of the most helpful things you can do for someone.
Do encourage them to seek out a pet-loss support group, especially if their grief seems to be overwhelming them.
Getting over the loss of a beloved pet is not something that happens overnight. Sometimes it takes months or even years to fully accept the loss – especially if it was unexpected. Being understanding of someone’s loss, even if you don’t share in it, will help them with the grieving process.
Sometimes it helps to write it out. Encourage your loved one to write in a journal or even write a pet obituary.
Fair warning to all of those who read my column: the next two months will be remembrances of the lives of those canine companions who have recently passed.
“All his sweet and shaggy life, always near me, never troubling me, and asking nothing.” — Pablo Neruda
“What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” — Helen Keller
(Sarah Caton owns All Paws Pet Sitting, which serves all of Lincoln County.)