How to comfort someone when their pet passes away

What to say when a pet dies

If you’ve been house sitting for a while, there’s a good chance that one of the pets you’ve looked after has passed away. As sitters who specialize in senior pets with health issues, my partner and I have gotten the sad news several times over the years.

When you learn about the death of a pet you’ve looked after, it can be hard to figure out how to respond. You may question if you’re over-reacting, or underreacting. It can also be difficult to know the right thing to say to the homeowner, and whether your response is too much or not enough.

I talked to two therapists, both of whom are also pet owners, to get their advice on how to help a homeowner and how to work through our own feelings after the loss of a furry friend.

Am I having appropriate feelings?

Sometimes, learning that the pets we cared for have passed on has really hurt. Which left us wondering: is what we’re feeling normal?

“If you’re feeling a big loss, all of it is valid and OK. Your feelings are real,” therapist Linda Santiman reassured us. “This pet was under your care for a few days, a few weeks, sometimes even a couple of months, and you were finding ways to get to know them. Obviously you love animals, and pets are amazing little beings.”

But if you don’t feel a big loss, that’s also valid.

“You are not going to bond with every animal just like you won’t bond with every human you meet. If you don’t feel particular grief you’re not bad people,” says therapist, Julia Prud’homme.

"Even though we are not a permanent part of a pet’s life, it can still be hard to learn that we’ll never get to see our furry friend again. And it is absolutely OK to feel a sense of loss when that little life is gone. When you grieve for that pet, it is a way of remembering them and acknowledging that they mattered." -- Nicole Gustas

If you're grieving, what should you do?

Santiman had a strong message: there is no one correct way to mourn. She pointed out that in Western culture in particular, “we have some strange and way too specific ideas about mourning. And if we deviate from those specific things, we feel like we’re not doing it right. But grief isn’t linear.”

You may feel fine, only to be caught out by a moment of intense sadness weeks or even more after hearing the news.

Santiman went on to give some specific advice as to how to work through your grief about the loss of a pet you sat for and may have become close to. “Remember, anything you feel is valid. Be really mindful, present and gentle with what that is,” she said.

If you can, talk to someone out loud about your loss and about sweet memories you have of the pet. “A therapist is a great place for that,” she says, but it also might be a friend.

“If I’m feeling any grief, I try to think about ways to honor them,” says Santiman. You might light a candle to them, or just sit and think about your memories of that pet and how you felt about them. “A donation to an animal shelter or charity would be very sweet as well.”

“Make sure that you are OK, and be gentle and loving with yourself if you feel tired or sad,” Santiman says. Even if you don’t have strong feelings about the pet, it may bring more consciousness about the cycles of life, “which is one of the life lessons pets give us,” she says.

Your homeowner will likely be struggling too

When homeowners reach out to us to let us know a pet has passed away, we may agonize over what the “right” thing to do is. Should we send a quick text? Is a sympathy card too much?

“A card is never too much,” emphasized Santiman. Depending on the homeowner’s community, they may not have a lot of other people who understand their grief. And Santiman notes that many pet owners “feel almost embarrassed of how big the feelings are.” But it makes sense that they do, she says. “It’s this adorable being who’s been under your care. It can feel even more intense than the grandpa that you only see over the holidays.”

A card of condolence for pets passing

"When you go home and the pet is no longer there, the house feels emptier than it has ever been,” Prud’homme says.

She’s familiar with the feeling because she’s been through it herself. “It is a feeling of loneliness and emptiness. There was a warm life here and now it’s gone.” And some people can feel very isolated because the people around them may not be able to empathize, she told me.

If they’ve had to put their pet to sleep, it can compound their feelings of grief, "You have the power to make a decision as to whether to end their life before their natural death,” Prud'homme explained.

And that decision can be made harder if their pet has been ill and then has even one good day. “You think, ‘How could I possibly take this life away?’” continues Prud'homme, “You feel guilty, and you question your decision.” And those feelings can last long after the pet is gone. Both Santiman and Prud’homme say that hearing from someone who also cared for their pet can help them in these moments of grief.

How to console your homeowner

It can be hard to know exactly what to say to the homeowner that has just given you the news. If you’re struggling, Prud’homme has a concrete 5-step plan to help you through the process. “The most important thing to do for somebody who has suffered a loss, even if no one else can understand why that’s a loss, is to acknowledge what their feelings are,” she says.

Of course, you aren’t a mind-reader and can’t presume what their exact feelings are. And as Prud’homme has mentioned previously, the pet owner may have conflicting feelings.

But Prud’homme does have advice for how to respond in a way that will provide helpful empathy.

Take a read of Prud'homme's 5 step plan on the next page, to see how you can sensitively acknowledge, empathise and share a memory or totem depending on your relationship with the owner.

Crossing the rainbow bridge - how to respond

5-Step Plan - for when you hear that a pet has passed

by Julia Prud’homme

1 - Start by sending a physical card to the homeowner if you are able. If not, text messaging can be a good fallback. Your message should acknowledge that you heard the news.

2 – Use that card or message to express your empathy for the situation.

3 - Share something personal and unique that shows you empathize; you saw their pet and you knew their pet. This is the most important part of your message and should be a personal recollection that only someone who had known the pet would know. “You could mention their favorite toy, or a quirky daily habit".

4 - If you feel that the homeowners are the right people for this, include a “totem” - something personal, a physical object connected to the pet. It can be an item the pet really liked to play with, or a piece of writing like a haiku about the pet that you frame for them, or a picture of the pet you give them.

5 - If you want, and ONLY if you feel comfortable with it, indicate to the owner that you’d like to hear from them if they want to talk. Not everyone will want to talk about their loss, so don’t be hurt if they say no. But many will be grateful that you’ve left the door open for them, because it will give them the chance to talk to someone suffering a similar loss.

guest post - Nicole Gustas

When she was four, Nicole ran away from home to see the world. She only traveled half a block, but she's gone much further since. Together with her partner Mike, they have been house sitting around the world for three years. You can see their travels on Cheapskate Nomad

Photo credits - Jamie Shelman, Bec & Kate, Tyler Humphreys

Last updated on May 27th, 2021

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