When I first started my pet photography business I thought I would be romping all around Denver with the cutest of puppies and active teenage dogs taking photos of them with their sweet fresh faces, playing, and running around with tons of energy. It wasn’t long before I realized many people don’t think of getting professional portraits until their dog is older. I would say more than half of all the people that hire me want me to take photos of their senior pets or even pets that have had a recent diagnosis of a terminal illness.
Because of that, I’ve had many conversations with people who have just lost their pet and after years of listening to their stories I can tell you what not to say to someone that has just lost a pet.
“It’s just a dog.” I think this is one of the most heartless things you can say to a grieving person. The translation is, “your dog didn’t mean anything to me.” Our dogs are with us all the time, they are our sidekicks, our best furry friend, our fur-kids. We protect them, feed them, train them, walk them, cuddle with them. They are the family we choose, it doesn’t make them less important.
“They’re in a better place.” Honestly, we thought they were in a pretty great place when they were living with us and saying something like that makes us feel like we didn’t do enough to care for them. It’s kind of like saying our home wasn’t good enough and we could have saved them if only we would have done more. We know you probably meant to say something along the lines of, “I hope you find some relief that your dog isn’t suffering any more.” But, even that phrase isn’t quite right because it makes it sound like our grief is selfish. We didn’t want them to suffer, we didn’t want them to get sick in the first place.
“This other dog needs a home.” We know you think another pet will distract us from our grief and make us happy but the truth is sometimes it can make our grief worse. We adopted Boo shortly after losing our dog Cleo and for a while I felt guilt for liking Boo. If Cleo meant so much how could we replace him so fast? The truth is you can’t. So while I was busy taking care of a new dog, I really wasn’t ready yet and it made me frustrated that Boo had so many behavior problems and wasn’t as easy going as our dog Cleo. The comparison game was unfair to Boo and I just felt like crap all around. We aren’t replacing worn out shoes. We need time to get over our loss and time to decide when to move on.
“How long are you going to be sad?” The translation for this is both, “you’re bumming me out, I don’t want to hear about it,” and, “you’re over reacting.” It’s very similar to saying, “you aren’t normal for being this upset.” Grief is different for every person. Some of us are heartbroken and sad for a month or two and some of us will be heartbroken for months or years. There is no normal. Grief is different for every single person.
After all these years I admit I don’t always say the right thing, in fact I rarely do. So I’m trying to say less and less. Maybe that’s the best thing you can do. Tell them you’re sorry for their loss, ask them if they need anything and then let them do the talking.