Knowing what to say to someone who has recently lost a pet isn't easy, words will not make the hurt go away and it won't bring back their beloved pet. With the right support, there are ways you can help someone through this difficult time.
Saying goodbye to animals we love it something that everyone working in a Veterinary practice has to come to terms with, it's hard and it doesn't ever stop upsetting you; but over the years we've learnt that offering support can really make a difference.
There are many types of pet owners and we each have a very individual bond with our pets. Pets give us unconditional love and companionship, whether they are working animals or domestic companions they soon become part of the family.
So it's not surprising that losing a pet can be as traumatic as losing a human member of the family. Sadly, not everyone will fully understand the level of grief felt by an owner when they lose a pet, they may never have owned a pet and so can't relate to the bond you shared or their relationship with their pet(s) may be very different to yours. This can be difficult when those around you don't understand your feelings.
Many pet owners suffer from depression and loneliness after losing a pet, their routine changes suddenly and it can take a long time to stop habits like getting food bowls out or fetching the lead. Guilt is also a normal emotion if a pet has been euthanised, the decision to have your pet put to sleep is a difficult one to make and many owners blame themselves or question their decision. Having someone who is able to offer reassurance and talk to is so important if you are having these feelings.
What to say
There is no right or wrong thing to say, however we've found that the right type of support can really make the difference.
Take the time to listen - To truly understand how someone is feeling you need to listen to what they are telling you. For some people, being able to talk to someone about their emotions can really lighten the load 'a problem shared is a problem halved'. Or just talking about the funny things their pet would do, re-telling the stories and recalling memories spent together, for some people can really help.
Put yourself in their shoes - Whether you're a pet owner or not, think about something or someone you really care about then imagine that thing or person was suddenly not there and you could never see it/them again. This sense of sudden loss is what that pet owner is going through and showing you understand this will help them see that you understand.
Focusing on the good - Lasting memories should be of the good times spent with their pet rather than as old or unwell animal, so try to get them to recall happy memories they spent together. In time, these happy memories will be the ones that stick and it will help them move toward a point where they can talk about their pet without feeling such sadness.
What not to say
Saying the wrong thing can make someone feel worse, we'd recommend avoiding the following.
Suggesting to get another pet - There is no right or wrong time to get a new pet following the loss of a previous one. Some owners will go years without getting another, whilst some feel they need a new companion immediately. We'd recommend you avoid suggesting someone gets a new addition as it can make them feel like you are replacing the pet they've just lost. A new puppy, kitten or rescue animal will never replace those that have been lost, but when they are ready it can help keep them occupied and give them someone to turn their affection too. This should always be on their terms and when they feel ready.
Telling them it's only an animal - We hope no-one would think this is acceptable to say to a pet owner, but for some people who don't feel the same towards animals, this can be their understanding (or lack of it). A person's relationship with their pet can be as strong as a human to human relationship, you should support not judge their feelings.
If you or someone you know is struggling to come to terms with the loss of a pet, the staff at Brentknoll Veterinary Centre are always happy to lend a sympathetic ear. As people who have been on both sides we can empathise and support you through this difficult time.