Pets aren’t people.
But what happens when someone you know grieves the loss of a pet like they just lost their child? How do you come along side and comfort them when, to you, it’s ‘just a pet’?
My wife and I are one of those people who love our cats like family. We call them our fur babies, love them like children, and have even included them in our will so they’ll be taken care of after our deaths. We love their individual personalities, and have a unique relationship with each one, just like we would if they were children.
So, when our dear Moz passed away recently, we were devastated. We’d fostered him fourteen years earlier. He’d been shot in his tiny little 6 week old head and needed emergency care. He was in bad shape; we didn’t think he’d make it. But he miraculously pulled through. Cheryl and I became foster flunkies as we fell in love with him and ended up adopting him. After the intense care, holding the tiny guy in our hands, pilling him and continually cleaning his wound with his scared, trusting little eyes staring up at us in pain, how could we not have him join our family. He was a survivor!
Moz surprisingly had no evidence of brain damage. Possibly there were some cognitive issues but he and I would play starting at his young 6 week age with a ball in a circular channel that I would spin around the toy with my finger until he figured out how to move it with his little paws that were smaller than the ball itself. In short order he started playing with it on his own, able to move the ball more and more and as he grew up it was still one of our games to play together almost daily. Both he and I got such joy playing it together. Perhaps the game helped him overcome any damage from being shot.
Moz sure was a playful little sweetheart who would crawl up on my chest, bump his chin against mine and fall asleep with his head in the nape of my neck. He loved to chase the sheets around every time we’d change or make the bed. He was always at our feet wanting attention. Then, in a matter of days, he became more and more lethargic exhibiting laboured breathing. He’d sleep more and play less. Something wasn’t right. When we took him to the vet to be checked out, after couple of days of x-rays, blood tests and meds it was clear that Moz was certainly sick. One of three things were happening; either he had end-stage heart failure, a thyroid issue, or it was the dreaded C-word. Eventually, it was unfortunately narrowed down to end-stage heart failure. We could try medicating him to get maybe 4-6 months more with him but he was losing quality of life so after a very hard discussion amongst each other, we knew we owed him dignity and no pain. Anything else would be selfish and we loved him way too much to put him through pills 3 times a day (oh, how he hated being pilled) knowing the end was inevitable. Sadly, nothing else could be done.
Our hearts broke.
Now, just a few weeks later, we still hurt.
We miss our little Moz. And the grieving process is the same as that of mourning a person. Remembering the feel of his head on my chin tugs at my heart. I still accidentally call for him when it’s time to feed them. Then I catch myself, and the sadness wells up. One of our cats coat is patterned very much like Moz, so occasionally I’ll even think I’m seeing Moz. The triggers are there. And it’s a process to let go.
Cheryl and I recognize cats are not human, but we sure see them as more than ‘just pets’. To us, they are very human-like. We know each of their personalities, preferences, habits, and abilities (like playing the Game for Cats app on our ipad) are highly unique. Their ability to demonstrate and receive love is compelling – despite their reputation for being aloof and independent, they’re also highly relational. We know they’re not human, but we love and treat them like our children. Our cats are part of our family.
So how can you comfort someone who loves cats like that? (particularly when you don’t feel the same.)
The best thing you can do to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of their pet is to remember that grief is grief. Whether someone mourns the loss of a human, animal, home, or job, we need to allow them to process it. That’s not to say that the loss of a person is the same degree of loss or heartache as losing a job, by the way. I’m not comparing them. Loss requires a degree of mourning, whatever the loss. And the depth of attachment someone has to what they lost isn’t ours to judge.
Five Ways to Comfort Someone Who is Grieving the Loss of a Pet
1. Say Normal Things
“I’m sorry for your loss” and “Oh, that’s hard stuff” are normal things to say to someone who is grieving. Anything that demonstrates compassion and understanding is pretty much fair game. (The worst thing you can say, by the way, is, “really? But it’s just a pet.” Dagger in my heart….)
2. Don’t Be Mean
I know it’s tempting sometimes to tell someone to get over it. Especially if their grief is lasting longer than you think it should. So things like, “you’re still on that?” and “didn’t that happen months ago?” might escape your lips. What you may unintentionally be communicating though, is ‘shut up’ or ‘I’m tired of hearing you whine’, or ‘Pfft. Who cares about the thing you lost? It doesn’t matter so get over it.’ And those kinds of things, even if you don’t intend them to, feel… mean.
3. Zip It
One of the most powerful things you can do when someone is grieving is to close your mouth and listen. Nod. Empathize with your facial expression. Cry with them if you’re so moved.
When someone is hurting, we feel this urge to say something magical to make them feel better, don’t we? And that’s a good, healthy desire. But no such words exist to short-circuit grief. It’s a process. And sometimes the most powerful way to love someone is to simply sit silently with them in the moment and let it be. Listening is an act of love.
4. Let Them Be Weird
Grief can twist us into strange people sometimes. We all cope differently. Some withdraw, becoming quiet and distant for a while, others become angry and bitter, some hide and self-medicate, and others seem perfectly happy or especially sullen. Any one of those can seem weird or inappropriate; even make others uncomfortable. They can provoke us to feel like they’re not grieving properly. But this isn’t an issue of morals or manners, it’s a personal, emotional, convoluted process. Just let them be weird for a while. They’ll come out on the other side eventually.
5. Give it Time
The funny thing about the process of grief is that it doesn’t have a set time. Some people mourn for days, others hurt for years. We need to let them. Just as there’s no set way to grieve, there’s also no designated time frame. Forcing one will only put a wedge between you.