The Worst Things to Say to a Grieving Pet Owner

While often heard, these expressions do not help grievers, so avoid saying them

Gravestone for a dog
The grief pet owners experience after the death of a beloved pet often feels just as powerful as that felt following the loss of a family member or friend. Photo © Chris Raymond

Many people fail to understand the unique relationship that we form with our pets. Unlike our family members and relatives, pet owners choose their non-human companions and often form attachments that prove just as painful when broken by the forever-loss of death. This article offers five common expressions you should never say to someone grieving the death of a beloved pet and suggests better alternatives to help you offer genuine comfort to a grieving pet owner.

1. "Well, you can always get another [dog, cat, bird, etc.]
Many people grappling with the death of a beloved pet hear this misguided comment from non-pet-owners and the monumentally insensitive alike, who fail to understand the unique bond that "pet parents" form with their furry, feathered or finned companions during their lifetimes. Suggesting to a grieving pet owner that he or she should run out and buy a new pet sounds just as hurtful to the griever as telling a woman she's "still young and can have another baby" following a miscarriage or stillbirth.

A better approach: If possible, offer an open-ended comment on a particular quality about the pet that you remember, such as: "Did 'Rover' always perform that crazy, joyful dance whenever you snapped on his leash for a walk?" or "Do you remember how 'Fifi' liked to climb your Christmas tree?" If you can't think of something specific to the owner's pet, then share a favorite quality or memory about your pet that might trigger a happy memory in the pet owner's mind.

2. "She lived a long time in dog years." (Or Cat Years, Fish Years...)
Yes, we've all heard that that the lifespan of our dogs or cats roughly equates to seven human years for each calendar year; that one "fish year" equals five human years; that one "horse year" equates to 2.2 human years; etc. But attempting to comfort a bereaved pet owner by reminding him or her that a deceased pet lived a long life in "human years" or any other years will prove misguided because, at this time, it's simply not long enough.

The grieving pet owner exists painfully in the past, present and future right now and, at times, might find temporary comfort in thoughts of their many past moments together until remembering that creating new happy memories is now forever impossible.

A better approach: Focus less on the pet and more on the grieving individual. Instead of pointing out the age of the pet and implying that the pet owner should somehow feel satisfied, remind the griever of a happy memory involving his or her non-human companion, such as "I remember the day you brought 'Spot' home from the kennel..." or "I'll never forget how 'Cuddles' liked to crawl into my lap..." Yes, such memories might trigger additional sadness and tears, but these offerings can also provide comfort through shared experiences and validate that others understand the significance of the pet's death, regardless of age or the fact that he/she wasn't human.

3. "Your pet's in a better place now."
Anyone who utters this phrase has never struggled to cope with the forever-loss of a loved one due to death, human or otherwise.

The truth is that those grappling with the loss of a furry, feathered or finned companion think that the best place for their deceased pet is at home and among the living. Telling a grieving pet owner otherwise -- even if you believe that the better place is "pet heaven" or because the pet suffered at the end of life due to an illness or disease -- suggests that the pet's owner should somehow feel happy about the loss and that crying and showing anguish is out of place.

A better approach: Anyone caught in the throes of pet loss struggles to accept why their beloved non-human companion isn't in a single location right now -- among the living and still part of his or her life. Therefore, there simply is no reason for you to suggest his or her pet is in any other place at this time. Instead, offer a comment focused on how much the pet owner obviously cared for his or her beloved non-human companion and that, while here on earth, no pet received more love and attention.

4. "When my pet died..."
Unfortunately, people often attempt to console the bereaved by sharing a personal experience with death, grief and loss after a pet dies (or a family member or friend). Sharing your stories concerning "similar" losses, however, can set up difficult comparisons in the mind of the grieving pet owner. For example, saying something like, "When my dog died, I cried nonstop for an entire month" implies that the pet owner must do likewise or else he or she somehow loved his or her pet less than you did.

A better approach: Respect the fact that each of us forms unique relationships with those whom we love, and the grief felt after a "similar" death experience is extremely personal. Everyone has a father and mother, for instance, but the nature and strength of those emotional bonds varies dramatically, i.e., no two individuals will grieve exactly the same way after the death of a parent. Instead of sharing the specifics concerning your pet-loss experience, convey the fact that you, too, found the death of your pet challenging, that you understand it will take time to recover and that you will make yourself available at any time to talk or to provide companionship in the days and weeks ahead.

5. "Don't cry."
Regardless of the deceased's species (human, dog, cat, etc.), commenting upon how a surviving loved one expresses his or her grief is never appropriate at any time. Shedding tears, feeling sad and showing sorrow are not only natural and normal following a death, but also necessary to the healthy processing and eventual resolution of grief. Unfortunately -- and similar to the phrase "Let me know if I can help" (see previous entry) -- many people offer this misguided grief chestnut more to lessen their own discomfort around the public display of unhappy emotions rather than the desire to help the bereaved.

A better approach: Try not to judge the pet owner's grief response or, at the very least, keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself. Instead, understand that the grief triggered by the death of his or her pet is just as powerful and pervasive as that experienced after the loss of a family member or friend, and that your friend's dog, cat, horse, ferret, etc., is also irreplaceable. Just as you cannot "fix" someone's sadness by mumbling a few uplifting words or a magic phrase, grief doesn't simply disappear by suppressing our outward reactions to a death. Therefore, allow the pet owner to feel whatever he or she feels while you provide the powerful gift of your physical presence and non-judgmental support and comfort.

Related Articles of Interest:
Practical Ways to Help a Grieving Person
10 Ways to Memorialize a Deceased Pet
Comforting Words About Pet Loss
Is it Legal to Bury a Pet in Your Backyard?
5 Things You Should Never Say at a Funeral
7 Insensitive Comments to Avoid Using
Funeral Blunders You Should Avoid

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