Russell Friedman shares advice for grieving pet owners and their loved ones
The relationship between an owner and their pet is a special one… and the loss of a pet can be a heartbreaking one. National Pet Memorial Day, the second Sunday in September, is a day designated to commemorate the power of the human-animal bond. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that over 63 million people annually are grieving the loss of a pet, whether it be a dog, cat, bird, horse, rabbit, or other animal.
In a time when pets are considered by many to be an equal member of the family, why is it that we don’t always quite know what to say when a family, friend, or acquaintance’s pet passes away? In fact, research shows that over 85% of the comments that a grieving pet owner hears within the first few days of their pet’s death is not helpful for them, no matter how well-intentioned they are.
ARL blog sat down with Russell Friedman, director of the Grief Recovery Institute and co-author of the Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss, to find out how to cope with the loss of your pet, and what you should and should not say to a grieving pet owner:
ARL Blog: Many people experience a very emotional or difficult time when their pet passes away. Some even report that they cry harder and longer over a pet’s death than a family member’s. Is that normal?
Russell Friedman: Just as we never forget the people who we love and who were important to us, the same goes for our pets. Grieving for animal in the same way that you would grieve a human being is completely normal, natural, and healthy.
Everyone has their own unique relationship with their pet. Even members within the same household grieving the loss of the same pet will react differently. Don’t forget that animals have very tangible emotions, so your other pets may grieve the loss of their companion too!
Unlike children who grow into adults, become more independent, and move out of the home, our pets do not. Although pets do age, they remain in our home and will always depend on us for food, shelter, and protection. The “parental” aspect to being a pet owner can make the emotional bond so powerful. For some couples who can’t have children, their pet is their “child” and they view them in that same way.
Our pets also give us a safe space to be ourselves and express our emotions without judgement. They are our loyal confidants. More often than not, what the person is feeling is a loss of the entity that used to always be there for them.
ARL Blog: Can you share some advice for people who are dealing with the loss of a pet?
RF: During a pet’s final care, we imagine unrealized hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future. There are always things that we wish would have happened differently. Allow yourself as much time as you need to grieve and surround yourself with supportive friends and family. Think of fond memories you had with your pet, and visit the gravesite or plant a memorial.
One of the biggest myths is the concept of replacing the loss. You need to allow yourself to grieve your old pet before you get a new one. This is only fair to the new pet, so that they have their own persona. As far as the timeframe between the death of your new pet and brining home a new one, there is no right or wrong answer; it’s whenever you feel ready.
If you are a friend or family member of a grieving pet owner, remember to never buy someone a new pet without their permission. Although your intention of helping that person to “move on” is well-meaning, the griever may simply not be ready to attach themselves to a new pet.
ARL Blog: In the Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss you discuss some phrases NOT to say to a grieving pet owner. Can you explain what a few of them are?
RF: A few phrases that will actually have the opposite effect of what you intended are:
“I know how you feel.” This statement is always made in an attempt to commiserate, sympathize, or empathize with the person who is grieving. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for you to know exactly how the person feels, even if you have had a related experience. Every relationship is unique and everyone reacts to the loss of a pet, family member, or friend differently.
“They’re in a better place.” and/or “They’re not in pain anymore.” Perhaps their pet is in a better place and not in pain anymore, however the person who is grieving is not in a good place and feeling a painful loss.
“Don’t feel bad…” The person who just lost their pet does feel bad and is upset, even if their pet wasn’t suffering or lived its full life expectancy.
ARL Blog: Do you have any advice for what you SHOULD say to someone who has a lost a pet?
RF: Yes! First and foremost, make sure to acknowledge that you hear the person and the words that they are saying. Listen with your heart, not your head, and don’t give advice unless asked.
One of the best things you can possibly say is, “I can’t imagine what this has been like for you.” If you say it in the tone of question, it gives the grieving person permission to elaborate and express their feelings, should they want to. It shows the griever that you’re non-judgmental and that they’re in a safe space.
Alternatively, the truest and most failsafe statement when you encounter a grieving pet owner is probably, “Gosh, I heard what happened. I don’t know what to say.”
ARL Blog: Many parents are nervous to tell their children that their family pet is sick or has passed away in an effort to shield them from grief and sadness. Any suggestions of what you SHOULD say to children?
RF: Yes, be honest with them. When speaking to children about the loss of a pet, you can modify your language in terms that they can understand depending on their age; however the thoughts and ideas should remain the same. If you make the decision to put your pet to sleep, explain to your children gently what’s about to happen and give them the choice of whether or not they want to be there.
Encourage your children to show their emotions and teach them that grief is a normal natural reaction to loss. Have them tell you stories about their pet and how much they love them. Ask them to apologize to their pet and/or forgive their pet for any “wrongdoings”, such as chewing on their favorite doll. Remind them that although their pet won’t be there physically, that they will always have a place in their hearts and memories.