When someone has lost an animal they love, as many did during the devasting fire in Southern California last October, friends often want to help them. Unfortunately, most people are so afraid they are going to say or do the wrong thing that they often do nothing, hoping the situation will go away, or the person will get over it. Doing nothing or saying nothing is really the worst thing you can do.
To be supportive to someone grieving, you have to be willing. You have to be willing to see your child, friend, or co-worker in pain. You have to be willing to be speechless or simply say, "I don't know what to say". You have to be willing to just to stand beside that person with tissues in hand and let him/her cry. You have to be willing to let someone stomp and yell about life being unfair. You have to be there and in simply being there, you will be of comfort.
While saying something rather than nothing is good, there are certain things it is better not to say. For example, so not say, "You will get a better dog" or "You have other horses" or "Your cat is in a better place" or "Your insurance will cover it."
It is best to say something personal about the animal if you knew him/her. Connect an experience of yours with one you shared with your friend or co-worker and his/her animal, bringing the three of you together in a memory. "Do you remember when we first learned to ride? It was here, on that old paint. I'll miss that horse." Encourage the person to talk about their loss. All you have to do is listen, listen, and listen some more.
Practically, offer what you can in terms of helping someone rebuild their life, whether it's bringing over a home cooked meal, offering to help feed or house animals, or perhaps making a donation in your friends' name to an animal shelter. Think about what you can do. Then do it. Maybe you know how to post missing/found animals on a website so that animals and owners may be reunited. Apply your skills to their best use. Grieving is an exhausting experience. Just getting through every day is a challenge. Offer to help with the basics. Take kids to school so parents can regroup. Help with chores so they are not so overwhelming. Pick up coffee, groceries, stamps, and just drop them off. It's as important to do the little things as it is to help shoulder the larger burdens.
All living things have a light of life within them. When someone or something dies, a part of that light stays behind, like a star, illuminating the dark. If someone you care about has lost someone they love, tell them to look to the night's sky. The light of every living creature that has ever loved is there in the sky above us, guiding us, reminding us we are not alone. The nights will be brighter for some time to come, for there are more stars in heaven now.
Ann Van Buskirk is a engaging speaker and author of One More Star in Heaven Now: A Guide to Comforting Someone who is Grieving in Life and at Work.