“What do I say?” ~ When words fall short.

Posted on May 31, 2013
“What do I say?” ~ When words fall short.

from the Photo Lab

The response to our recent post on my brother’s loss Letter to an Old Friend, has been truly humbling. It started as a personal note, but when I could not find the right words to say to them, I wrote a letter to their beloved pup instead. Your beautiful comments, emails, notes and shares go to show how together we all are in difficult times like these, and there is a great comfort in that.

Since then, I’ve received a few emails and notes about loss, grief and not knowing what to say to comfort a loved one when they lose an important presence in their lives. I thought it would be a good idea to share some thoughts on that.

If you are reading this blog, you are likely a part of a community where the words “It’s just a dog…” or “It’s just a cat” do not apply. Dogs and cats come to mean so much to us and become so entwined in our daily lives that to suddenly find ourselves without them can rock us to the core.

The likely thing is, we have been on both ends of the spectrum: we have lost someone or we have been there for someone who has lost someone.

What on Earth do I say?
We all have a different way to grieve, there is no “one-size fits all” in comforting someone during a time of loss. In the world of pets, something like “so sorry to hear about your furry friend crossing the Rainbow Bridge…” has become the go-to sympathy card for many, and although many do feel comforted by this statement, and I think the sentiment is right on (imagining your beloved dog in a bright and beautiful place), the words do nothing but bother me (very personally). The “rainbow bridge” somehow makes me feel like it belittles the depth of what I have felt for a beloved dog; therefore I would never say these words to someone who has just gone through a loss. I don’t know, maybe you have to be a “rainbow bridge” type of person to draw comfort from it, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Losing a sibling, a parent, a child, or a dear friend… is a deep, life-changing thing for many of us; and whether we feel ok voicing it or not for fear of being laughed at, for some of us, losing a companion animal, one that we raised, shared our daily lives with, one that changed our lives in a great way, brought us out of a deep depression or a dear friend that was just always there; to lose them, can be just as devastating as losing a beloved person.

So the question remains, what do you say to someone to express sympathy? In my humble opinion, and having been on both ends of the spectrum, my answer is simple:
Truthfully, when you lose someone you love, there are few if any words that will comfort you. After all, nothing will bring that beloved one back. That being said; what is it we find SO comforting about dogs and cats at times like these? Think about it: They are just there. Present. Although they may not understand what has happened, they can understand that there has been a change in our mood. A quiet presence is what I am getting at; maybe it’s a cat, purring on your lap; or a dog that nuzzles you and allows you to shed a few tears in his company. They don’t have to say anything, it’s their companionship, the feeling of not being alone in that loss is what we find comfort in. It is a great lesson to be learned in the fine art of friendship.

Understanding that maybe it is not up to us to try and “fix” a loss, but just to be there for that someone, to be compassionate and try to put yourself in their shoes. Being that quiet presence; and by this I don’t mean you should sit on your friend’s lap and start purring, or to nuzzle them with your nose (though that might be quite funny and we all know what a great medicine laughter can be), but maybe it’s just a hand being held, or sitting nearby. Saying “I am here for you”, in my opinion, is all that we need to hear in that moment.

When the time is right, find ways to bring on the laughter. Yet another lesson to learn from dogs and cats is their power to drag us out into the present and making us laugh. Watching kittens or puppies play anyone? Or even remembering some funny anecdotes about the missed friend. It can do wonders, it won’t lessen the loss, but it will dull the pain a little and it is in these memories that we will always find our dearly missed alive and well.
When my paternal grandmother passed away, my family and a few hundred of her closest friends (she was a well-loved actress) gathered to remember her and say goodbye. I remember there was a priest there, speaking about loss, and heaven… but all I remember is my brother and I starting to laugh… uncontrolably. Giggling, snorting while this poor man spoke with such passion. My brother and I were crying with laughter by this point and to the outside world, it might have looked terribly heartless, rude and… well, wrong; but the truth was, we were laughing because we were remembering what our grandma used to say whenever she really loved a glass of wine or tequila: “Si resbala! Si resbala!” Spanish slang for “this sh*t is so smooth it just slides down my throat!”. She was funny, and she came back to life in that moment for my brother and I; and sharing that was far more comforting than all the lovely words that poor priest could have offered.

Years later, and very recently, this same brother lost what he called “the elder brother to our kids”, their 11 year old Lab Bolillo; and we again shared a laugh, remembering Bolillo’s incredibly awkward sleeping positions, which never failed to crack us up. In all seriousness, laughter; it truly is healing.

So, below I listed a few things you can say, or do that I have found to be helpful and appreciated, and after that, I list a few words and things to avoid doing (in my personal opinion). In truth, listening to your own intuition is always the better way to go; you know your friend or family member best, and you know what will comfort them. When you don’t know them well enough, opt for something simple and gentle, hearfelt, without too much fluff.

