eb_bartels OP t1_ivjfp0h wrote

I have a whole chapter in my book about pets dealing with people's and other pets' deaths! So there are a lot of rumors/pop culture ideas that a dog or cat will eat an owner's dead body, but research has shown that doesn't happen nearly as often as people think. If an animal is starving and trapped in the house for weeks, maybe, or sometimes a dog will become distressed and try to "wake" an owner up and then chewing/gnawing can happen, but mostly it seems that pets seem to understand death in their own way. If an animal gets to view their owner's body, they seem to get that the owner is not coming back. The most heartbreaking stories for me are the ones where a pet doesn't understand the owner is dead and keeps waiting/hoping, like Hachiko in Tokyo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hachik%C5%8D.


eb_bartels OP t1_iuwies0 wrote

What great questions! Thanks for asking. So, I have accepted that my pets are going to die, and I think from researching and writing Good Grief I am a little more aware of that possibility every day but I think it has helped me try to live in / appreciate the moment more. So even if my dog Seymour (who loves to chase trucks, ugh) runs into the road and gets killed, I like to think that now I will be able to appreciate the few years we've had together at least and just be happy we had those, even if he dies young/tragically. Though it definitely will hurt the same! Some people I interviewed said they felt each subsequent pet death hurt even MORE as they got older because each one reminded them of all the previous ones that came before it as opposed to getting more immune to the grief. But I think despite the pain it's still worth having pets because the joy the bring (me at least) makes up for how sad it is when they die.

As for my research changing how I mourn pets, I've definitely thought about wanting to do some of the things I learned about now. I love the idea of preserving/taxidermying my tortoise Terrence's shell, and Seymour has a very distinctive skull, I could see wanting to articulate his skeleton or maybe preserve just the tip of his tail or ear, though I'm not sure yet. I definitely think I want to get memorial tattoos though for all of them. And I already make little shrines on shelves in my home and put together photo albums, so I will keep that up as well.


eb_bartels OP t1_iur5i9b wrote

I love this! So sweet that the portrait is passed down, but I know what you mean about things losing their meaning when the last person who personally knew that pet dies. I interviewed some people who said they really struggled knowing what to do with urns full of pet ashes that belonged to their parents, grandparents, etc.


eb_bartels OP t1_iur53zd wrote

I do write a lot in my book about how different cultures have different attachments to their pets, often because of historical context re: perspectives on animals or even just having to deal with other hard things. (For example, sometimes people in countries that have experienced a lot of recent war/famine often can't/don't prioritize having pets when just making it through day-to-day life as a human is so hard.) There is also a difference in who has disposable incomes to have pets in the first place and/or then spent a lot of money on elaborate mourning rituals. Though I will say that even in Latin America not everyone just goes and gets a new one! I wrote a piece for Slate about a pet composting company in Colombia: https://slate.com/technology/2022/08/pet-composting-pleia.html. So elaborate pet mourning rituals are alive and well almost everywhere these days!

And some people do feel they can go out and easily get a replacement pet -- I saw many family plots in pet cemeteries where people had dozens of the same breed of dog or even named the pet the same thing over and over (Charlie 1, Charlie 2, Charlie 3, etc.) but a lot of people feel strongly that every pet is different and unique, even if you get one that looks the same as the old one and does similar things to the old one, so it is still sad to lose that original pet regardless of whatever pets follow that first one.


eb_bartels OP t1_iur4c31 wrote

Yes, I interviewed vet techs/nurses, veterinarians, vet students, and even receptionists at vet offices! Chapter three of my book has the majority of the quotes from those interviews. I definitely got many amazing stories from people who work in veterinary offices! Thanks for doing what you do.


eb_bartels OP t1_iur46ot wrote

Yes! Lots of people do that for various reasons. Some because they want to bury their pet in their backyard but the animal dies during winter / when the ground is frozen so they have to wait a few months. Others do it while preparing to send their pets to a taxidermist or cloning company. And others do it just because they need a little longer to say goodbye and sit with their pet's body as they process their death -- very natural and normal, like how a lot of cultures have wakes/viewings for human bodies after someone dies.


eb_bartels OP t1_iuont03 wrote

Yes! Here are the things I like to suggest people do when mourning their pets:

  1. Post about your pet's death on social media. Some people are hesitant to do this because the feel embarrassed by the grief they feel over their pet or don't want to appear needy, but those I have talked to who have done this have said it has really helped. After posting, friends who are fellow pet people will notice and can reach out and send words of comfort and it's nice to know there are a lot of people you know who have been through this too, who understand. It makes you feel less alone.
  2. Figure out some tangible way to hold onto your pet. There are a lot of talented artists (you can find many on Etsy) who will paint a pet portrait, who will make a pet memorial bead mixing some of your pet's ashes into glass, who will make a stuffed animal "clone" of your pet.... these things may seem silly, but having a physical thing to touch and hold when you feel sad helps a lot of people. I hung up my dogs' collars on a nail by the door, which makes me feel like their spirits are still in my apartment.
  3. Make a scrapbook of photos of your pet. Print out photos and frame them and keep them around your home. Your pet was part of your life. Don't feel you have to just forget about them now that they're no longer alive. I still have lots of framed photos of my childhood dogs, Gus and Gwen, around my home even though they've been dead for years!
  4. Don't necessarily rush into getting another pet. Some people say it helps them immediately to have a new friend in the house, but also a few people I've interviewed have said they wish they had waited a bit before getting another pet because they felt they were constantly comparing the new animal to the old. A nice thing to do can be to volunteer at an animal shelter or offer to dog/cat sit or dog walk for people. Then you can get a bit of an animal fix while still giving yourself space to mourn your pet.
  5. Take as much time as you need. It is okay to feel sad and to feel sad for a really long time. I still miss Gwen, and she died in 2013. It's okay to feel sad. Don't rush yourself into feeling better.
  6. Reach out for professional help if you are feeling really lost. There are actually a lot of therapists out there now who specialize in pet loss support. (I interviewed a wonderful therapist named Jennifer Breslow who is based in NYC and does art therapy and pet loss support groups.) There are also other pet loss support groups out there which can be a really nice way to find other people who get how you are feeling, and even pet loss hotlines you can call for comfort.

