It might seem silly or insignificant to some, but for millions of animal lovers like Jon Katz, the death of a pet can be devastating. In his new book, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, Katz explores the complex feelings of grief that can arise upon an animal’s death. From his farm in upstate New York, Katz talked to TIME about dealing with guilt, the importance of mourning and the struggle to move on.
You’ve written numerous books about animals and their connection to humans over the years. Why write about them dying?
I was speaking at a veterinary conference, and a bunch of vets came up to me and said that they were seeing a dramatic rise in grieving, were overwhelmed by it, and didn’t know how to deal with it. I looked around, and there were many books about animals dying, but they almost all had to do with the afterlife—about seeing a dog or cat in heaven. There was almost nothing about dealing with grief right now.
Having the farm and a life with animals, I’ve experienced a great deal of loss. I realized that it’s a very powerful thing, but no one in the culture takes it seriously. There’s this idea that if you grieve for a pet, you’re indulgent or silly.
You’ve witnessed the deaths of all kinds of animals during your time at Bedlam Farm. But you write that your decision to put down your dog Orson affected you most profoundly.
Orson inspired me to come to the farm in the first place. This was the dog that began my writing about dogs, animals and rural life. I felt a great debt to him. He was also a great personality, and he really changed me. But I felt foolish in feeling grief for him. I kept thinking, “It’s just a dog.” But after writing more about animals, I realized that the loss of a pet can be devastating. In [Orson's case], I didn’t really deal with it or acknowledge it. I didn’t allow myself a good cry or talk about it much. I think I paid for that. Part of the book’s message is that it’s okay to grieve animals.
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You make the point that not everyone is an animal lover. So, if you’re grieving, how do you address that with people who might not understand?
I don’t know that you can really. I think all you can say is, “It’s very painful for me. It’s a big loss for me.” I don’t honestly think that you can expect non-animal people to grasp it. When someone suffers a loss like this they need to get to those who understand—animal lovers. What I say to people [who are grieving]—and I think it’s the only thing that is helpful— is that I’m sorry and I know how you feel. It’s very simple.
Losing a pet is also very complicated because this is the only time in our lives when we’re sometimes called upon to kill something we love. That’s what happened with Orson. I had to euthanize him because he bit three people. We feel very guilty about these decisions. We’re not prepared for it, we haven’t thought through the emotional, moral or psychological elements of it. The truth is you’ll never know for sure if you made the right decision. I can’t tell you even today if I’m sure that it was the right decision [with Orson]. It was just the best decision I could make at the time. You can’t look to other people to tell you if you’re right or wrong.
I think it’s definitely comforting for people to know that they’re not alone in feeling grief over an animal. How does this sense of camaraderie help the healing process?
The biggest help it provides is it lets people know that it’s okay to feel bad. Animals have come to mean so much in our lives. We live in a fragmented and disconnected culture. Politics are ugly, religion is struggling, technology is stressful, and the economy is unfortunate. What’s one thing that we have in our lives that we can depend on? A dog or a cat loving us unconditionally, every day, very faithfully. Of course we’re going to grieve them when they go. The other side of that is, in my mind, I don’t want to make grieving a way of life. There are about 12 million dogs in need of homes. When I’m ready, I like to mark the loss and move on. And the most healing thing I know of is to adopt another animal.
But is it healthy to try to replace an animal that’s passed with a new one?
I think it’s healthy and helpful when you are ready. I don’t think it’s healthy to go out the next morning and get an animal, because it makes them feel disposable. But I do think the real healing begins when you get another. When an animal dies, it gives you the chance to love another animal. That’s an insightful and profound way to look at it. Unlike most situations with loss, you can move forward.
Something you said in the book really hit home with me. You write that, for many, the death of a pet is almost harder than that of a relative or friend because there are no complicated emotions, just pure love.
Look, we have families. Kids leave us and go off on their own lives. Family members tell us what they think of us. Animals can’t do that. They really are blank canvases, and we can project anything we want onto them. So the relationship is very pure and simple. This level of grieving [for animals] has probably come about because our society is not doing a great job of connecting with one another. People seem angrier and more frustrated, and animals seem more loving and important.
But you also caution not to project human emotions onto animals, because in the end, they are animals.
That was a very important part of the book for me, to encourage people to remember that animals are not feeling what we are feeling. They don’t feel guilt or regret. They don’t resent things. That’s what I love about them. I love the fact that they do not carry our baggage around with them.
Death is also a great part of an animal’s life. Some of the animal communicators I talked to said the number one question people ask after their animals have died is, “Are they mad at me?” Animals don’t think like that. They’re very accepting of life. I think of animals more as spirits that come and go. They enter our lives at a particular time and they leave at a particular time. The whole glorious history of animals with people is about joy and connection. It’s about loving this creature and letting this creature love you.
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