‘Good Grief’ by E.B. Bartels


In her book, Bartels delves into her own experiences with pet loss and examines the bonds we have with our animals, the ways people mourn their deaths, and why we don’t talk more openly about the grief of losing our nonhuman companions.

Author E.B. Bartels with her dog, Seymour. Ben Heider

Excerpted from “Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter” by E.B. Bartels.

Fish & Fossils

Even before I had pets of my own, I loved animals. A sort-of-only child, with three half siblings a decade my senior, in a mostly childless neighborhood, I spent a lot of time by myself. I sculpted dragons out of Fimo clay, worked on my novel about an elf named Norman, and practiced Irish folk songs on the violin. I read a lot of books. I had imaginary friends. I spent hours wandering in the woods surrounding my house in Lexington, Massachusetts. I never got chicken box. And, while I grew to enjoy and cherish being alone, I still got lonely. So I turned to animals for companionship.

My first pets were classroom pets at the Montessori school I attended from preschool through third grade. There were hamsters, rabbits, parakeets, fish, two turtles named Sam and Ella (a pun that went over my head until I learned more about bacteria), a tarantula, and a pair of giant iguanas whose habitat spanned a quarter of one of the classrooms.

“Where are we sending her to school?” my mom asked my dad after seeing the iguanas. “The jungle?”

  • Q&A: E.B. Bartels on her book ‘Good Grief’

Dad shrugged. He thought the iguanas were cool. My dad has always loved animals — as a kid, he had been a regular visitor to the nature center in his New Jersey hometown, where he requested to hold and pet the tarantulas.

Mom, however, was a different story. I was born to a woman violently allergic to dust, mold, pollen, and anything with fur, feathers, or hair. She could be charmed by someone else’s puppy, but only if she’d taken ten to twenty Sudafed beforehand. Whenever I would return home from playing with one of my aunt’s dogs, Mom would either order me to remove my dog-haired clothes in the front hallway and sprint to my room to put on clean garments or make me stand very still with my arms in a T while she’d pat me down with long strips of Scotch tape. (Her first sticky lint roller was a game changer). I was annoyed by the process, but if this was the price I had to pay to roll around in the yard with my aunt’s golden retriever, Jelly Bean, it was worth it.

Because I felt comfortable around pets. I felt calmer. I didn’t worry about being awkward or saying something weird like I did around other kids. Animals just accepted me as I was. With pets, I could be alone without being lonely. And so of course I wanted animals around me at all times. I became desperate to have a pet of my own. I was determined to find a way around Mom’s allergies. I read every pet care book in the school library, wrote persuasive letters, casually left the D volume of our encyclopedia open on the kitchen table to the page with all the dog breeds.

But here’s the thing: Mom actually wasn’t resistant to having a pet because of her allergies. There are plenty of animals out there that don’t make her sneeze (fish, reptiles) — her allergies were a convenient excuse. Years later she would tell me that she stalled and evaded my pleas for an animal because she was worried about what would come next: as happy as having a alive pet would make me, she feared how sad I’d be when that pet, inevitably , died. Of course, as a kid I didn’t know that, and wouldn’t have understood even if I had. I just thought my mother was standing between me and the one thing that would make my life complete.

When my mother finally realized she wasn’t going to dissuade me, we started small. She said I could get a fish, and within seconds, Dad and I were driving to the pet store in Burlington. One fish eventually became two, soon there were red fish and blue, and in no time at all, a very large aquarium occupied significant real estate on our kitchen counter, complete with gaudy plastic plants and hot pink gravel.

I spent hours sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter, gazing into the tank. I pressed my nose against the glass; Sometimes I sat on the counter itself so I could be right next to the aquarium. Watching the fish eat and dive and dig and swim was better than any television I’d ever seen. I’ve since read studies that prove that watching fish swim actually lowers blood pressure and stress levels — in humans and in animals. One octopus at the New England Aquarium has its own pet fish in a mini aquarium next to its habitat. Octopuses are supremely intelligent creatures and need intellectual enrichment: puzzle boxes to unlock, glass jars to unscrew, and, apparently, fish to watch. Not so different from Little EB

There are also any number of stories about people suffering from depression or considering suicide finding a renewed sense of purpose and happiness when given a pet to care for. Heart attack patients who own dogs are more likely to survive a year into recovery than those who don’t; children who grow up in households with pets suffer less from allergies and asthma; dogs can even detect cancer cells through scent alone. Many therapists, too, have found that the presence of an animal in an office can help patients feel more relaxed and encourage them to open up more in sessions, especially when the patients are children.

This is why so many people are instinctively drawn to pets — they make us feel good. So it could be that in my hypnotized state, watching my aquatic friends swirl back and forth, I was self-medicating. Being near these animals — observing their behavior and personality traits, assigning them names, writing stories about them in my head, imagining conversations with them — was more exhilarating to me than participating in a T-ball game or any other “normal” activity. “Pets give us innocent dependence, companionship, and love,” writes Wallace Sife in his book The Loss of a Pet. “Above all, a pet is totally acceptable and nonjudgmental. . . Our pets become whatever we want them to in our lives and never seem to fail us. We judge ourselves by them. Their companionship gives us added stability and purpose and a sense of personal enrichment that defies description.” My fish gave me all that — that is, they did while they were alive.

But there was trouble in (fish) paradise. My parents had let me and my three older siblings each pick out a couple of fish to add to the tank, and the result was a disastrous mix of neon tetras, classic goldfish, territorial cichlids, and an aggressive betta. As much research as I’d done on proper fish care, I either had missed the chapter on species compatibility or just didn’t care — I was too excited to finally have pets.

Every few days, one of the smaller fish would mysteriously disappear as the biggest fish, one of the cichlids, seemed to become larger and larger. I called him Fatso.* “Fatso keeps getting bigger,” I’d observe in amazement to my parents as I checked on the tank in the morning before heading to Montessori, where my classroom pets awaited. But I can’t find that small guy again. He must be hiding.” Mom and Dad exchanged looks as I went on my merry way to school.

Despite my apparent oblivion, I did have a sense that something wasn’t right. A child can recognize death, even before she might have the words to articulate what’s happened. According to Dr. Allan Peterkin, professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Toronto, toddlers can sense stress and tension in family dynamics after a death has occurred, but they don’t understand its permanence. Children between the ages of four and six, when faced with a dead pet, often imagine that the pet is still alive somewhere else and maybe, just maybe, if they wish hard enough, it will return. But according to John W. James, Russell Friedman, and Leslie Matthews, authors of the book When Children Grieve, once kids hit age seven, they begin to grasp the permanence of death and get hung up wondering what happens to the body and soul of the pet once it has passed. Up until that point, there’s a whole lot of magical and willful thinking. As author Karen Russell wrote in the New York Times about the death of her childhood pet hermit crab: “I did not want to know what I knew.”

I, too, didn’t want to know what I knew: my earliest dead pets were victims of cannibalism. And so long as there was no overt evidence, I could continue on in ignorant bliss.

But then there was a floater.

* I had not yet learned about body positivity and fat-shaming.

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