What You Can Say

  • “I am here for you.” simple, sweet and true.
  • If they are up for being touched (some of us aren’t), hold their hand; place a hand lightly on their shoulder; pull them in for a hug if they need it.
  • If you deeply feel that loss too, show it, don’t be afraid to share it. There are times to “be strong” and there are others where strength is shown in softer ways.
  • You can borrow this if you feel it appropriate: “Where {Pet’s name} is now, there is no pain, only light. Her body is young again and free to run and jump and play…” fill in with the pet’s favorite things, for Bolillo, it was the beach, and tennis balls.
  • If you can’t say it out loud or if you are far away and need a good sympathy card, the best ones I have seen come from Dog is Good and Positively Green (though not exclusive to pets, they are sweet, gentle and very heartfelt, and can apply to anyone). Or, you could visit our shop in the near future, I am considering coming up with a couple of gentle sympathy cards of our own.
  • “Remember when… (insert a funny anecdote about the pet in question)” aim for laughter, and draw attention to the fact that someone we have loved so much, never really leaves us, they remain in those moments of laughter, joy and peace.
  • When in doubt, be compassionate and think of what would comfort you if you were in that position, provided you think the person you are trying to comfort would benefit from it too.


Things you should Never say

  • The term “animo” in Spanish translates into “chin up, or cheer up”, I think people tend to say it because they don’t know what else to say and to most people grieving, it feels downright rude. No thanks, I just lost someone, I don’t feel like cheering up just yet.
  • “Be strong”, when said at the wrong time can be really hurtful. In losing someone you love, there is a great deal of stregth involved in healing from it, but to say it to someone is like saying “toughen up”, again, no thanks. Strength here lies in the courage to feel this loss.
  • “It’s time to move on, get another pet”… again, everyone heals at their own pace. While some may feel comforted by having another dog or cat a few days later, and having someone new to focus on and love; others cannot fathom the thought, it is still too painful and for someone to say that feels like you are trying to replace what is missing; when the truth is, they are irreplaceable.

Side note to this last one: I was 10 or 11 years old when I lost my first dog, one that my dad had given me when I was 3 or 4. We grew up together. My dad and I used to take the dogs out for a walk on Sunday afternoons, and unfortunately, my little dog was attacked and killed by a lost dog that was wondering the streets one day. I think my dad felt so guilty, he could not do anything and chose to protect me instead after he tried in vain to get the stray to let go of my little one. He felt he needed to fix it somehow, and the only way he knew how was to go out and get me another puppy. My mom was LIVID with him; but she did have a fair point. “What have you taught her by doing this?” she said, “that loved ones are replaceable, and they are not. What if you were to disappear tomorrow, would I run out to get her a new dad? I don’t think so.” I was so conflicted during this, because like any normal kid, I LOVED my dog, and I missed him; and I was also enfatuated with the new puppy and grateful to my dad for wanting to make it better. But I hated to see them angry, and especially because of me, or an innocent creature for that matter. We did not keep the puppy, and I honestly understood why. It was my first big loss and I needed to honor that bond with a little more time. Just so you know Dad, I have NEVER held you accountable for what happened that day on our walk. It was an accident, and it could have happened to anyone. Thank you for everything you did to protect me and the other dogs, and thank you for not giving up on my dog, and looking for an open veterinary hospital for hours, even though your own medical training probably told you it was too late. Thank you for loving me that much, enough to risk a good fight with mom. I love you.

Photography is a Tangible Memory
Lastly, I did want to mention, something that seemed to strike people most about our Letter to an Old Friend post was the photos. It is no secret that photography is a powerful thing, it can take us back to that which we hold dear; which is why photographing companion animals is such an incredible gift to give to someone you love. Whether you do it yourself, or hire someone to do it, these images will have an incredible and timeless value. We are only one of many animal photographers who offer special photo sessions for pets and their families in the sunset of their lives; you’ll find us and all those others on sites like this one by Sara Beth Photography. Just enter your location and you will get a list of people who can provide that service for you. But why wait until the end to do this? Why not all through their lives, where you can capture their babyhood, or their summer days as well as the sweet moments and powerful grace that comes with those graying muzzles. Photography, and better yet, great photography can serve as a testament to a bond, and a creature that had a wonderful life with someone who loved them dearly and well.

I hope this was helpful, even in the smallest way. If you have stories to share, if you have lost someone and feel up to sharing what comforted you the most during that time, please do, I would love to hear it and I am sure it would be helpful to others as well.

If you would like to book a photography session for your dog or cat; or would like information about giving one as a gift, please shoot us an email at info@photolabpets.com or call the studio at 707-658-1496. If we are not in your area, we would be happy to help you find a pet photographer near you.



  1. Ali Peterson
    June 6, 2013

    Well said! Love the photo + quote too 🙂

  2. In Loving Memory: Oliver | Daily Dog Tag
    September 15, 2014

    […] If someone you know has recently lost a pet and you  are struggling with what to say or do, please take a few moments to read “What Do I Say When Words Fall Short.”  […]


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