Cover of the book Going Home

For more than a decade, New York Times bestselling writer Jon Katz has connected with thousands of readers by exploring the many facets of what it means to be a dog owner — and lover. His latest book, Going Home, tackles a painful subject: the loss of a pet. We asked Katz to offer insight on what it means to grieve for an animal companion today.

Q. Tell us about the special bond you had with your Border Collie, Orson, and how he inspired this book. When did you realize that Going Home needed to be written?

A: Jon Katz: “When Orson died, I told myself it was just a dog, and that there was a lot of human suffering in the world and I didn’t have the right to grieve too long for a Border Collie. That was a mistake. I grieved long and hard and eventually came to understand that losing an animal can be very important, very painful, and needs to be taken seriously.

I thought of Going Home when I was speaking at the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando three years ago and I was swamped with vets urging me to write a book on animal grieving. They were seeing so much grief, and it was increasing, and they didn’t have a book to recommend. Most books on the subject dealt with the afterlife, not grieving now.”

Q. One of the topics that you explore is how our society has developed a much deeper bond with pets than ever before. Why do you feel this is the case, and how does it inform the way we grieve for our dogs and cats?

A: “Animals have, in recent years, moved to the center of our emotional lives. We give them human names, they sleep in our bed, and we buy them expensive food. In a fragmented, tense, and disconnected world, they are constant and increasingly important sources of love, connection, and support. More and more, they are doing for the world what human beings and their institutions — politics, technology, religion, medicine — are failing to do, which is to support us, and help us to feel safe and healthy and connected to one another.”

Q. Do you feel that the manner in which we grieve for animals differs from the way we deal with the loss of human loved ones?

A: “Very much so. Dogs and cats and other animals can’t speak, so we project our thoughts and emotions onto them. Human loss is bounded by laws, institutions, procedures, and traditions that are codified. With animals, each loss is personal and individual. 

This is perhaps the only time in our lives when we are called upon to kill something we love and make life-or-death decisions about them with few guidelines, laws or preparation. It is an important time, and for many, a complex and awful time. There is simply no place to go for much guidance until the decision is upon us, and so we feel tremendous guilt and fear and confusion.”

Q. One of the passages in your book includes the story of a man who decided to give his dog the best day ever when he learned that the pup was terminally ill. What other novel ways of grieving for our pets did you come across in your research?

A: “We have many new tools to remember animals — blogs, digital photography, photo albums, videos. They don’t have to leave us. Some people find healing in memorial services, and in rituals like shrines and songs and poems. The glorious history of animals involves much love, protection, and connection. It is sad, but not only sad. It is okay to grieve, but it is also okay to feel better. That is the point of the book. It is not about misery but empowerment.”

Q. What was the most inspiring part of writing this book?

A: “The most inspiring stories were the many wonderful people who had lost animals they loved dearly, but who summoned the strength to move forward when they were ready and get another of the 12 million animals in need of homes in America.

It is awful to lose a beloved pet, and that was challenging to see. I never quite grasped the deep well of sorrow that exists out there, and society is just beginning to become aware of it. I remember a little girl, who lost her chicken, telling her mother that when an animal dies, it’s a chance to go and love another one. A wise child.”

Q. At one point, you acknowledge that you felt a sense of “embarrassment” over the depth of your grief with Orson. What would you say to people who don’t have pets and who might have the same reaction to someone mourning the loss of a pet?

A: “I don’t think you can really expect people who don’t have or love animals to grasp the loss of animal lovers. It just isn’t realistic. It is not helpful to tell people to move on, get another one, get over it or that ‘it’s just a dog or a cat.’ The best thing to say: ‘I’m sorry, I know it is a painful loss.’ Americans do not like to hear a lot about death, whether it relates to people or animals.”

John Katz and Rose

Q. What are your thoughts about people who claim that they can never get another dog or cat once they’ve lost a pet?

A: “If dogs or cats could listen to humans, they would be horrified to hear people say they loved their dog so much that they could never get another one. Animals do not live as long as people and if we wish to have them in our lives, we need to come to terms with loss and grief.

The history of animals is all about love and joy, and not about misery and pain. I find the most healing thing there is about losing a pet is getting another one. But people have to do it if and when they are ready. Nobody can tell somebody else how to grieve. And there are millions of animals waiting in shelters, as well as the kennels of ethical breeders, to love and support you.”

Q. What have you learned about the healthiest way to let go of a beloved pet?

A: “Trust yourself. Respect yourself. You will never know if the decision you made is absolutely, 100% correct. All you can do is the best you can, and don’t look back. Animals don’t do loss and grief and guilt. Those are human feelings. Animals accept life. They do not live in a ‘no-kill’ world. The people who feel guilt usually love animals, and the people who mistreat animals rarely feel guilt.

Guilt is useless. I think the most loving thing you can do with animals is to let go sometimes. It’s not loving to keep an animal alive beyond its time, or in suffering. I do not believe my dogs will tell me when it’s time to go. That is my responsibility, my decision. I do the best I can and look forward.”

Have you been through the loss of a pet? Did you find any special ways to help you grieve? Please share them in the comments below.