How To Help A Friend Who Has Lost A Pet
(Note: Because I’ve always been a dog owner, my personal experience has to do with dog loss, so I’ve written this from a dog owner POV. Of course, this article is about pet loss—dog, cat, horse, bird, bunny or any animal that has brought joy to its family.)
Specifically, this post deals with what to do when someone you know loses their beloved pet. I hope sharing my own experiences might help, especially to those who’ve never lost a pet or don’t have one and don’t find the experience particularly relatable. Or maybe you’ve lost a pet yourself and will find some of this information helpful. I hope so. Unfortunately, I have lost many important people in my life and losing an animal is very much the same thing in my mind. (Some people may disagree with this sentiment, but my dogs have always been family.)
So, Here Goes…
When you have a dog, the good so far outweighs the bad. In time, you forget the sleepless nights (we are just and I mean just, over that!) Those little, nippy puppy bites and all the shoes and furniture destroyed beyond recognition are simply forgotten over time. While those things aren’t a ton of fun, to be sure, they aren’t the bad. Not even close.
The bad happens when you lose a pet. When I say lose, I mean when one’s pet dies. I prefer the word “lose” even though this has nothing to do with misplacing. I use the term lose because I just don’t even like saying or writing the d word. Losing a pet is one of the most awful things there is. If you are a true pet person and you’ve been through it, you know what I mean.
We are on dog number 5 (Seamus) and 6 (Finn), which means that we have had to go through this type of loss four times. It never gets any easier, no matter what the circumstance.
Our first two amazing Golden Retrievers, Jake and Chloe, lived to be nearly 16 years old and while losing them was heartbreaking, there was some solace in that they both had led very happy, very full and very long lives. They were inseparable and lived life to the absolute fullest.
Then came Lola (the cutest little Norwich terrier whom I had to have after seeing Winky in one of my all-time favorite movies, Best in Show, and Duncan (another unbelievably wonderful, beautiful, happy Golden). Like all our dogs, these two were buddies.
We lost these two when they were both relatively young dogs. Lola, who was always full of energy, was only eight when she died very suddenly. After exhaustive tests and almost a week in ER, there is still no conclusive reason why she developed encephalitis. I found her lying down in one of her favorite spots and she basically didn’t move again.
Duncan, who was literally my shadow, was diagnosed with cancer early in 2019 and we had many reasons to think he would beat it as our other two Goldens did. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. This was shocking; he was strong, healthy and not ill a day in his life. A mast cell tumor broke off after an amazing walk and he died less than a day later. This happened on March 16 and he passed away on St. Patrick’s Day. He was only 7 years old.
Be A Good Friend
Both these losses were crushing to me. (I couldn’t even do that very same last walk we had taken with Duncan until my dear friend, Christine, who was visiting from out of town, came over, borrowed a pair of my tennis shoes and said “Let’s do it.”) Ironically, Christine and I had met through a mutual advertising friend and bonded immediately just as I was getting over the loss of my first Golden, Jake. We had known each other for about an hour and here we were at the bar crying. She was worried about her fabulous German Shepard, Oscar, who was going through some health issues and could completely relate. Our mutual friend who had introduced us came over to these two crying girls and and was like Wtf?
Rules Of Grief
Keep in mind that everyone is different when it comes to this type of loss. Rule number 1: If you don’t understand the grief that your friend is feeling, don’t try to minimize their loss by saying “It was just an animal.” And yes, I’ve been told by several people that people actually have said this to them. Thankfully, while I’ve heard some fairly insensitive things (never by anyone I know well), I’ve never heard this. While “it’s just an animal” might be your take on the situation and you think that you are being helpful by “putting things into perspective,” this will sound heartless to someone who has just lost a being that was a major part of their life.
