Reviewed by Lisa Brown.
Early in September, a piece of my heart died.
My dog, Toby, my constant companion for more than 11 years, died from complications of a spider bite, despite antibiotics.
Late one night I went to check on him, only to find he’d passed away. He’d died quietly, and he’d died alone. Draping a blanket over him, then taking him for cremation the next morning was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Surviving the May 22 tornado and the ensuing chaos was difficult, but the loss of my dog has been devastating. For so long I scheduled my life around him, and I feel his absence profoundly.
Toby changed my life. Adopting and caring for that three-month-old Rotten Shepherd (his first vet’s fond nickname for my spirited Rottweiler-German Shepherd mix) gave me confidence and companionship. Training him in obedience and agility led to membership in a local kennel club, a new group of friends and an active hobby as a dog obedience instructor.
As he aged and developed serious health issues, my bond with Toby deepened. I bolted out of the bed in the middle of the night to care for him when he had an epileptic seizure. I spent much of my money on vets, special food, supplements and medications, going so far as to dispense weekly injections in his arthritic hips.
The last week of his life, I hefted all 80 pounds of him to his feet and carried him outside.
Toby was a playful, affectionate dog, but he was a challenge. Our early relationship was a constant tug-of-war, as I figured out how to manage my stubborn, dominant dog. I learned a lot about dogs — their care and behavior — from him, for which I will be forever grateful.
John Katz’s “Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die” was the proverbial albatross around my neck for a few months. I checked it out multiple times but quickly returned it. I was (and still am) grieving, and I couldn’t bring myself to read the book.
Then, with the end of 2011 looming, I finally opened “Going Home.” I read it straight through, and I cried the entire time. But I finished it.
Katz, the author of popular books detailing his life on Bedlam Farm with his dogs, has written a simple, compassionate book about mourning a beloved pet. Knowing that every pet, every person is different, he offers gentle advice and attempts to help readers put the loss, and their relationship to the pet, in perspective.
He is not a grief counselor, and he has not written an academic treatise on loss. Rather, he is someone who has lost animals whom he loved deeply and learned some lessons from those experiences.
The reason he wrote “Going Home” is because he had to euthanize his border collie, Orson, because the dog had become too aggressive to manage. Afterward, he suffered profound sorrow, the depths of which shocked him.
In the introduction, he describes climbing a hill on his farm to bury his dog: “Orson was the heaviest thing I have ever had to carry, in so many different ways. In that bag, with the limp body of my dead dog, I carried a piece of my heart.”
To process his loss, Katz began talking to other pet owners. He shares their stories, such as that of Harry, who gave his ailing dog, Duke, “one perfect day”: a hamburger and bacon breakfast, playtime with a dozen bouncy balls, a swim in a pond, a walk in a state park, a sirloin dinner and a cuddle on the couch. Duke was ecstatic, and Harry took photographs to accompany his memories of the perfect day he’d given Duke.
Katz covers such topics as guilt, helping children deal with loss, and how to talk to someone whose pet has died. He asks readers to consider whether they gave their pets a good life, if they served as their advocate, if they made the best decision they could in the end. He encourages talking to friends and, if necessary, a therapist.
“When a pet dies, we do have choices,” Katz writes. “We can grieve as long and as deeply as we wish or need to. If there is anything positive that comes out of the loss of a pet, it might be this: There are so many more waiting for you. The choice is yours.”
I take great comfort from that thought, and the entirety of “Going Home.” I’m not ready for a new four-legged friend yet. My heart still hurts, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss my Toby. But Katz has given me some things to think about, and that’s a start.