Why the Death of a Pet Matters (and Why Your Sympathy Does, Too)

Death is a part of life. Loss is all around us, but people struggle to know how to show sympathy and empathy, especially when it pertains to the death of a pet.

I opened my private psychotherapy practice 15 years ago. Back then I specialized in bereavement and worked with many children who had experienced significant loss. A seasoned colleague told me, “If you are willing to work with children, especially around grief and loss, you will be busier than you know.” She was right. My caseload grew quickly.

In my office, a mother tearfully described her 9-year-old’s mood swings. These began after the family dog, crippled with arthritis, was euthanized. It was a heartbreaking decision for the mother and father, who decided it was best done while the little girl was at school. The child struggled to accept their decision. She blamed her parents and became very mistrustful of them, believing they did not do enough to save the dog. The mother was also very upset by a friend’s suggestion that they get another dog to help their daughter get over the loss. “Why do people say such stupid things?” she asked.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ research on grief remains the quintessential body of work from which I draw information for use in both my professional and personal life. Many people are surprised to learn that there are phases to the grieving process. These include shock, anger, sadness, and bargaining. They may repeat cyclically and in a nonlinear pattern, as people struggle to accept the permanence of death. Most of the phases of grief are self-explanatory and easy to identify. They aren’t, however, easy to address. There is an emotional uncertainty that exists for many who wish to express their sympathy to someone who is grieving.

I have a model for thinking confidently when we struggle to know what to say. I call it IDK. The letters stand for three words: “I don’t know.” In these moments, it is fine to say, “I don’t know what to say to convey how sad I feel for you.” It certainly captures an authentic desire to be helpful, without running the risk of offending.

Many people have complained that they have been disappointed when close friends or family showed little or no sympathy after the death of their pet. Well-intentioned suggestions to get another pet have, generally, not been well-received. One person went so far as to make a sarcastic comparison: “Next time someone says this to me, I am going to say, ‘Sorry about the loss of your brother, but you can always get another!’ This is outrageous. No one would ever say this when a person dies.”

The school of thought regarding the subject of intense pet love and connection teaches us that pets are “members of the family.” Many who express this sentiment mean it. These animals receive the utmost care and attention from their “owners.” I hesitate to use the word “owners” here; hence the quotation marks. More often than not, people have referred to themselves using parental terms such as “Mom” or “Dad.” The pet, in these cases, is of course the “child.” Another familiar term when referring to a beloved pet is “best friend.” On a continuum of behavior, there are many gestures that leave no doubt as to an animal’s importance, actions that confirm a pet’s priority status in a family system.

In case you find yourself at a loss for words at a time when you want to be thoughtful in your expression of sympathy to a friend or loved one who has lost a pet, there are many cards available online. It’s thoughtful to periodically check in with someone whose pet has died. Many who have lost pets report feeling appreciative when others (coworkers, family, and friends) ask how they are doing.

Empathy, the expression of concern and support from a perspective of similar experience, is welcome, especially when story sharing is invited. A good rule of thumb, however, is to hold back telling about your own accounts of pet loss and grief. I encourage use of the “get more before you give more” conversation style. Asking a grieving person to share a fond memory of the animal is very considerate. This allows the grieving person to have a reflective moment of reminiscence, reinforcing the reasons this pet holds a special place in his or her heart.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Pandora L. MacLean-Hoover, LICSW, therapist in Newburyport, Massachusetts

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • kayla s

    kayla s

    April 24th, 2014 at 1:54 PM

    I recently lost my best doggie ever and I still grieve for him and have even gotten a new dog since but there is something about her that will never be able to take his place. It always felt he knew exactly what I was thinking and always knew the right things to do to comfort me. He was just a big ole rescue mutt with some sad little health problems that got the best of him and I still miss him every day.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    April 26th, 2014 at 3:09 AM

    Sorry for you loss Kayla.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure it will encourage others.

  • Tolly t

    Tolly t

    April 25th, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    I don’t understand why more people don’t realize that for many of us our pets are our families. I am not married, have no children, live 700 miles from the rest of my family, so yes, my dogs are my babies, and if something happened to them I would be crushed.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    April 27th, 2014 at 8:12 AM

    Tolly,
    I hope this article falls to raise awareness. I’m glad you have such a wonderful family!

