I love cats. Maybe a little too much. And while it hasn’t come up in any previous book reviews it is relevant to this one. I warn you, this is a bit of sad post.
This week I am reviewing a book called When A Pet Dies by an author you have likely heard about before: Fred Rogers. He often goes by the name, Mister Rogers. Yes, I’m a reviewing a book by the soft spoken, sweater wearing Mr. Rogers of PBS fame. I have four cats. Well, I had four cats. Now I have three. My friend for 16 years passed away last week after a prolonged struggle with kidney disease.
Her name was Samantha. And I knew it was coming but that doesn’t make it much easier. And it sadly isn’t the first cat I’ve lost. But it is the first cat that my 5 and a half year old daughter has lost. While we were nearing the end, I asked my veterinarian, Dr. E, what her advice was for dealing with grief and the loss of a pet when it comes to young children. I figured if anyone had experience with this, it should be a veterinarian. She pointed me to When A Pet Dies and mentioned it was by Fred Rogers. The name didn’t click for me at first but then she explained that it was the sweater wearing gentleman from the neighborhood.
After a bit of back and forth, she assured me that this was the book to read to my daughter, Lindsay. Well, I should trust the veterinarian right? So I ordered the book and had it in hand before any final decisions were made for Samantha. A few days later, I went back the animal hospital but this time not for book recommendations. Sadly it was time. My little feline friend stopped eating. Something I had never seen her do before. In fact, my little cat Samantha had one of the most voracious appetites of any cat I’ve had before.
My veterinarian was great throughout the process and made it clear from the beginning that I knew Samantha and so I knew when it was time. As a side note, (and I realize most people don’t live where I do) but if you are anywhere near Aurora, Colorado I highly recommend Dr. E and Parkside Animal Health Center. Because of how great they were throughout the process, because of how kind they were to my cat and for the book recommendation that made things easier for Lindsay for myself, I have to give them a plug. If you need an Aurora vet, please see Dr. E and her animal hospital team. They made the impossible, manageable. Because in a situation like this that’s really all you can do: try to manage.
Right away, I liked the book and knew it would be great for Lindsay. Hell, it helped me! Everything was very simple and basic (of course) but no punches were pulled. We are a secular family and so it was important to me to find a book that had a nonreligious viewpoint. I didn’t want anything even remotely religious either. Stories like the Rainbow Bridge (which is the story of pet heaven basically) cover up the reality of the situation. If you are raising a young skeptic, they will eventually call you on your stories. But even more important, a story like the rainbow bridge is basically like Santa Claus. While you can believe in the idea of heaven or some variation of it, for your entire life, you won’t believe in Santa Claus forever. So either commit to handling grief within your religious perspective or take a secular approach but creating a child specific version of either can be counter-productive in the long run.
This book does not do that. It gently and carefully tells children the truth. Your pet is gone. But your love isn’t. Its okay to be sad. These are all basic concept that we know but the book handles them in a way that anyone can understand. It also preempts many of the questions that children can have. As is so often the case, language is the barrier and this book gives parents and children a simple language to explain some very heavy concepts.
The Not So Good
The book could some updating from an aesthetic sense. The images are from the late 70’s and some of them will be considered too heavy for our current times of hyper political correctness. There is an image of parent digging a grave for their lost dog. There are images of veterinarians having serious conversations with an older cat in the exam room. All of this is real and all of this happens but if the book was printed today there would be a lot more cartoons and sugar coating. For some this is negative and others a positive. While I think there is little to sugar coat when it comes to death, I do think some lighter imagery would help kids related a little more. Black and white photos aren’t common but when this book was first printed it was the standard. These images can seem even more confusing to a young child who won’t’ understand why the photos don’t have color.
Others may be uncomfortable with how cut and dry the book lays it out. However, I don’t see this as a problem. The experience is emotional enough. My veterinarian (and various animal hospital staff) are some of the few people to ever see me really cry. I mean sob. Weep, even. The last thing I need is a book injecting additional emotional stress into the situation. When A Pet Dies keeps the conversation factual and almost unemotional.
Veterinarian Approved, Codices Endorsed
At the end of the day, I believe this book is well worth the time if you are going through the loss of a pet. It should go unsaid but realize this book is not a replacement for tough conversations. I would only even let my child see the book if she was old enough to process some of the pictures. The real value of the book is in giving you a language to communicate death to young children. Mister Rogers was the best at relating and communicating with young minds. This book is a tool that allows you to try and communicate powerful and sad concepts with the same grace and simplicity as the child television pioneer.
You can pick up When A Pet Dies and other books from Mister Rogers at Amazon.com.