It’s the call you never want to receive. Or — as I experienced over the last year — the email, the text, the Facebook status update from a family member or friend.
The first time, I inadvertently stumbled upon the news. Perhaps it was some sort of cosmic joke, but I had emailed a friend who I hadn’t been in touch with for quite some time. I asked how she was, her husband, her kids, her dog. “Stella died today. Cancer. She was only 6,” she wrote back. I sat at my computer, stunned. I hadn’t even known their dog was sick. As it turned out, they had discovered their dog had cancer a few weeks earlier. They did everything they could to make their remaining time with Stella special, and my friend chronicled it beautifully, in photographs and words. It still brings tears to my eyes to look at this.
The loss of a family pet is tragic, but when it’s unexpected, it’s shocking as well as devastating. Compounding the loss can be some people’s tendency to dismiss the significance of the event, saying, “it’s just a dog,” or “it’s just a cat,” or “it’s just a bird.” I can only assume that such people have never experienced the transformative love of the human-animal bond. Not only is the relationship uncomplicated, without the emotional baggage that can exist between human beings, it is multifaceted. Your relationship with your pet can feel like that with a friend, child, or sibling. Or all of the above. Given the amount of time you spend with your pet, and how much this time is a part of your everyday routine, the sudden absence of your loyal companion by your side can be life-altering.
How to comfort family and friends who are experiencing this? These are some of the things I’ve done:
- send a condolence card
- share a memory of the pet
- frame a photo of the pet or make wallet-sized photos
Other ideas include:
- donating to an animal-related cause your friend supports, in honor of the pet
- getting together during the time of day their loss is felt most profoundly
- giving a book about pet loss, making sure to research this carefully
- sharing The Rainbow Bridge poem if it speaks to you or you think it would speak to them
- suggesting a walk with your friend, asking first whether you should bring your dog along, if this applies
What not to do: Ask immediately if your friend is getting a new puppy or kitten. Grief needs time, as too many of us know. The suggestion that a pet is replaceable is unwelcome at best and offensive and deeply upsetting at worst.
How about you? What have you done to either cope with your own grief over pet loss or to comfort a friend?
P.S. The “Good Spirits” greeting card pictured above was created by Jana Kolpen, artist, designer, and author (The Secrets of Pistoulet, and more). A percentage of the proceeds from the pets greeting cards featured on her website goes to the Gotham Cares fund for animals in need. Full disclosure: This fund is associated with Gotham Veterinary Center (my vet).