Anyone who has ever loved and lost a pet will find comfort in Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter. Part memoir and part reportage, the book recounts the author’s personal history of loving (and losing) pets of all kinds while weaving in fascinating, arcane animal facts and fun tidbits about famous animals, from Man ’o War to Mariah Carey’s cat Clarence.
E.B. Bartels ’10, whose own menagerie has included dogs, birds, fish, and tortoises, makes the case that “grieving pets is a disenfranchised grief,” because there is no accepted form of mourning a pet, as there is with a human loss. (Though, to be fair, there are lots of books on the topic.) To understand her own animal losses and to feel less alone in her lingering grief, Bartels investigates the various ways people throughout different cultures and times have memorialized their beloved pets. Apparently, in ancient Egypt, entire families would go into mourning when a pet cat died, even shaving their eyebrows out of respect. (Who knew?) Then there are those who go to extremes to preserve their pets … literally, via methods including taxidermy, cloning, or even freeze-drying.
Delving into the sociological, cultural, and even economic aspects of pet ownership, Bartels visits pet cemeteries, horse farms, and veterinary offices, where she meets fellow animal lovers. In her quest to understand the deep connection people have to their animals and the many ways they cope with animal loss, Bartels interviews archaeologists, ministers, and veterinarians, as well as friends and family members.
For a book about animal loss, it’s a surprisingly breezy read, filled with sweet anecdotes of pet-human bonding and insight into the variety of ways people mourn their pets. Bartels weaves in tender stories of growing up as a mostly solitary child with much older half-siblings in an Italian-Irish Catholic family in Massachusetts.
Toward the end of the book, Bartels recounts the heartbreaking story of Zoe Mungin ’11, who died of complications from COVID in April 2020. Zoe was one of the moderators of a Facebook group for pet-obsessed alums, called Wellesley Wags and Whiskers, where she’d regularly post about her two pit bulls, Rosie and Bandit, and later her cat, Luna. During her illness, the Wags and Whiskers Facebook community offered to send food, money, and even dog toys and cat treats. When Zoe passed away, Bartels was comforted to learn that Zoe’s extended family had gladly inherited her beloved pets. As she writes, “when we miss a human, inheriting their beloved pets can carry that person—and our love for them—forward,” identifying yet another way that pets add meaning to our lives.
Bernstein is a writer-filmmaker based in Portland, Ore. She is the author of How to Be Golden: Lessons We Can Learn from Betty White, among other books.