It’s also important that you respect how the person is dealing (or not) with losing their pet. Everyone has their own journey, so to speak. I go into shutdown mode and don’t really want to talk about it for a few days, even with my closest of friends. I get there eventually. Others probably want to talk about it right away as it’s therapeutic for them. I get that too, but the point is to respect what the person is going through and how they choose to go through it. Isn’t this the case with most things? So, how do you know? You’ll know. If your ordinarily chatty, in-touch friend suddenly goes dark for a few days, you know it’s best to give them some time. And when they are ready, do what friends do—listen and be there.
So, This Begs The Question: What Can You Do?
You can actually do several things and I can assure you they will all be appreciated.
- Buy them a journal. Ann gave me a cute little book with a dog on the cover when Duncan died. Therapists say that writing things down is helpful as it lets you get in touch with your emotions. While I knew what my emotions were, I used it as a place to chronicle all my many memories of Duncan…funny, sweet and occasionally maddening (goodbye, vintage Gucci sunglasses!) I have one page that just lists all his nicknames. While I don’t write in it as much now, I do write in it when the mood strikes. I find such solace in looking back through it and going over what I’ve written. I don’t want to forget anything about him and this little book assures me I won’t. I only wish I would have had similar books for the other dogs I have lost, though I’ve starting writing down things about them as they come to mind.
- Give them a pretty plant or tree that can be planted in their yard as a living memory of their pet. If you don’t have a backyard, giving them a plant that re-blooms is a thoughtful and beautiful idea.
- Make a donation to a rescue group, shelter or Humane Society in the name of the pet.
- Find a gift that can be personalized with the pet’s name or picture. My dear friend, Brenda, bought me a little sign that says, “It’s impossible to forget a dog that you gave you so much to remember.” What a beautiful thought! I added a picture of Duncan and have it where I see it every morning. (Incidentally, Brenda and I truly bonded the very day we met as she had just lost her dog, Woodward. It’s amazing how pet people connect with one another.) There are so many meaningful things you can find. I recently bought a beautiful rock inscribed with another lovely saying. It sits near our Golden topiary in the backyard.
- Consider giving them a drawing or painting of their pet. Find a good photograph of the pet and contract an artist to put their likeness on paper. As this is a more extravagant suggestion, this would be a good gift for a birthday or for the holidays. Lucky for me, I have some very talented friends who are amazing artists. The painting of Jake and Chloe (the two Goldens) was done by Dan Christie. The painting of Lola and Duncan was done by Weatherly Stroh: www.weatherlystroh.com. Consider checking out etsy.com, too.
- If the family has another, surviving, pet, do something special for him or her. The surviving animal is grieving, too. Everyone noticed how different Seamus acted when Duncan died. The easiest thing? Wait until it’s ok, then come over to play and spend some time. Make sure to give that pet a lot of special attention. Bring a toy or treat. Don’t live nearby? Send a gift from fluffandtuff.com, Chewy.com or barkboxcom.
(click on image to purchase: Alligator – Amazon $20, Snake – Amazon $20, Lobster – Amazon $17)
- Send a thoughtful card or meaningful note, email or text. While every gesture is kind, taking your time to write a special memory you had with the pet will be deeply appreciated. I can’t tell you how many cards, notes and flowers I received from friends. It meant so very much to me.
- My fabulous friend Claudine’s boys, Cameron and Lucas, loved the dogs and went through their iPhones and sent all the pictures they took of them to me. Martyna, the lovely daughter of my friend and housekeeper, Donna, made me an iphone video with all the pictures she had taken of Duncan over the years. What great ideas these were! I didn’t have those photos and the fact that they all took the time to send me these memories made me happy. It was so nice to know that he had made all these other people happy, too.
Unfortunately, I’ve had several friends who have lost their pets recently so the situation is never far away. Most every one of these people has gone on to get another pet even though it seems unimaginable at the time. It’s like I said at the beginning of the article….when it comes to pet ownership, the good far outweighs the bad. Like everything in life, when things go south, being thoughtful, kind and sensitive is what matters most. And that’s what being a true friend is.