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Dealing with pet loss: How to help a grieving pet parent

Pet parents often say that losing their animal companions is as hard as, if not harder than, losing a human family member, experts say

(Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post)
6 min

Since 2012, Dana Topousis has lost four dogs — all young Dobermans — to illness.

Galen died of heart disease; the others, Homer, Romeo and Ruthie, succumbed to different cancers. So, she knows grief, which she calls “a lonely thing.”

“I live by myself, and my animals are my family, so it takes me a long time to recover,” said Topousis, of Davis, Calif., head of marketing and communications for the University of California at Davis. “Also, because my dogs were young, there’s unexpressed love — you think about all the things you won’t get to do with your dog.”

Pet parents often say that losing their animal companions can sometimes be as hard as, if not harder than, losing a human family member, experts said.

“Your pets follow you into bathroom. They sleep with you. They are your shadow. Human family members don’t do that,” said Leigh Ann Gerk, a pet loss grief counselor in Loveland, Colo., and founder of Mourning to Light Pet Loss. “Humans don’t go crazy with joy when you come back inside after getting the mail. Human relationships, while important, can be difficult. Our relationship with our pets is simple. They love us just as we are.”

People want to help, but often don’t know how. Sometimes their comments can hurt.

“Greater society doesn’t recognize the intensity of this loss and the grieving that comes with it,” said Jessica Kwerel, a D.C. psychotherapist who specializes in pet loss.

How to support grieving pet parents

We spoke with pet loss grief experts about how people can support grieving pet parents. Here is their advice:

Avoid euphemisms and platitudes. Don’t say, “They are in a better place,” since “the only place you want your pet is in your home,” Gerk said. Other things not to say: “They’re running free,” “They’re not in pain anymore,” “They’re with your other dogs now,” “They’ve gained their wings” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

While some people might find these phrases healing, others may see them as dismissive, Kwerel said. “That’s trying to apply logic to an emotional experience,” she said.

Members of one social media dog rescue group told Topousis that one day she would see Romeo — who lost a leg to osteosarcoma — running again on all four legs. She cringed. “I know they meant to comfort me, but it was a painful thought,” she said.

Never say an animal has been “put to sleep,” when explaining a pet’s death to a young child. They may fear going to sleep at night. “Instead, you can say: ‘We helped him along in his dying process,’” Kwerel said.

Be careful with Rainbow Bridge imagery. The Rainbow Bridge is a mythical overpass where grieving pet parents are said to reunite forever with their departed animals.

“That’s not a belief system for some people,” Gerk said. “I’ve had clients say they want to believe in the Rainbow Bridge, but they don’t know if they do. I remind them: if it brings them comfort to believe in it, then believe in it.”

Provide validation with facts, if possible. I lost one of my dogs, Raylan, recently to splenic hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive and fatal cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, Raylan enjoyed five terrific months before the cancer returned.

A stranger wrote this to me via a Facebook dog rescue group: “I am a human pathologist. This kind of cancer is essentially incurable in both people and dogs. Five months of quality time after first diagnosis is fantastic. You did the right thing, no matter how hard. Don’t second guess yourself. Further efforts would have just prolonged suffering.”

Guilt often goes along with mourning, and his comments eased both for me.

Share your pet grief story. It can help the grieving pet parent to know you’ve been through it, too, but don’t make it about yourself.

“Don’t compare grief situations,” said Michele Pich, assistant director of the Shreiber Family Pet Therapy program at Rowan University. “That won’t help. You can say: ‘I understand how painful this can be,’ but keep the focus on this current experience.”

If you knew the pet, share your memories. It’s helpful for pet owners “to know their animal has made an impact on other people’s lives as well as their own,” Pich said. And use the pet’s name rather than saying, “your dog” or “your cat,” Gerk suggested.

Rituals are wonderful. Make a donation to a rescue group or plant a tree in that animal’s honor. Write a poem about the pet, or even an obituary. Topousis’s co-workers used photos of Romeo from her Facebook page to commission a painting of him that now hangs in her living room.

Don’t minimize the loss or try to find a silver lining. It wasn’t “just” a cat, or “just” a dog. It was a family member. And don’t say, “Now you can travel,” “You won’t be tied down anymore,” or “Your vet bills won’t be so high.”

There is no time limit on grief. Try not to rush the process, Pich said. “Sometimes people will have sympathy for a day or two, then not understand why you are still grieving weeks or months later,” she said.

And don’t say, “Don’t cry.” That puts a terrible burden on the griever. You also shouldn’t predict that your friend will “get over” it. Don’t tell people what to do or how they are going to feel, Kwerel said. “You’re not in charge of their feelings.”

Pich agreed. “There won’t be a time when you don’t love or miss them,” she said. “It doesn’t go away. It just becomes more tolerable.”

Listen. “Grief is not a problem to be solved,” Kwerel said. “You can’t take away their pain. Just be a compassionate witness to it.”

Discourage big changes right after a pet dies. “For example, someone might say: I drove them to the vet in this car, so I’m getting rid of the car,’” Pich said. “Let them get to a better place when they can make rational decisions.”

Don’t ask what you can do. “That puts the onus on the griever,” Kwerel said. Instead, do something concrete such as sending flowers and showing up with pizza. Say, ‘I’m here for you.’”

You can also send a text, email or voice message, but say no response is necessary.

Don’t suggest getting another cat or dog without adding “when you are ready.” Pushing them implies they are replacing the one who died.

Gerk said she has had clients who needed companionship right away, others never adopted again and still others adopted when they felt ready. “Some are afraid to feel that loss again,” she said, “but I remind them that all those years are worth it.”

In March, about five months after losing Ruthie, Topousis was ready. She adopted Jenner, nearly 2, another Dobie.

Each dog proves she can love again. “Every loss leaves a hole in my heart,” she said. “But every new dog opens my heart to new adventures.”

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