october 2011

talking animals

Jon Katz: ‘More and more people are coming to see that losing an animal is a real painful loss in our culture. And it’s OK to mark the rituals of it. It’s okay to mourn it.’

Coping With A Pet’s Death

Author Jon Katz pens a soothing guide for the bereaved

By Duncan Strauss

Anyone who’s ever deeply loved a pet, and been deeply devastated when that pet dies, has a visceral understanding of the profound sense of grief triggered by that loss—and how that grief can be surprisingly difficult to shake.

In Jon Katz’s Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, the newest of 20 books by the New York Times bestselling author, Katz presents a soothing guide for those who’ve suffered the loss of a pet, offering some ideas and explanations for why many folks get walled into that form of grief and—crucially—how to bust out.

With a career spanning multiple decades that included writing or other work for such high-profile media outlets as The Washington Post, CBS News, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The Wall Street Journal, Katz made some notable changes to his life several years ago, forgoing that sort of employment and moving to a farm in upstate New York while turning his attention to writing books about dogs—chiefly, the dogs who live with him at those digs, dubbed Bedlam Farm.

His years living at Bedlam Farm, coupled with his dog expertise and experience (including losing Orson, the canine love of his life)—not to mention his background as an accomplished journalist-researcher-producer--may have combined to place Katz in a singular position to turn out a book about pets dying and, especially, coping with that death.

going home

Indeed, in a chapter of Going Home entitled “Saying Goodbye,” Katz writes, “A farm is a never-ending cycle of life and death, rebirth and loss. After a while, you come to see this as not tragic but as an integral part of life. Death makes life meaningful.”

And while the book hints at an underpinning of considerable research, what emerges is a largely personal and anecdotal treatise for helping readers better understand the complexity of feelings central to losing a beloved animal, and navigating through those feelings in a healthy, effective way.

In our interview on Talking Animals, Katz recounted how he arrived at this approach to writing Going Home.

“I tried to use two things. My editors and I talked about this,” he explained.  “We really wanted to use the experience I had on the farm, of losing Orson, other dogs, lambs, sheep, donkey.

“So I’ve experienced loss quite a bit here. And then I turned and started interviewing people—I interviewed about 200 people: a lot of vets, psychiatrists, and psychologists. And did a lot of research on what was known about grieving for animals.”

One of the salient factors that Katz gleaned from his research is that pet owners often find themselves unprepared for their animal’s death, seemingly regardless of the details of that animal’s health or medical condition. Not coincidentally, perhaps, when I asked him in the Talking Animals interview what he viewed as the most essential thing people should do to improve the prospects of coping with the loss of a pet, his response was instantaneous.

katz“Well, the first thing to think about is to be prepared for it,” he said. “When you get an animal, people need to understand that they don’t live that long. And anyone who has a life with animals, unless it’s a tortoise, is going to experience a lot of loss.

“And that means having a conversation with the breeder, with the rescue person, with the vet, about what their philosophies are about it, how long do these animals live, what can you do to prepare yourself.”

“You don’t want to be morbid about it—nobody who gets a puppy wants to be thinking about it [dying]—but it’s very important not to find yourself in a vet’s office, having to make enormous moral, philosophical, financial decisions without any guidelines or aforethought about it. When a human being dies, there are all sorts of procedures and laws regulating that: what doctors do, what lawyers do, what hospitals do, what undertakers do. When an animal dies, you’re just alone with it, usually in a vet’s office.”

And, on other levels, it appears that the difference in the way people react to human death versus pet death—even by many of those experiencing that pet death—accounts for the difficulty in taking on the grief, and moving it past it.  Left to their own devices, many people contending with the loss of an animal do not avail themselves of some measures they wouldn’t hesitate to use when dealing with the death of a human family member or friend.

A Buddhist pet funeral in progress

For instance, at work: people wracked with this kind of grief don’t feel comfortable leaning over to their cubicle mate and discussing this emotional struggle. And perhaps more to the point, there’s a sense that this hypothetical cubicle mate wouldn’t lean over to ask how you’re doing with the death of Fluffy, the way they might ask after you lost, say, a sibling, other loved one or dear friend.  An important difference, and obstacle, it seems, is this type of stigma & the attendant inclination to keep that sadness hidden and unexpressed—if people know how sad I am about this, they’ll think I’m a kook.

In chatting with Katz, I observed that it’s surprising it’s not more common for people to employ rituals in saying goodbye to animals and grieving them, when it’s so commonplace across cultures to do so when a human dies--and couldn’t help wondering if this stigma is why.

‘The Pet Funeral,’ animation by Terri Chia. Based on the children’s story by Grace Cheung; music by Mitchell Yoshida. Dedicated to Mrs. Dash, the dwarf hamster.

“I think people feel foolish, they feel like they’re not entitled to do that for a pet,” he said. “And they think this is what people do for people. But I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘I was embarrassed, I was so sad about losing my dog or my cat.’ And I asked ‘Did you think about doing a funeral?’ And [their answer was] ‘Well, you can’t do a funeral for a dog.’ But of course you can, and more and more people are. I think that more and more people are coming to see that losing an animal is a real painful loss in our culture. And it’s OK to mark the rituals of it. It’s okay to mourn it.”

An illustration of how Katz’s latest book is truly, as advertised, a guide to Finding Peace When Pets Die.

To listen online to Duncan Strauss’s interview with Jon Katz, visit www.talkinganimals.net

Jon Katz’s Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die is available at www.amazon.com

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