A commonly-asked question is, how does one respond to people who say, Grieving over a pet? I mean, it’s just a dog… you can get another one?
I won’t go too far into the weeds with how comments like these lack sensitivity. I can say from my years in companioning families through their pet’s journey through hospice and end-of-life that most of the time, it’s hard for other people to be sensitive to situations they’re not familiar with, or find too emotionally-grueling to navigate. And so, the comments that land like a lead weight during an already brittle time erode what emotional and physical resources those grieving have left.
We know that when people have space held for them to move through their grief, they can fare well. It’s when that disfranchised grief is minimized, ignored or is used to shame is when problems begin. And those responses—stressors in themselves—from others add to the trauma and emotional toil that is experienced.
We find this is especially prevalent in one’s work life, a space that many of us occupy more than our home lives. And so it’s easy to see how impactful walking that tightrope can be both for the one that’s suffered a loss as well as their workmates.
In my years of companioning those who’ve lost a pet and need extra support, I’ve advised that avoiding people who aren’t behaving as supportively as they’d like to be is a good option. The problem with that is it’s more of an ‘ugly coping’ tool, as George Bonanno calls it. Coping ugly can take shape in various ways, and consist of strategies/behaviors that we might otherwise deem unhealthy to help us cope with grief or trauma. In this case, it’s having to suck it up and sit with the offhanded comments or the platitudes that come out of another person’s mouth. It’s fine, now and then, and it's also an emotionally draining front line strategy.
The additional advice I offer is that it’s perfectly fine to respond clearly and thoughtfully, with one’s boundaries fully intact:
This is a very difficult time for me to navigate. I’m not sure you’re aware of it because maybe this uncharted territory for you. But your comments are unhelpful, so I’d appreciate your saying instead ‘I don’t understand any of this though I can see it’s affecting you tremendously’, and leave it at that, or at the least not remark on what’s happening at all.”
I have to say, though, I’ve had a thought getting traction in my head: I’ve been wondering if the increased opportunity of work-from-home in the past couple of years helped us be more aware and empathetic to others when it comes to grief? Seeing our co-workers’ pets on Zoom meetings over and over, does it make us more aware of how profoundly their deaths affect their guardians?
I think so.
And though it’s fair to say that we’ve all gotten more savvy with Zoom in the way of being able to navigate the platform and others like it and tweaking our backgrounds and such, seeing those we interact with during our work time in their home environment albeit on the screen probably caused a lot more of us to ‘see people close up’, so to speak. More human, more who they are. Having some of that curtain pulled back, the one that normally obscures our home lives also means seeing family pets on the screen.
More than one pet guardian has relayed how comical their colleagues thought it was that their dog barked upon hearing another Zoom participant’s dog bark in the background. Or, during a virtual meeting with a co-worker who they find frustrating, a client noted that upon seeing an adorable feline mug suddenly pop up on the screen, they were reminded that while challenging for them to deal with, they “are still that cat’s dad! It helped me remember that he might find me frustrating, too and he really seems to love his cat.”
I’ve also heard echoes of sentiments like, “…after Sammy died, all of my co-workers seemed to be genuinely clued in to how hard it was for me in those first days” or “one of my team members had been off for a few days, and they hadn’t known Eddie died…they piped up just before their last meeting of the day ended asking ‘…where’s your cat? He’s camera-shy, today!’ They’d no idea about Eddie, and understandably, were taken aback. They were so affected by the news.”
It’s clear that to some degree, those emotional barriers that were the norm previously are giving way. Plenty of us noted during the beginning of the pandemic that virtual meetings of every type made things feel artificial, less-connected. And as time went on, that eased into realizing that using Zoom and other platforms, for some at least, fostered a different environment. One where, because people had to pay closer attention to the other parties on their screen, they’ve also been able to view them with a new lens. What seems to have unfolded is an environment that’s more human, accepting, and naturally creates more space for others, especially with something that we all share—loss and grief—is concerned.
And so, will that momentum in being more sensitive to others during times when they’re experiencing a high emotional load because of their pet’s illnesses, decline or death continue to move in the right direction? I certainly hope so. But more importantly, I do think that will help make issues surrounding grief and loss less taboo and better equip our culture to understand how to support others who need it.
With over 20 years of experience in pet care and the past 8 of those focused on animal hospice, Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Animal Hospice Practitioner and Certified Fear Free Professional. She is CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC and can be found at lorrieshaw.com.