eb_bartels OP t1_iuongzp wrote

Sometimes certain burial/mourning traditions go along with the type of animal. For example, there are often specific responses to the death of a race horse, and that is in part because of the animal's size -- for example, a tradition with race horses is to only bury their head, hooves, and heart and cremate the rest. But in terms of the grief people feel in response to their animal's death, it doesn't matter if it is a bird or a dog or a horse -- it all depends on that person's relationship with the animal. Some people who maybe, say, have a cat and a hamster might feel more sadness over the cat's death because they had the animal longer, but that isn't always the case. People I spoke with who had tarantulas mourned them just as deeply as people who had dogs. Grief is grief.


eb_bartels OP t1_iunvcwh wrote

Yes! I currently have and have had several pets myself that are not cats and dogs, so this topic was of special interest to me and I tried hard to cover as big of a range of types of pets as I could in the book. I found all kinds of pets buried in pet cemeteries -- birds, reptiles, small rodents, chickens, raccoons, squirrels, etc. People also had portraits made of non-dogs-and-cats, and tattoos and even have had skeletons and parts of their pets preserved as well. In short, anything people do to memorialize cats and dogs I found people have also done with other types of animals!


eb_bartels OP t1_iunr4g3 wrote

Of course! That's Seymour! He is approximately three years old, a rescue from Florida via the Animal Rescue League of Boston. He is named after Seymour in Futurama (episode "Jurassic Bark"). My dad gave us a DNA kit for Christmas 2020 and it seems Seymour is mostly blue nose AmStaff, a couple other types of pit bull, chihuahua, and then a bunch of other terriers: Schnauzer, Rat Terrier, Jack Russell, etc. He is very sweet and loves people and like 80% of other dogs.


eb_bartels OP t1_iunl6ok wrote

I love this! This is so special. Yes, definitely, I found often people who paid to bury their animals in pet cemeteries would have funerals. One Jewish couple I interviewed opted to sit shiva for their Yorkie when he passed. My own family had a ceremony when we scattered my dog Gus's ashes by a lighthouse where he liked to go fishing with my dad. Also a lot of police officers and military folks have in depth burial rituals/ceremonies for their K9 partners/dog colleagues.


eb_bartels OP t1_iunkvoz wrote

In terms of things evolving over time, I noticed that in even just the past five years people seem much more open about talking about their feelings about their pets dying and sharing their emotions. I think social media has helped with that a lot -- it's pretty common now for people to be open about posting about being sad about their pet dying and using Twitter/Insta/FB/etc. as a way to connect with other pet people who understand that loss or people who also knew and loved their pet. I also think similarly as we become more open talking about our feelings about pets dying we then also normalize having traditions/rituals around those pets' deaths. A lot more people now I think are down to have a memorial service or viewing hours for their pet, when I feel like even 10-15 years ago people may have WANTED to do that but felt weird about it.


eb_bartels OP t1_iunkkex wrote

Like I said above, I tried really hard not to let myself thing "wtf" about anything because I wanted to be open to any and all pet death rituals. My feeling very strongly is that everyone needs to do what is right for them and as long as they're not hurting themselves or anyone else, it's an okay way to grieve. But some of the more unusual ones for sure besides cloning (see my other reply for more on that) were probably the taxidermy/preservation options, like preserving a pet's ear or tail so you can still pet their fur when you miss them, or having the whole skeleton preserved and reassembled. One woman I interviewed had her Boston Terrier taxidermied in full and keeps in him a glass case like a side table next to her couch.


eb_bartels OP t1_iunk9gn wrote

I think I was most surprised by people's motivation to clone their dead pets! When researching/talking to people I tried really hard not to let my own assumptions or judgment cloud my perception of what they were sharing, though I have to admit that I went into the cloning interviews with some skepticism -- why would you want to pay all this money to try to duplicate your animal when it's not even actually the same animal? I assumed people were unable to let go of their dead pet and just trying to pretend the animal never died. But after talking to people who worked at various cloning companies and interviewing one gentleman who had his dog cloned, I learned that often people do it because they aren't trying to copy & paste the same animal they had before but want to continue the lineage. For example, they wish they could breed their cat with distinctive markings but had them spayed/neutered before they realized they wanted to. Or, like the man I interviewed about his dogs, he said he really loves knowing that his two clones are related to his previous dog, like they are her twin sisters and that it makes it special to have them for that reason. I loved hearing that.


eb_bartels OP t1_iunhip0 wrote

They honestly weren't that surprised. They already knew that I'd been obsessed with my pets my whole life, so writing a book about pet death seemed pretty logical to them. Though perhaps they weren't that concerned about it because it's not like I quit my job to full-time research dead pets. While I was researching, I was also doing my MFA program, then teaching full-time middle school and high school, working as a nanny, a freelance editor/consultant, an instructor at a creative writing center, etc. I think they might have been more worried if I quit doing everything except for going to pet cemeteries!