ARLINGTON — E.B. Bartels was just a preschooler when her fish died, leaving behind happy memories but also the hard lesson that loving a pet almost always means losing that companion in time.
Like so many animal lovers, however, the Arlington writer, editor, and teacher has continued to willingly pay the price of grief by welcoming a series of furry, feathered, and hard-shelled creatures into her home and heart.
The question of why anyone would repeatedly cycle through the highs and lows of pet ownership compelled Bartels to write her new book, “Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter” which was published by Mariner Books on Aug. 2.
“The main thing I want people to know is they’re not alone in their feelings when their pets die. Grief is grief,” said Bartels, noting that numerous interviewees confided she was the first person with whom they shared their deep and lasting sorrow. “The pandemic showed us that pets can be lifesavers during hard times. Animals are nonjudgmental in a way that allows you to be your truest self, and they forgive and still love you if you accidentally step on their tail. So often, we can learn to be better people from non-people.”
Bartels believes she inherited her love of animals from her father, Rich, whom she said “grew up with dogs, is super into birds, takes wildlife cam videos of coyotes and deer in his backyard, and is always pro-getting any animal ever.” In contrast, her mother, Karen, “has bad allergies, is very fastidious, and is not down to share her home with a messy, shedding animal. So there is some tension.”
Because Bartels is more than a decade younger than her three siblings, pets were important companions during her childhood. This notion was reinforced through experiences with classroom critters at Lexington Montessori School, which she credits as the catalyst for the “insufferable campaign” she launched to adopt her own.
“I researched which dog breeds shed less, cut out a classified ad from someone giving away an iguana, and left letters arguing my case on my mom’s pillow until I eventually wore her down,” said Bartels, who progressed in short order from fish to birds, turtles, a tortoise, and Cairn terriers named Gus and Gwen. Today, she shares a menagerie with her husband, Richie, consisting of Seymour the chihuahua-pitbull mix dog, fancy pigeons Bert and Dan, Terrence the red-footed tortoise, and 15 African cichlids — a type of fish — all named Milton.
“Ironically,” Bartels noted, “my mom told me that she was initially hesitant because she worried how I’d take death.”
Like so many others, Bartels acknowledged that she was cautious to publicize her distress over dearly departed pets due to “disenfranchised grief,” or lack of societal support that causes people — even those grieving — to belittle losing “only” an animal. In fact, a decade passed between the time she first envisioned the book project while earning her MFA at Columbia University and the publication of “Good Grief.”
“I remembered how friends got excited about my pet stories like nothing else,” Bartels recalled. “I started doing some research, and from there I fell into a sinkhole.”
Bartels begins each of the eight chapters in the 249-page book with a personal account of losing a beloved member of her animal family before introducing various ways in which pets are celebrated, grieved, and memorialized. Her book spans pet death rituals from different historical periods and cultures, with added insight from veterinarians, archeologists, ministers, and even taxidermists.
In a chapter titled “Turtles & Taxidermy,” for example, Bartels laments a lack of closure from separate instances in which her turtle, Flower, and tortoise, Aristotle, escaped and plodded away into unknown futures. For similar sufferers of ambiguous loss and others, she describes an array of memorial methods and keepsakes including cloning, custom artwork, tattoos, quilts incorporating pet photo transfers, hand-carved headstones, knitted objects spun from pet fur, and a range of animal figurines, jewelry, and home décor with and without a deceased pet’s ashes.
Additional topics include celebrity pets, support animals, canine police dogs, grief experienced by pets that outlive their human companions, end-of-life choices, and the alarming rate of veterinarian suicide.
While Bartels acknowledges that not everyone can “understand what it’s like to love and lose pets, and that’s OK,” so many readers have reached out with their own pet stories that she is compiling them on Instagram @goodgriefpetsbook.
Their testimony is further proof to Bartels that there is no right or wrong way to grieve — just as there is no way to adequately explain why pet ownership is worth the exhaustive effort, myriad challenges, and inevitable heartache.
“Clearly, there is something so joyful and wonderful about having animals that outweighs how awful it is when they die,” Bartels said. “It is totally worth it. Pets just fill you up.”
For more information, including local book events, visit www.ebbartels.com.
Cindy Cantrell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.