  • Laura

    Laura

    April 25th, 2014 at 10:24 AM

    If you are meant to be a pet mom then you will love that pet like it is your own child. That is how any animal deserves to be treated and cared for once you decide to bring it into your home. It is not about the accasional love it should be about the love that you would give to any other member of your family. Remember that this is a pet who loves you no matter what, so I think that they at least deserve to have some of that given back to them. And when you do love them like that you will eventually know the pain and the sadness that their loss will cause, but you will also have wonderful memories of all the smiles and laughter that you got from it too.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    April 27th, 2014 at 8:14 AM

    Laura,
    Many people talked with me about the incredible loyalty of their pets, in addition the the laughter and memories, when I researched this article.
    Great point!

  • sb

    sb

    April 26th, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    Those who don’t have any pets do not understand the closeness that you can feel to an animal.
    They don’t see that the connection that you make with this pet could actually be stronger than that you might have with a human.
    There are things that a pet can do better than a human, and I think that the big one is loving without judgement, they simply love you for who you are.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    April 27th, 2014 at 8:16 AM

    sb,
    Absolutely. The acceptance factor is a huge part of the connection. Thank you for your comment.

  • Mallory

    Mallory

    April 27th, 2014 at 4:51 AM

    I will fess up that there have been times in my own past when someone was grieving for a lost pet and I did not quite get the intensity of their grief. I know that on the outside I would try to be sympathetic but on the inside I would be saying all of the usual things like it was just a dog, why be so upset?
    But that was before my own dog, Bella, came into my life. I wasn’t looking to rescue, but she was brought to me by who knows, maybe divine intervention. And really she has been the one to rescue me. I didn’t know how alone I felt until I got her and now being without her feels like it would leave this void that I would never know how to fill.
    I am sorry if I hurt anyone by behaving nonchalant about the death of their pets in the past, I would never be like that again.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    April 27th, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    Mallory,
    Your honest and heartfelt comment will surely be an inspiration to others. It took a lot of courage to do this.
    Thank you for taking the time to write.

  • Ron

    Ron

    October 16th, 2016 at 6:58 PM

    I had to put my baby girl down on 16 September 2016. I only had her two years and six months, but our vet said she was about 11 and a half when we got her. I’m a Police Officer and back in 2014 animal control received a complaint of a stray dog running down Magnolia road that had been hit by a garbage truck; anyway I helped them capture her, who they named Angelica Pickles. I stated to the animal control agent that if she had any quality of life left and no one else came in for her to call me, so 30 days later the humane society called me and my wife and I adopted her. She had a lot of issues such as congestive heart failure, a chest tumor, arthritis very bad throughout her body and eventually paralyzed rear legs, but even with all that wrong she seemed to love life and us so much. My wife and I always spent a lot of time with her and always took her to the vet. We bought her a Dog stroller and always took her for walks or as we called it with her buggy rides, she loved them so much, it made her just love life and us so much. We love her more than life it self. We did everything with her and our other pets, she was so happy even with all her medical issues. We always took her on vacations with us and she loved them. The Vet we take her to was always great with her, they also have a pet resort there. We decided to go on a Cruise and we really didn’t want to leave our pets for 6 day’s there, but I did. She Pickles started to go down hill a little and we were going to cancel our trip but didn’t. When we came back and picked her up she had lost 5 pounds and really couldn’t move her neck, so we took her to Emergency Vet the next night and she was going down hill fast and they left it up to us, but they seem to think it was time and so did we, but now I feel so terrible for putting my girl down, what if she could have got better for a while. I miss her so much and feel so guilty. We did everything to make her better and she loved it. But ultimately I feel like I took her life. We love her and I could just tell she loved us so much and appreciated eveything we did for her, but in the end I feel like I let her down. We had her buried in a really nice Cemetery, but now I always go to see her and cry. I Love And Miss her so much! I Apologize for going on, but so many people don’t understand how close we were and she is our family. Thank God My Wife And Dad Understand What That Girl Meant To Me. I Want Her Back So Bad! She was the best thing that ever happen to me and I think us her. They named her Angelica Pickles at the Humane Society, but we named her Pickles, the Vet said she was a good old Hines 57 Breed. I Love Her Forever!

