I was walking through our residential complex the other day and ran into a neighbour. She asked if I'd recently lost my cat and I confirmed that in fact I'd lost both. She then frowned and pointed out that another neighbour had as well and commented, "Did you feed your cats filtered water?"
As unbelievably insensitive as this comment was, it's not the first one I've heard since going through this experience. It stung and made me angry, but I know there's no point in dwelling on it. As my grief therapist has reminded me many times, these are not the people from whom I will get support and so I should just get curious and not furious. This isn't the only way to cope with situations in which people fail us in our pet grief, but it's one I will discuss.
Ideally, you have a system of grief support – a group of people who offer encouragement, comfort, and wisdom in times of grief and loss. It would be wonderful to have at least one person to offer companionship throughout the pet loss grieving and healing processes. I'm lucky - I have two people in particular (my sis and my husband) who feel just as connected to our feline companions as I did. We are sympatico when it comes to our philosophies on end-of-life pet care and memorializing our beloved cats and so I had lots of support. But not everyone is so lucky, I know.
Not many people know how to offer support to those facing pet loss. Perhaps they don’t want to be reminded of their own pets’ mortality, or maybe they don’t want to think about past losses. Whether they aren’t comfortable handling emotion or fear they may say or do the wrong things, they tend to steer clear. This can leave those of us going through pet loss feeling abandoned and lonely.
Why People Struggle to Provide Pet Loss Support
Bearing witness to someone’s grief is never easy. It’s understandably difficult to find the best words. Unless or until people experience pet loss directly, they may not understand the emotional trauma of the journey. What’s more, they likely don’t realize how vulnerable the aggrieved are to their insensitivity – even if it isn’t intended.
Let’s face it. Our culture doesn’t give us much room to fully explore the concepts of death and grieving - even when it comes to humans. It isn’t until we are faced with loss that we really deal with it, and even then some don't. For those who do, knowing how to express sorrow and pain can still be a challenge. Daily life teaches us to manage our feelings, keeping them under wraps in order not to upset others or embarrass ourselves. We’re hesitant to discuss our feelings with others, because asking for help is perceived as a sign of weakness. Of course, we don’t want to risk judgment or rejection either.
People who are unfamiliar with the duration and intensity of pet loss grief may not attribute appropriate meaning to the experience. They may offer empty, insincere, or cliched condolences. The may also expect their mourning friends to get over the grief far too soon. These sentiments are likely to be hurtful if you're the aggrieved. To help these individuals provide effective support, we offer (elsewhere) an overview of things not to say to someone going through pet loss.
But if you're on the receiving end of thoughtlessness, inconsiderate comments, or cruelty, I've put together some tips for you, too. Keep reading.
Strategies for the Self-Care When Friends Cannot Help
When you get right down to it, if you discover that some people can’t be there for you the way you need, you have three options.
- You can coach your family and friends to teach them about grief and how best to support you.
- You can modify your interactions by structuring conversations in ways that protect your feelings and the relationships without engaging on the subject of your grief.
- You can seek support and compassion elsewhere.
The following elaborate on these concepts to help you cope when your friends fail you so that you don't have to experience additional wounding and pain.
Don't Ask Others to Read Your Mind: Tell Them What You Need
If your family and friends seem to have failed you, it may be because they didn't know what you needed. When you’re overwhelmed by grief, your only focus may be on your own emotions, but sadly, our human companions may need some coaching to know how to help you. You’ll get the best comfort from others if you tell them what they can do to support you. If daily phone calls and hugs will help, say so. If you could use some assistance with your errands, say so. When you want people to leave you alone for a while, tell them that, too.
Avoid Arguments About The Validity of Your Grief
Often friends fail because they try to tell you that your grief isn't legitimate (known as grief disenfranchisement). Hearing, “I know you’re sad, but it’s just a pet. It isn’t that big a deal,” is incredibly invalidating. People don’t always realize that pet loss is devastating – often as much as human loss. They may not have companion animals of their own, or may not understand the leve of connection you had with your pet. Whatever the case may be, accept that you may not receive what you need from some individuals and that it's safer for your heart to not seek it from these individuals.
What's more, trying to have debates about the legitimacy of different types of grief will not leave you feeling better. I'd recommend that (at least for now) you avoid discussing this topic with those who cannot relate to your pain. Don't try to make them empathize. Your effort and emotion are better directed elsewhere.
Avoid Discussing Your Pain with Those Who Don't Have Compassion Skills
Much like people may not comprehend the grief of pet loss, they may not know how to respond appropriately. In an attempt to make you feel better, some may say, “You can get another one,” “Can you imagine how I felt when I lost my wife?” or, “At least you didn’t lose a child.” If you've heard these comments, you know that they can be incredibly hurtful. In these circumstances, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that you don’t want to talk about your mourning any further. Change the subject with these types of individuals and look for comfort from others in your life.
Look for Support Outside Your Usual Circles
If no one reaches out to you or effectively supports you through the loss of your pet, it’s up to you to identify others to add to your web of support. Find people who have lost their own beloved pets, who recognize and appreciate your grief, and who may be able to provide constructive suggestions for getting through the healing process. You may find the compassion you need in different-than-usual friends, relatives, colleagues, religious groups, community clubs, support groups, online grief forums, teachers, classmates, or even other pets.
Plan Ahead: Give in Order to Get in Reciprocal Relationships
Believe it or not, some people aren't great at showing comfort to grieving pet parents because they didn't receive that kind of love when they experienced the loss of a loved one themselves. These people may either lack the skills or feel resentful that they weren't supported. As a result, they may choose not to support you in your pet grief.
The healthiest relationships are mutually beneficial. They must be nurtured by both parties. If you expect others to be there for you during your times of need, you must be willing to offer your own encouragement and guidance when appropriate. So be sure to comfort those around you when they're going through their own bereavement journeys. Not only will this help you sharpen your skills as a friend, you'll lay the groundwork for others to support you when you need it.
Forgive Those Who Fail You
Grief is hard - for everyone. And even those with the best intentions will fail you. But don't write off your friends when they do. All parties must be able to excuse certain shortcomings in one another. No one is perfect, after all. In other words, relationships require work. Particularly during trying times energy must be invested and mistakes forgiven. Be understanding of the challenges others have when trying to comfort you, and they will be more likely to reciprocate.
Regardless of which route(s) you choose, for now, it’s important to focus on your grief self-care. Seek out people who empathize with your pain and care for you in helpful, effective ways. Find solace in their presence and lean on them as you navigate your grief. The journey is arduous, but a healthy web of pet loss support will guide you back to a place of hope and joy.
Keep in mind that just because one - or three - of your friends fails you during this time doesn't mean that there are sympathetic people in your life who would be willing to support you. Try this free printable which walks you through how to build your network of support so that you can expand the web that gives you strength.
Images: Jiří Wagner, Matthew Henry
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Health Disclaimer: I’m passionate about wellbeing and health but I’m not a medical professional, nor am I a licensed therapist. Any content you read on this site is intended for inspiration and for information only – by not means am I providing medical advice. Please consult your certified professional for personalized recommendations on the mental health or physical health ideas I write about.