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Book Review
Coping with the Loss of a Pet
by Christina M. Lemieux

Review by: Kate Connick, June 2003

Ah, I feel uniquely qualified to review books about pet loss, given that three of my boxer dogs have died within the past thirteen months. I still have bittersweet, fond memories of a book written by Jamie Quackenbush that was a tremendous comfort to me in the days before my very first dog was euthanized many years ago. Christina Lemieux's Coping with the Loss of a Pet was a very different experience, however. I absolutely detested this book.

The book is printed in an oversized font with double-spaced lines. The beginning of each of the five sections is decorated with a gratuitous, black and white, full-page pet photo, and white space is generous to the point of gross excess. The book aesthetically resembles a children's book, something that I found off-putting from the very start. With fewer than 35 pages of actual text, and a list price of nearly ten dollars, this book is no bargain.

Listen up, authors. The key to reaching a reader on an emotional level is to share some emotion yourself. This book is so emotionally barren and flat that the reader has no clue if the writer has ever even owned a goldfish. That might be good clinical practice, but it makes for very sterile reading.

A good author like Quackenbush can get around that by sharing case studies and using them to illustrate the experiences and emotions of others. The reader can identify with the bereaved persons in the cases, and the empathy and sympathy thus stirred can help the reader get in touch with their own emotional load.

Once you tap someone's emotions, you can speak to their heart. This can be done indirectly, by exploring how John Doe dealt with the loss of his kitten, or it can be done more personally by the author sharing what she has experienced herself. It can also be done more directly but with reservations, suggesting that one might try this or might find that helpful - but not telling the reader what to do. Without touching emotions, the author hasn't developed sufficient rapport with the reader to be convincing in offering any support or sympathy. It just plain doesn't work. Even worse, it is offensive.

I expect at least one of two things from a pet loss book. Inform me with facts, or comfort me with shared emotion. There is one thing that I find inexcusable, and that is exactly what this author does. She is patronizing, and that is unforgivable. Lemieux, in the spirit of too many academics, pompously makes assumptions about the reader's emotional state and offers hollow guidance based on that. The effect is similiar to one attempting to make music by scraping their nails on a chalk board. The person doing the scraping doesn't understand why their attempt to make noise isn't musical; the one listening is cringing at the hideous cacophony.

The first section declares that the reader feels alone. I have no doubt that many folks do, but I don't. I live in a world where everyone leads a pretty much dog-focused existence, so I don't feel in the least bit alone. The author has already lost me by making brazen assumptions about my mental state.

It gets worse as she insists, "Now you need to allow yourself, and even encourage yourself, to grieve." My gut-level reaction to that statement was, "Hey lady, don't tell me what to do." She continues on, "Please talk about all this! Talking with yourself will provide help in the grieving experience... Talk about your feelings with other people... talk to God..." In a greater context of content, these remarks might be well placed, but given the dearth of actual words in this book, it comes across as nagging and irritating.

The author's actual attempts to offer useful information similarly fall short. When dealing with children, she comments, "Answer them truthfully, being careful not to go beyond what the young person really wants to know or can understand." Mind you, she never suggests what a child actually can understand at, say, five years versus ten years of age.

The inconsistency is frustrating for the reader to follow. "It is natural to be angry... Do not be afraid to express your anger right out loud... try not to make other people the target for the anger... Don't smother your anger though. And try not to feel guilty for being angry!" In the absence of any elaboration, this comes across as meaningless bossiness. Be angry, don't be angry - whatever. How about an example of healthy anger versus inappropriate anger? Better still, how about illustrating how Jane Smith expressed her anger when her animal died, and how that did or didn't help?

Imagine that someone dear to you has experienced some sort of trauma. Pet loss might be an example. You wouldn't dream of telling someone, "I understand what you are feeling," unless perhaps you could justify that remark based on some personal revelation. Yet the author uses that exact phrase without giving any basis for it. She understands. Okay, tell me about it. That isn't a huge request from a reader. Similarly, when the author remarks, "We all feel with you," one has to wonder who else is included in "we." There's only one author. Why the need to speak in plural?

Among her final words, Lemieux comments, "...all of us who love pets are 'pulling for you.' We know what you have been going through and we understand your feelings even now. We won't desert you and don't you desert us." What does that mean? Frankly I find the entire mood of the book as creepy as I would a stranger at a bus stop coming up to me and swooning, "I care!"

In short, the author makes the fatal error of boldly proclaiming that she knows how the reader feels without ever establishing any form of emotional rapport or credibility. That, combined with the book's very sketchy content, makes for a preachy, patronizing waste of time. There are much better books about pet loss. Buy one of them.

bone
Coping with the Loss of a Pet by Christina M. Lemieux.
Published by Wallace R. Clark & Co, 1988. ISBN: 0962215813

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