  • Kerri

    Kerri

    February 9th, 2018 at 11:11 AM

    All good things must come to an end and yesterday I said Goodbye to my very best friend. Lucky, my lab was almost 18 yrs old. She had no quality of life left in her, so it was a kindness to have her put to sleep. As much as I tried to prepare for this, extra extra love for days before, sleeping on the floor with her for a couple nights, making special meals just for her, taking a week off work and staying home with her, took lots of pictures too. I had the vet come to our home, I had pictures out and a candle lit, we said a small prayer, as if this part wasnt hard enough then the part came to actually give her the shots and NO-ONE can ever be prepared for holding your beloved pet, best friend as she was shaking and looking up at me, she fought and kicked for her last breaths then went limp in my arms. OMG I just lost it. I will never down play the significance of when a friend or family member tells me they have to put their pet down. It was traumatic and one of the hardest things I will ever do in my life. Now today, there is a void in my house, blocks of time that used to be Lucky time. Lucky found my family in 2003 on the banks of the St. Joe River in Idaho where we have a cabin, she was starved and lost, or, did she rescue me? Her and were inseperable for 15 yrs. I am having her cremated and this summer I will go back to the same spot on the river and set her free.

  • Mallory

    Mallory

    April 28th, 2014 at 3:27 AM

    Thanks Pandora!!

  • JIM

    JIM

    April 29th, 2014 at 3:38 AM

    Until you have experienced the pain of a loss such as this then you have no way of knowing how much that hurt can stay with you.
    Of course the hurt from losing a family member is terrible but you know that there are times when this is the best for them and that their pain will go away.
    It is harder when this is your pet, one you have cared for and who has relied solely upon you for everything and then you get to a point where you feel helpless to do anythign for them and they are looking at you like why. And that is just the heartbreaker right there, knowing that if there was anything possible that you could do then you would do it but that there isn’t.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    April 29th, 2014 at 3:26 PM

    Yes Jim, there is nothing like walking in someone else’s shoes. Thank you for your comment.

  • debbie from heartspeak messsage cards

    debbie from heartspeak messsage cards

    May 5th, 2014 at 1:06 PM

    This story validates the strengthening of the human animal bond and the shift of the growing pet culture. As we become even more absorbed in technology, maybe our soul never gives up its quest to ‘save us’ through the lighthearted, loved because, authentic place that for many of us, our animal companions guide us to.How fortunate we are when we walk that journey with them.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    May 26th, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    Thank you Debbie. Your insight is greatly appreciated.

  • Rachel Symons

    Rachel Symons

    May 25th, 2014 at 10:18 PM

    I too have suffered heart breaking losses , and because I wanted to help others through their grief, I trained to become a Pet Bereavement Counsellor.
    People need support when grieving for their animal friend, the grief can be as intense as the loss of a human , for many people.
    We need more articles like this.
    Thankyou

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    May 26th, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    Rachel,
    How wonderful that your experiences helped lead you toward a rewarding career.
    Thank you for your comment.
    GoodTherapy editors believed strongly in the need to write about this subject. I was happy to do this.

  • Leslie and Caine:)

    Leslie and Caine:)

    July 19th, 2014 at 6:40 PM

    That’s great! Do you work for yourself? What kind of special training do you have to have? Does a veterinarian recommend you? How do you find clients? Am I asking enough questions? Lol…just curious:)

  • Heather

    Heather

    December 14th, 2016 at 12:02 PM

    So true ! We had to put our dog down the day before Thanskgiving after the vets spent hours trying to save him. It’s such a devastating loss, one that is still felt so deeply almost a month later. Truth is the last time I’ve felt such emotional turmoil and intense grief is when I lost my dad when I was 20 ( 17 years ago). So yes for some, losing a pet can be similar to the grief you feel losing a loved one.

