What to say to someone who has lost a dog?

A friend from MIT emailed:

Do you have any advice on what to say to someone who has lost their beloved dog companion?

I knew Caleb [name changed] when he was an energetic puppy, thirteen years ago, and he’s followed his owner through an impressive series of moves and life changes, where he was almost certainly the one constant and loyal companion. This brief message [attached] implies a world of heartbreak. Caleb lived a long life for a Labrador, and as in your story about George’s final days, I’m sure [my friend] did everything he could to help him (as the [emailed CAT scan showing cancer] attests). But I’m also sure that doesn’t make his owner feel any better. It must be really hard to care so much about creatures that have such short lives, comparatively.

Is it insensitive to point out that one can get another dog? One can, but it also won’t be the same. Do you have any perspective on whether it helps to ease the heartbreak of losing your dog by getting another dog? It probably helps some, but maybe not enough.

I responded with

13 years is a good run for a Lab. So it is kind of like Marvin Minsky. He had a great life and we should be celebrating his accomplishments more than mourning his loss. George died young and suddenly.

A new puppy is fun at any time, but the puppy wouldn’t be that related to feelings about the lost companion. A parent who loses a child doesn’t replace that child with a baby. It is just a new relationship.

I think that what would help is to talk about things that you remember about Caleb and help the owner celebrate the 13 years together. Talk about how lucky Caleb was for the companionship provided by your friend and any family members. Did they give him the best life that a dog could have for 13 years? Well, then they did all that they could. That’s something to celebrate.

She followed up a week later to say “I took your advice and it seemed to be the right thing” with the owner saying “It is the intensity of the relationship rather than the length that constitutes the loss. Caleb is the only one who has been there for me, and I was always there for him, too. Thanks for writing back and sharing your memories.”