Losing a pet is a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, no good, very bad experience. Pets know us better than most people do; they are our friends, family members and confidants. This year, three different friends of mine had to euthanize their aging dogs, a difficult choice no one wants to make. In their time of grief, my instinct was to empathize—to let them know that my family also had to put down a dog and that we lost two others to unexpected accidents. I learned, however, this is not what to say to someone who has lost a pet. It’s not about me—or you. It’s about them. Here are several phrases to steer clear of when someone loses a pet, along with a few helpful alternatives.
1. Don’t say “How are you doing?”
This is too vague (and you already know the answer). Not only does it put the person grieving in the supremely awkward position of reminding you they are not well, but it also makes you look insensitive when you probably genuinely care how they are doing. Assume they are not OK and instead let them know being sad is normal and acceptable.
2. Don’t say “I know how you feel.”
This has been my go-to, and I vow to avoid it from here on out. My intention is to let a friend know they aren’t alone. What comes out is actually unhelpful and self-centered. I can’t possibly know how someone else is feeling, even if we’ve both lost a pet. A good remedy is honesty: “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling. This stuff is so hard.”
3. Don’t say “Let me know if you need anything.”
Vague alert! This person is grieving, people. Don’t make them tell you what they need. Offer up concrete actions. Invite them over for a glass of wine. Tell them you’ll stop by at 6 o’clock with a pizza. Use specifics so they don’t have to do any work, and allow them to turn down your offer. Again, it’s not about you—or me.
4. Don’t say “At least it wasn’t your kid.”
First of all, this makes them think about their kid dying (not ideal). Second, it belittles their emotional connection to their pet. Third, any phrase that starts with “at least” runs the risk of pooh-poohing their emotions, so avoid it at all costs. Yes, it can be hard for people without pets to understand the rich relationships pet owners form with their animals. That’s no excuse to make light of a dark moment. If you don’t understand their grief (and it’s hard to understand anyone’s grief), just focus on the fact that they are hurting and support them with things like “I’m so sorry” and “I’ll stop by at 6 o’clock with a pizza.”
5. Don’t say “Now you can get a new pet!”
Any version of “When are you getting a new puppy?” or “Let’s get you another kitten” is in very poor taste (and timing). Grief is normal and needs to happen before people can heal enough to invest their time, love and energy into another pet. When my parents lost our family dog, my mom swore off puppies forever. Then she said she needed two dogs instead of one. A few months later, she picked out a cute red Lab, named her Frannie and continues to spoil her constantly. Everyone’s timeline is different; don’t force it on them.
6. Don’t say “You had ten good years together.”
Um, yeah. They know. That’s why this is so hard.
On the other hand, here are four things we encourage you to say to someone who has lost a beloved pet.
1. Do say “Remember when...?”
A terrific alternative to suggesting getting a new pet or casually mentioning how long the pet lived is reminiscing about the good memories you have of that animal. Any funny anecdote of their late pet is fair game. If you have a photo of you with their pet, send it over with something like “Remember when Rufus licked ketchup off my foot?”
2. Do say “I’m here to talk whenever you need.”
Again, everyone’s grief timeline is different. Some folks need to unleash all of their thoughts on the day of, while others will silently ponder what happened for a few weeks before opening up. Be available to listen when they’re ready, keeping in mind you may have moved on by the time they reach out.
3. Do say something.
Ignoring a tragedy is a great way to make someone feel worse. No one has the perfect words—death is really hard!—so saying something clunky just to let them know you’re sorry for what they’re going through is better than keeping your mouth shut or avoiding them in this time when they probably need you most.
4. Do follow through on promises.
When you say “I’m here to talk whenever you need” or “I’ll stop by at 6 o’clock with a pizza,” don’t flake. Actions speak louder than words, and empty promises will make your grieving friend feel even more alone.
Remember, every person and every relationship is so different. What works well for one person may be insulting to someone else. When in doubt, acknowledge how tough the situation is and then sit back and listen.