  • Leslie and Caine:)

    Leslie and Caine:)

    July 19th, 2014 at 6:34 PM

    I am a life long animal lover and owner and this is a subject I have never taken into much consideration, but as I can remember have always been understanding and sympathetic to my friends and family going through the loss of a pet. Yes, I guess many people would not value the importance of these special friends.
    Throughout the years I have lost many pets of many different species.:) I am thinking of some of my favorites…the ones who always stick out in my mind. I miss them and still speak of them now and then. But one in particular stands out in my mind as my all time best friend ever. His came is Caine and he is a beautiful 4yr. Old American bull dog…otherwise referred to as pit, with the most amazing skilful blue eyes ever. :) (ok…enough bragging)
    The point I am getting to is that I actually think of and dread the day my dog has to leave my side.
    The last several years have been very lonely times for me. I struggle with severe depression, Post traumatic stress and anxiety and have been a homebound recluse. Foe weeks sometimes at a time, Caine is the only one I saw or spoke to. Always, right by my side…always.
    He is a fairly young dog and would love to run outside and play a lot of times, but he is so LOYAL to me that he stays by me no matter what. He is my COMPANION. He actually fills a space in my life that no human being can fill. He is someone I want to be around. Someone I don’t shrink from in fear. Someone who always has time. Someone who never says anything negative about my unique ways. My protector and my best friend.
    Yes, the day he says goodbye will be a very dark day in my life. He cannot just simply be replaced. :)

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    October 22nd, 2014 at 8:01 PM

    Leslie,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write about your pet Caine!
    (I am sorry that I did not see your comment in July! Hope you read this.)
    I, too, hope that you have many years together.
    You mentioned that you are struggling with debilitating depression. Hopefully you have found meaningful people who may be a team of support. The job, of getting through this, is too big for one person.
    ~Pandora

  • Chantal

    Chantal

    October 21st, 2014 at 5:16 PM

    I lost my best friend, Keemo, almost 2 months ago now. We’ve been together for 17 years, since I was a 10 year old kid. He died on me and it’s been very difficult. But I know he knew he wasn’t alone at the end that we were together. I miss him so much, it’s hard to get by anymore. He was such a big part of daily routines and such a special dog. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t with me. I still can’t believe that he’s gone. I wish people would understand how deep a bond someone can have with an animal. Thank you for taking the time to write this article. It’s helping me see that there are people out there who understand. I believe in my heart that Keemo and I will be together, somehow, again.

  • Pandora Maclean-Hoover, LICSW

    Pandora Maclean-Hoover, LICSW

    October 22nd, 2014 at 8:07 PM

    Chantal,
    Seventeen years, from the age of ten, is an incredibly long and important developmental time in one’s life.
    I read that you have a strong belief that you will be reunited with your beloved pet. I hope that this is sustaining you through your time of grief.
    Thank you for reading the article and taking the time to write.
    I am very glad you appreciated what I wrote.
    ~Pandora

  • Sanaa

    Sanaa

    March 22nd, 2015 at 12:44 AM

    I prefer the term human over owner. I am my pet’s human!

    Have experienced three losses, two cats, buried at home only and a family member’s dog who was dognapped and passed away shortly after being recovered. Hardly anyone understood the pain and there was a lot sarcasm that went around. They may be of a different species and may not speak the same language but the bond and the connection is the same as it is with other human beings.

  • Geraldine

    Geraldine

    May 21st, 2015 at 1:40 AM

    Great article, but don’t agree with your perspective on replacing the deceased pet. I have lost many cherished pets over the years and have gotten other pets to fill the emptiness in the house. It didn’t mean that I didn’t care about the deceased pet or that it didn’t devastate me when they died. Replacing them gave me something positive to focus on, gave me hope and helped me heal quicker.

