How to Be the Best Ally You Can Be
What to Say and Do in Support of Those in Grief
It can be really tough to know what to say or do when someone you care about is grieving, and it can be tempting to discount their sorrow simply because theirs was the loss of a pet.
You may also be afraid of intruding, saying the wrong thing, or making the person feel even worse. Or maybe you feel there’s little you can do to make things better, so you justify doing little or nothing.
Remember that, while you can't take away the pain of the loss, you can provide much-needed comfort and support. There are many ways to help a grieving friend or family member, starting with letting the person know you care.
It Helps to Know the Dynamics of Grief
The better your understanding of grief and how it is healed, the better equipped you'll be to help a bereaved friend or family member:
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief does not unfold in orderly, predictable stages. It is an emotional rollercoaster, with unpredictable highs, lows, and setbacks. Everyone grieves differently, so avoid telling the bereaved what they "should" be feeling or doing.
Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, despair, and fear are common. A grieving person may yell to the heavens, obsess about the death, lash out at animal companions, or cry for hours on end. The bereaved need reassurance that what they're feeling is normal. Don't judge them or take their grief reactions personally.
There is no set timetable for grieving. For many people, recovery after bereavement takes 18 to 24 months, but for others, the grieving process may be longer or shorter. Don't pressure the bereaved to move on or make them feel like they’ve been grieving too long. This can actually slow their healing.
During the Early Days
When pet loss grief is new and fresh, it can be almost unbearable, and sometimes it's a bit unnerving to be with someone who is only hours away from a loss. What can you do during this most difficult time?
Simply listen. Take time to sit down with a grieving friend and ask about their deceased pet. They will be more than willing to share their favorite memories. Let the grieving person know that it's okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don't try to reason with them over how they should or shouldn't feel. The bereaved should feel free to express their feelings, without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
Be willing to sit in silence. Sometimes the grieving friend or family member will find it too difficult to talk, but takes great comfort in having someone close by. Don't press if the grieving person doesn't feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can't think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
Let the bereaved one talk about how their pet died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens.
Ask how you can help. Be willing to take over as many simple tasks as possible. Even small jobs can add to the stress of a grieving person. Be willing to take the initiative; many people have trouble accepting help when it's offered. You may need to simply tell them what task you are doing on their behalf, and then do it.
Mention the pet's name. Grieving people need to feel like their animal companion has not been forgotten, and mentioning their name in conversation will also makes it easier for everyone to talk about their feelings about the death.
Take the Time to Call. Pick up the phone regularly, and call your grieving friend to see how he is doing. Place a call within a couple days of the funeral to let your friend know you are always free to talk, and then follow-up every few days to see if they need help with anything.
What Not to Say
Some people feel that recovery from pet loss should be easier, and shorter, than grieving the loss of a human being. We at Life After Fetch know that grief and mourning have their own time table. Your friend may still be in grief months after the loss. Being conscious of their unique timetable, and mindful of the support they'll need throughout this time can make all the difference – to both of you.
There are some basic comments to avoid when comforting the bereaved. These include statements that imply you know what they are going through, or that your experience was more difficult than theirs. Basically, you should always be mindful of what you are saying; even if it means 'thinking twice' before opening your mouth to speak. Here are a few of the things you should never say:
- "I know how you feel." One can never know how another may feel. You could, instead, ask your friend to tell you how he or she feels.
- "It's part of God's plan." This phrase can make people angry and they often respond with, "What plan? Nobody told me about any plan."
- "Look at what you have to be thankful for." They know they have things to be thankful for, but right now they are not important.
- "He's in a better place now." The bereaved may or may not believe this. Keep your beliefs to yourself unless asked.
- "This is behind you now; it's time to get on with your life." Sometimes the bereaved are resistant to getting on with because they feel this means "forgetting" their animal companion. In addition, moving on is easier said than done. Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
- Statements that begin with "You should" or "You will." These statements are too instructive, and assume that you know better than they. Instead you could begin your comments with: "Have you thought about..." or "You might..."
What Should You Say?
While it is common to feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who is grieving, the following are suggestions to make it easier for you to show how much you really care:
- Acknowledge the situation. Example: "I heard that your_____ died." Use the word "died" That will show that you are more open to talk about how the person really feels.
- Express your concern. Example: "I'm sorry to hear that this happened to you."
- Be genuine in your communication and don't hide your feelings. Example: "I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care."
- Offer your support. Example: "Tell me what I can do for you."
- Ask how he or she feels. Don't assume you know how the bereaved person feels on any given day.
Continue your support over the long haul. Stay in touch with the grieving person, periodically checking in, dropping by, or sending letters or cards. Your support is more valuable than ever once the initial shock of the loss has worn off.
Don't make assumptions based on outward appearances. The bereaved person may look fine on the outside, while inside he or she is suffering. Avoid saying things like "You are so strong" or "You look so well." This puts pressure on the person to keep up appearances and to hide his or her true feelings.
The pain of bereavement may never fully heal. Be sensitive to the fact that life may never feel the same. You don't "get over" the death of a animal companion. The bereaved person learns to accept the loss. The pain may lessen in intensity over time. But the sadness may never completely go away.
Offer extra support on special days. Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for your grieving friend or family member. Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions. Let the bereaved person know that you're there for whatever he or she needs.