4 Ways to help a friend dealing with the loss of a pet

Aug 6, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. ET
Image: Anja Hild/Getty Images

I've always had a passion for animals. I’ve had a grooming shop for almost 30 years, and two years ago, I moved into a new business venture to provide animal aftercare. Dealing with people after the loss of a beloved animal, when they are at their most vulnerable, has been a heart- and eye-opening experience.

You see, this involves going into the house of someone I’ve never met before and having them hand over their precious pet to me. I consider this an honor. The trust factor is overwhelming.

I learned quickly to avoid conversations like this:

“Wow, 15 years old… that’s a great run.”

It’s never enough time. It is never, never long enough. Whether it’s a six week-old puppy that has died of some disease or a 16-year-old cat, don't ever throw the time into your condolences — never ever.

So what are a some things you can say and do to help a friend going through the grief of losing an animal?

Listen. Having a shoulder to lean — or cry on — and knowing someone is there to just listen can mean more than anything you can say. However, the first thing you can say is “I’m sorry.” Simple words, but comforting to hear.

I ask people to tell me something about their pet, or share a special memory that I can think about as I bathe and groom them one last time. Remembering the happy times and expressing their love to a sympathetic ear helps them release emotions weighing on their hearts.

Of course, sometimes people aren’t ready to talk right away. Let your friend know you’re there for a phone call whenever she does want to talk about how she’s feeling, or to reminisce.

Honor. Seeing how much their animal meant to others helps many people feel they are not alone in their grief, and provides comfort.

Demonstrate your affection by taking action. This can take the form of letting your friend know you are volunteering at, or making a donation to a local shelter in honor of her departed baby.

Another meaningful way to pay tribute is to offer to plant a tree in the family’s yard or a local park. The tree becomes a lasting symbol of how special and loved the animal continues to be.

Something as easy as sending a card with a line or two about how sweet, funny or cute their pet was is a nice way to show how much the animal meant to you too.

Assist. In the immediate hours and days of passing, helping with some of the practical matters can be a godsend. For example, if a friend wants to remove bowls, food, a bed or toys but finds it too painful to do so herself, ask if she would like for you to carefully pack up them up to be saved, or whether she would like to donate those things to a shelter or rescue organization.

And just as with the death of a human family member, bringing over a meal or doing a little grocery shopping sends a powerful message that you understand what they are going through.

Reassure. It’s common for people to have feelings of guilt over their animal’s death — that there was something they should have done differently to prevent it or to ease the passing.

Acknowledge that it’s normal to question their decisions. Reassure them they were caring and thoughtful parents who were guided by love, so their decisions were the right ones.

The one thing I found that helps more than anything else comes from a quote by Wallace Sife, author of The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies. More than a specific thing to say, it's an approach to talking to your friend:

“Grief must have a purpose and a direction, otherwise it is unproductive and destructive.” 

This is the message I try to carry to friends and clients mourning their animals.

To learn more about how I work to provide a kinder, gentler, eco-friendly alternative to cremation, visit my company, Peaceful Pets Aquamation.