Best-selling author and animal advocate Jon Katz has been writing about dogs for over a decade. Many of his own, past a present, have taken center stage fiction and nonfiction books such as The Dogs of Bedlam Farms, A Dog Year, Izzy and Lenore and Rose in a Storm.
Katz wrote his latest, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, which comes out on Tuesday, to provide guidance, support and advice for people on how to handle the loss of a pet.
Reuters spoke with Katz to discuss his new book and how people can cope with life when the family pet passes away.
Q: What was the biggest surprise for you in researching books about pets and grieving?
A: I found that almost every book had to do with the afterlife. Not a single book said, 'This is what is known about things that will help you grieve.' So I started talking to vets and psychologists and gathering information and interviewing maybe 200 different people about what was helpful to them.
Q: And what did you find?
A: People need to bring rituals into grieving. Memorial services, remembrances, pictures -- those are concrete things that make grieving tangible. The Internet offers all kinds of opportunities for this like making digital albums and Facebook pages. People used to have to hide grief. You couldn't go to your boss and say, 'I need a week off, my cat died.' You probably still can't, but you do need to say, 'I'm having a tough time.'
Q: No doubt your own personal experience went in to this.
A: I'm one of those people who has always struggled with emotions and revealing them. When my dog Orson died, I did this very male thing of 'It's just a dog and I'll just move on.' I was very slow to grasp the emotion. But Orson is the reason I started writing about dogs. He's the first (dog) book I wrote and HBO did a movie about him (A Dog Year). Writing this book inspired me to go back and look at the impact of his loss and on my life, as well as other dogs that I've lost.
Q: You ended up putting Orson down. How does one deal with the guilt of making such a decision?
A: It's important to remember that the animals are not grieving with us. They're very accepting. They're not lying there thinking 'How could you do this to me? Why aren't you keeping me going?' Pets don't do the human things of guilt and anger and recrimination that we do. They come and go with great acceptance.
One idea that I advocate is the dealing with guilt directly. Acknowledge the good life, remember the good things you did with your pet -- the places you took them, the affection you showed them. Remind those who have lost a pet that they generally gave their pets a good life and that's a good thing, so don't forget that.
Q: Is there any way to prepare for a pet's death?
A: If you're going to love animals and have a life with them, the odds are you're going to lose them. It's helpful when you get a dog to accept the fact that this dog is not going to be with you your whole life.
Q: Is getting another dog acceptable in getting over the previous one? It's not a betrayal to the one you lost?
A: I'm always happy when people choose to get another dog because it's a healthy and healing thing to do, and there are millions of them needing homes. But there is no single time frame to do it in because grieving is an intensely personal experience. In my case, I get another dog as soon as I feel ready. As a dog lover, it is right for me to have them.
With children, I don't think it's good if you go out and immediately get another dog or cat. Animals are not disposable any more than people. Children need to see that the loss is important, and the family should take time to honor that.
Q: Is grief more difficult if you rescue an animal?
A: When you rescue something, it's very different than if you adopt or buy. Rescuing implies saving. When you rescue something and then lose it, it can be a huge factor in the intensity of the grief. I have two rescues, Izzy and Frieda. I'm working on a book about Frieda now, 'Frieda and Me: Second Chances.' She opened my eyes to that world of dogs that nobody wants who are often the dogs you love most.
Q: The pet industry is bigger than ever, and it seems like people grieve over the death of animals more so today than ever before. Do you agree?
A: Today people are developing very powerful relationships with animals. The whole idea of community is breaking down. American culture is being increasingly disconnected and fragmented. Families are breaking up and Americans spend so much time in front of screens that they're not spending time with each other.
Q: And that means...
A: We need connection. We need support, love, affection. We need to bond and animals are filling this hole. And they're doing great work at it -- unconditional love, nonjudgment
and companionship you can absolutely rely on. It's a little troubling to think they are doing this instead of people.