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Book Review
When Your Pet Dies
by Jamie Quackenbush & Denise Graveline

Review by: Kate Connick, June 2003

My childhood dog had been my buddy for nearly 17 years. As his very old body was wearing out and the diagnosis of cancer confirmed, I knew the decision I had to make. It was the first real loss of anyone important in my life, and I scheduled the euthanasia date for later that week in order to give myself time to say goodbye and come to terms with my decision.

During those few days, I read Jamie Quackenbush & Denise Graveline's When Your Pet Dies on the train as I commuted to and from graduate school. Many years later, after accompanying a friend to the emergency vet late at night to euthanize her terminally ill spaniel, I gave the book to her to read. That little paperback, with its now yellowed pages, still remains on my bookshelf to this day. It is unequivocally the best book written for the pet owner who has experienced or is about to experience the loss of a pet.

"If you needed my help to cope with the death of your pet, I'd start the counseling process with one question: 'Why was Baxter so special to you?'" So begins this warm, sentimental, and compassionate exploration of the pet-owner bond and bereavement process. Quackenbush, a social worker and pet-bereavement counselor for the University of Pennsylvania when the book was written (with the help of professional writer, Denise Graveline) writes in a conversational, down-to-earth manner. He shares his experiences as a bereavement counselor as he gently guides the reader towards resolution of their own grief.

Quackenbush does this through the use of a multitude of case studies and wealth of experience in the then-new field, but he begins by laying the foundation of his empathy: the euthanasia of a family cat and the relinquishment of two cherished family dogs.

Using case studies to illustrate his points is a highly effective technique on several levels. It allows the author to illustrate themes without alienating the reader by being preachy, nor making assumptions about the reader himself. It allows the reader to identify emotionally with the persons in the cases, to accept the sincerity of the author's compassion, and to put their own situation into perspective. Some of these cases are deeply sad and tragic. Even someone without a pet would walk away from this book with a healthy respect for the depth of importance that a pet can hold in its owner's life.

Quackenbush does what most authors would and references Kubler-Ross's responses to death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Rather than bargaining, he notes that he sees a great deal of guilt among those who have lost pets. He goes on to discuss ways in which feelings such as guilt, helplessness, anger, frustration, denial, depression, numbness, and the like can affect an individual whose pet has died.

To his credit, while Quackenbush acknowledges these common emotional responses, he continually and repeatedly stresses the unique and idiosyncratic emotional response of each individual. It is this fundamental observation that lifts his book above the more pedestrian ones that attempt to treat bereavement in a more stereotyped manner.

The author examines the many layers of a person's relationship to a pet, noting that the animal's meaning often transcends the obvious. Animals often represent ties the owner has to other people, times in their lives, and personal struggles and triumphs. Loss isn't simply connected to the animal, per se, but to the daily, shared rituals, predictability, and confirmation someone needs and depends on the owner.

Through the book, Quackenbush examines various forms of loss and the attendant issues. Sudden, traumatic, accidental death may leave an owner in a stunned state of tremendous guilt. Euthanasia may, as well, although the owner who takes the time to make a measured decision may spare themselves the burdensome emotional aftereffect. One loss that many of us never really consider is that of the owner who must relinquish an animal. They, too, grieve.

The author discusses how to discuss a pet's death with a child, how to deal with the varying responses to grief within a family, and how to cope with the thoughtless remarks that others might make in response to one's grief.

This book is helpful on a practical level, as well as being comforting and cathartic. I can recommend no better book to anyone who has lost a pet, is about to lose a pet, or knows anyone else in that position. It is a thoughtful gift, as well as a good book to acquire for yourself.

When Your Pet Dies by Jamie Quackenbush & Denise Graveline.
Published by Pocket Books, 1985. ISBN: 0671669303

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