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How to Help Someone Mourning the Death of a Pet
Have you ever seen a friend or neighbor upset by the death of a pet? If you’ve never owned a pet or considered getting one, were you surprised to see one cry? In fact, such a reaction is just as normal as when a close friend or loved one dies.
Here’s what you need to know about helping someone who is grieving the death of a pet, because it involves great grief that can last for long periods of time.
1. Just as with the death of a friend or family member (and most animals are considered part of the family), grief is expected due to the degree of emotional investment in the object of the loss. Emotional investment means caring and concern; it is deep love. Only the sad knows the depth of that investment. Sometimes the grief of a pet is stronger than the grief of a loved one’s death.
2. Give permission to show emotions by what you say or do. Hug the person and say, “That must hurt deeply,” or “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Use the pet’s name when you can. Recognize how close the relationship was between the pet and the bereaved, and encourage them to talk about the illness or what led to the death.
3. Offer your services in some way. Bring home food if necessary. Go with the owner to the pet cemetery. Provide transportation. Just showing that you are aware of the effects of death will help your friend greatly.
4. Look at the person’s relationship with the pet in a gentle and caring way. Ask questions about how long the pet was part of the family and where it came from. Encourage telling stories about what the pet did or didn’t do. All of this will give you a better idea of what the loss means to the person.
5. Grief over the death of a beloved animal is just as individual as grief over the death of a family member. There will be a variety of differences, some illustrative others well-prepared. Don’t judge the depth of grief by external impression. Respect all expressions of grief. Some people hide their sadness out of fear, others make fun of their behavior. Remember to include children in grief and death through the death of a pet.
6. Remember that especially for older adults who live alone, some companion animals may be a person’s only family. Thus, the animal is one of the few, or perhaps the only one, from whom the mourner has received unconditional love.
7. If the pet’s death has been preceded by other losses, it can make it difficult to deal with the pet’s death. For example, if the pet owner has had to give up driving, has had a debilitating illness, friends have moved away, or experienced the death of a loved one, these or other losses can easily lead to grief overload. The grieving person especially needs a nurturing and understanding community during this transitional phase.
8. Guilt, anger or depression can also be associated with losing a pet. Guilt is the most common reaction, especially if the owner had to euthanize the pet, was not present when the pet died, or only recognizes the illness in the later stages.
9. Help create or suggest a memorial. A picture, toy or collar can be used as a way to honor or remember a pet. An object belonging to an animal can be encased in Lucite or placed on a shelf for easy viewing.
Pets no longer play a minor role in homes across the country. Rather, they have come to fill the role of partner, supporter, and old friend. Thus, the death of a pet can become a great grief experience for both young and old. Be sensitive to the animal’s role in the family’s life, and you’ll be better prepared to provide ongoing support and appropriate memories that will be of immense help in the months ahead.
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