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Better to Have Loved and Lost: An Interview with E.B. Bartels about “Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter”

Better to Have Loved and Lost: An Interview with E.B. Bartels about “Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter”

Anyone who has lost a beloved pet knows the profound grief that can accompany this experience. And yet, while there are many codified rituals for mourning a human loved one, mourning a pet’s death can be more amorphous. In her compassionate and revelatory new book Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter, author E.B. Bartels draws on her vast experience as a lifelong pet-owner as she explores the powerful—and evanescent bonds between humans and their companion animals. 

Bartels’ investigation takes readers from ancient Egyptian tombs to modern suburban pet cemeteries, the gravesites of Kentucky’s Triple Crown winners, and a pet funeral on the outskirts of Tokyo. Along the way, she speaks with archaeologists, veterinarians, ministers, pet taxidermists, and other experts. The result is a moving and kaleidoscopic portrait of the abiding love between humans and animals—a love that transcends the boundaries of time and culture.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Bartels in person, at my kitchen table, as my dog Lyle gnawed on a bone beside us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nicole Graev Lipson:

As both a pet owner and a writer, I love how your book approaches pets as a nuanced topic worthy of sustained inquiry and contemplation. There’s no shortage of pet guidebooks, but there are far fewer literary explorations of the human-animal bond. Why do you suppose this is?

E.B. Bartels:

In high school, I had an amazing photography teacher. On the first day of class, he said to us, “You absolutely cannot take photos of pets or babies, because that’s cheating.” I think people often regard writing this way, too—that a book about a dog is cheating, because of course it’s going to pull at people’s heartstrings. There’s this judgment that there isn’t literary merit in writing about animals because it’s easy. 

In my own experience, pet ownership is much more nuanced than generally recognized. You’re bringing another being into your home with whom you have no shared language, and you have to create a way to communicate with each other—this alone is really complicated. When I read books about our relationship with animals, I’ve personally had to grapple with the fact that I eat poultry, but then I also have pet birds. These are hard things to think about. It’s often easier to just leave it at “Oh, cute dog” and move on than to think deeply about these issues. 

Nicole Graev Lipson:

At one point, you refer to the sorrow we feel after a pet has died as a “disenfranchised grief.” Can you explain what you mean by this term?

E.B. Bartels:

Disenfranchised grief is any type of grief that isn’t really socially acceptable or talked about. Miscarriage is a really common example, and sometimes people talk about divorce as falling into this category. I think people often feel ashamed of their grief over the loss of a pet because they think, I shouldn’t be this sad. I knew what I was getting into. It’s just a cat; it’s just a dog. There’s this feeling that they’re supposed to move on.

Nicole Graev Lipson:

You highlight how people often experience feelings of failure after the death of a pet as well. It’s easy to understand sadness, longing, even anger—but why failure?

E.B. Bartels:

When you have a pet, you’re signing up to take care of them until the moment they die. It’s like a pact, or a contract: For better or worse, I am in this with you. I think there can be a lot of shame when your pet inevitably grows older, or gets sick and dies, even though this is part of the life cycle. A lot of pet owners feel like they’ve failed at this thing they promised to do for their animal. 

Then, there’s the added complication of euthanasia. People often choose to let their animals have a peaceful, painless death as opposed to drawing out their suffering. Many veterinarians I spoke with shared their frustration that we do this for our non-human animals and not for our own species. Still, the fact that you, as the pet owner, have to make the call when to euthanize is a complicated thing. A UU minister I interviewed who runs a pet loss support group told me people always feel they’ve made the call too soon or too late. No one ever feels it was the absolute right time.

Nicole Graev Lipson:

Your book explores a range of practices people adopt to honor their deceased pets. I admit that some examples, like the artist who turned his taxidermied cat into a drone, made me a little uncomfortable. How about you?

E.B. Bartels:

I think it’s worth saying that people are often uncomfortable with other people’s death rituals, for pets and humans. There’s a great book called From Here to Eternity, by Caitlin Doughty, that explores death rituals from different cultures around the world. There’s an island in Indonesia where people take bodies out of tombs once a year and change their clothes and sit and eat with them. I think Americans in particular are freaked out when they learn about death customs like this because, as a culture, we don’t talk about death a lot. 

During my research, any time I would find myself pausing at somebody’s choice—like taxidermy, or mummifying—I would try to be really mindful of why it alarmed me. Was it simply because I’d never heard of this practice before, or hadn’t seen a lot of it?

Nicole Graev Lipson:

I loved the way you organized your book’s chapters, each one tying your own personal experience to a larger question about the connection between humans and animals. For instance, “Birds and Bonding,” “Rodents and Responsibility,” “Felines and Feelings.” How did you arrive at this approach?

E.B Bartels:

Thank you! I love reading nonfiction that blends the personal and research because I’m always curious why an author is interested in a particular topic. On Immunity by Eula Biss is a great example of this. I love how Biss explains that she became obsessed with trying to understand vaccines because she was a new mother who needed to get her infant son vaccinated, and she basically wanted to learn everything she could because she was anxious. I love when an author is like, “This is why I’m obsessed with this thing,” and then acts as your guide. 

When interviewing people for the book, I would end up sharing my own stories, and I found that people often opened up to me more as a result. I shared a lot of myself during the research process, and so it felt very natural and obvious to me that this was the way I had to write the book. 

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Nicole Graev Lipson:

At one point, you write that to interact with an animal is “divine,” and at another, you describe observing your canary as a child as  “transcendent.” I’m curious if you see interacting with animals as a fundamentally spiritual undertaking? 

E.B. Bartels:

That’s a big question. I interviewed a priest who told me he doesn’t think animals have souls in the same way humans do, because he feels that animals are pure and without sin. Even if a dog bites

somebody, they’re not doing it to be mean, but because they’re frightened or trying to protect themselves. I think animals are really honorable teachers in this way because they’re very present. We can learn so many lessons about being better people and taking better care of our planet from watching how they interact with the world.

One question that kept coming up for me while I was writing was: Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Because of course you know when you get a pet that you’re eventually going to have to deal with the very upsetting death of this animal. It suddenly became clear to me that this book wasn’t just about grief, but about what gets us through the grief—and very often, it’s the memories of the joy our pet brought us. 

Nicole Graev Lipson:

The title of your book is Good Grief, but it’s true that the predominant feeling I had as I was reading it was joy. 

E.B. Bartels:

There’s a Bhutanese folk expression that in order to appreciate life, you have to meditate on death at least five times a day. I think our pets force us to do this, because their short life spans put them, always, so close to death. 

Over and over, our pets make us think, “Okay, well, let me truly appreciate today.”

Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter
By E.B. Bartels
Mariner Books
Published August 2, 2022

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