The loss of a pet can be an extremely difficult experience for some people. The only time I ever heard my father cry, was after the death of a cat to which he was very attached. My parents got this cat after I moved away from home and I never knew it well. While I saw it curl up on his lap in the evening, when I was home for a visit, I never realized his level of emotional attachment until it died.
Some people show their love of their pets in very obvious ways. They may talk about them, bring them to work, include them in family photos, or regularly post stories about them on social media. Other people may not be quite as publicly vocal, but this does not mean that they are not fully invested in their relationship.
Every major change in our lives brings with it elements of grief.
For a pet owner, this grief is often intense. Pets are there for you when others are not. That pet may have been their only true companion. Whereas friends may have told them how or how not to feel when they were dealing with other losses in their life, their pets listened without any outward analysis, criticism, or judgment. The fact that these pets were always there for them may have made them more valuable to them than their human friends on a daily basis and in moments of crisis.
The deep sense of grief experienced by some pet owners is beyond what many other people understand. The depth of the emotional pain we experience after any loss is directly related to the power of that relationship in our lives. It is difficult to imagine how painful the grief of the loss of this companion is to the griever if we have never had a similar attachment to an animal.
How you can help someone grieving the loss of a pet in a meaningful way.
1. First and foremost, never tell a pet owner you know how they feel. These words have a powerful negative effect on grievers, no matter their loss. You may have gone through a similar loss, which gives you a sense of how you felt, but you can never truly know the pain in another’s heart. At best, you can say that you remember how much it hurt when you lost your pet, but then invite them to share the truth of their personal pain.
2. No one wants to see a friend in pain. There is a major temptation to try and give that friend logical reasons why they should not hurt so much. It is common to hear friends and family members tell a griever that the one that died would not want them to hurt or that they are in a better place. That may be logical, but grief is emotional, rather than logical. Such comments are taken by grievers as discounting their pain and encouraging them to hide that pain, rather than express it. No matter what you say, you cannot fix the problem, since their pet will still be dead. Grievers need someone to listen, rather than try and fix them.
3. Do not try to help your friend by disposing of every evidence that pet/companion existed. Imagine if your spouse or child died and a well-meaning friend came into your house and disposed of all of their clothes and personal possessions, in an effort to save you the pain of the constant reminder of the one you lost. Would that make you feel better? While it might be tempting to try to help by boxing up feeding bowls, toys, bedding or cages, to save the griever the pain of doing so themselves, let them do it in their own time. When they are ready, they will determine what items to let go and those they want to save.
4. Do not try to help by buying them a replacement! The first loss I remember experiencing was the death of the family dog, Mitzie, when I was four years old. I loved that dog and she was a best friend. Immediately after her death, my parents tried to “make things better” by buying a new dog. Sadly, Toby was always just “the dog”, whereas Mitzie was my best friend. It is difficult to begin a new and meaningful relationship until you effectively deal with the emotional pain of the relationship lost.
5. Be there for that friend. Listen to what they have to say without analysis, criticism, or judgment. Keep in mind that if you roll your eyes when they are sharing a story, it will be taken no differently than if you were to tell them to “get over it”. People never get over things, but they can learn to survive and thrive in spite of them.
6. Encourage them to take action to actually recover from the pain of their emotional loss. “The Grief Recovery Handbook For Pet Loss,” is a step by step method of dealing with that emotional pain in a meaningful way. It is not the story of one person’s pain over their loss, but rather a guided journey in completing the unfinished business in the relationship lost. This way your friend can enjoy their memories rather than being overwhelmed by the loss.
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