  • John

    John

    August 20th, 2015 at 12:03 AM

    I’m coping with a fresh, but incredibly deep, harsh wound. It has only been a week since Izzy, our 6.5 year old black lab, suddenly died on an evening walk. She was our little Sweet Pea, along with her big brother, Starson, since they were 3 months. I think I recognize some of the signs of grief, like bargaining and guilt, but, I wonder if anyone else might know how I can help Starson cope. They were never, ever apart in 6 years, and he is actually doing okay. He still searches for her when we’re outside, since that’s the last place he remembers seeing her.
    thanks

  • IMMV

    IMMV

    February 29th, 2016 at 8:43 AM

    I recently decided to put my dog to sleep. Today I am dealing with regret, with the I should have brought him home. I was suppose to have the vet look at him and bring him home. I didn’t, I hurt, my family hurts…..my kids are mad at me. I am mad at me. But I know deep down I did what was right for him. Thank you for the article, it gives me a place to start.

  • Jana

    Jana

    April 7th, 2016 at 3:59 PM

    immv I felt guilty every day for months after put our family dog to sleep. W
    Whole family was mad. It was not my fault and yes it was the right thing to do. Not easy. never easy. You will feel better though and your family too some day

  • Peter

    Peter

    February 20th, 2018 at 10:17 PM

    Thanks for writing this article and to everyone else for sharing your experiences. It is very powerful to be so in love with an animal who we know is probably going to die before we do. We had a wonderful collie who had to be euthanized after a good and long, though not long enough, life. It was probably a brain tumor, but we never knew for sure. We knew it was time when she was clearly in severe pain and could barely go outside to pee, even though she was desperately trying to do that because she knew she was supposed to and wanted to please us. We were very lucky because we had a caring vet who came to the house and put her to sleep before giving her the lethal injection. She was very peaceful and we were all able to hold and pet her. It was terribly sad, but we were comforted by knowing it was the right thing to do. I had not really thought we would have been able to properly care for another dog, but we have recently gotten one. And now we are old enough that I have to consider that she could outlive us. That is very strange. Fortunately our two adult children, who grew up with the first dog, would add her to their families if it came to that.

  • Leticia H-S.

    Leticia H-S.

    July 14th, 2018 at 11:34 PM

    I recently had to put my Lulu down like 7-9-18, she was shy 2 months, before she turned 15 yrs. old. I feel guilty, because I had to put her down. Her Dr. the internal medicine specialist inform me of the choices I had, but still she was 50/50 they found a blockage on her intestine, that is why she was recurtuatating her food, and 2 weeks, before that she had 8 teeth pulled, because her teeth were tarty, and the regular Dr. all he cared about is how much money he could make from her. I asked him almost a yr. ago about why her left side of stomach seems a lttle to big compare to her right side, he said nothing. I am trying not to cuss out this doctor, who forgot his ethics, and why he became a Vet, he became very greedy, and sees animals now a $$$$$ signs for his greed, anyways getting back to my Lulu she was also getting IV fluids daily for almost a yr, and when I asked the regular doctor if he can charge me at least so and so he said oh no he has to make his money, anyways her Dr. specialist was at least honest to let me know I would be spending to much money, due to her issues. She and I have gone through so much. We loss my husband, the alpha who gave me Lulu as a gift. He passed on 6 yrs. 4 months ago, and Lulu was my little baby cakes who helped me through his passing, and we both grief, anyways. I only told a few people who are animal lovers, because there is so much ignorance, in stupied people who don’t get it that this is our family member, and it’s like your child, but anyways. I had her creamted, and it took be from 11 am to 7 pm to decide to put her down, after I kinda heard my husband’s voice telling me to put her down, and let her go, because she is in pain. I guess he was waiting for her at the end of the tunnel. Blacky, Niner, Happy are the cats Lulu was raised with and Rocky, and Buffy are the other dogs, but I have a feeling she is now playing in heaven with her furry pals, including my husband. I am going to miss her forever, she was a trooper, warrior, and such smart loving Jack Russell Tierrier the wire hair kind, she will forever be miss in my heart, now I feel alone, but I am good with the Lord, and he will help me through this too. The Lord is my shepard.

  • Miss Nicola

    Miss Nicola

    July 16th, 2019 at 11:25 AM

    I have just put my dog to sleep and I feel like it was a mistake and he was my hole perpus in life and my reason for being alive now I am lost and alone and I am so sorry

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