I remember in college losing my childhood pet – a cat named Tiger. I only got to see him on Christmas and Spring breaks, but I had grown up with him and was devastated. Something similar sometimes happens to long-term care facility residents.
They have pets that they may only see occasionally (or never), but they have a connection with these animals. If they lose a beloved pet, they need understanding and support just as much as if they’ve lost a human family member.
Here are some things you can do:
- Start with something simple. “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “my condolences; I know how much you loved your pet.” Even if you’ve never met the pet, such phrases convey concern and understanding.
- If the person wants to talk about their pet, listen. Don’t judge the person’s feelings. If they are more upset than you think they should be, be sympathetic and kind. If they seem to want to talk, ask questions about the pet and memories they have of them.
- Don’t make it about you. Don’t mention your own experiences with losing a pet and how you would feel if you lost one. This may make the person feel like you’re belittling or dismissing their grief or not interesting in their feelings.
- Focus on the positive. The resident might feel sad or guilty that they couldn’t be with their pet at the end. Help them spotlight the good things: happy memories, nice things they did for or with their pet, favorite toys or treats, etc.
- Share concerns, but not with the resident. If you think the person is unusually upset about the loss of a pet or their grieving continues for longer than you think is appropriate, don’t tell them that. Instead, be sympathetic and caring. Grief is a very personal thing, and everyone experiences it differently. However, if you are worried that the resident is depressed or the grief is interfering with their quality of life and/or ability to function, report your concerns to a nurse or physician.
- Be personal. Use the pet’s name. If you don’t know it, ask. If you met the pet, share a favorite memory or photo.
- Find out if there is something that would make them feel better, such as a framed photo of their pet, a visit from other pets who come into the facility, or a stuffed animal that resembles the pet. Family members might have ideas, as well as mementos that may bring the person some peace.
- Make a donation in the pet’s name to a rescue or other organization. Even $5 or some old towels and sheets donated to the local animal shelter will be appreciated and show the resident that you care about their loss.
- Remember the things NOT to say. These may be hurtful or just seem insensitive. Among the ‘don’ts’: “Your pet is in a better place.” “We can get another dog/cat to visit you.” “You didn’t really see them anymore.” “It was just an animal, not a person.” “It’s probably for the best.” “It was God’s will.” Let the resident set the tone for a conversation about their loss. Don’t assume that you understand or share their feelings.
When someone has lost a pet, this can be an incredibly difficult time. Especially if they were feeling a bit lonely to begin with, the loss can be devastating. Your kindness, attention, and thoughtfulness can be powerful and help them on their healing journey.