“When I was little and didn’t have a sister yet, my best friend was a brown, wire-haired mongrel named Mitzi. We shared joyous times, exciting times and sad times. We got scared together when there was thunder and lightening, and together we crawled under the bed until they went away. When I wasn’t scared of them any more, Mitzi still was, so I comforted her and felt all the braver.
“When Mitzi died I was very sad, and so were my parents….My parents encouraged me to talk about how I felt, and they let me know that grieving was a natural, healing thing to do. In grieving, we try to fill the empty space that was created in us by the loss. Because of Mitzi I discovered it was all right to cry when somebody you love dies. I learned, too, that loss takes time to understand.”
So writes Fred Rogers, universally known as Mr. Rogers of television’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, at the beginning of his 1988 work When a Pet Dies, which is from his “First Experience” book series (Family Communications, Inc). The message is meant for the pre-school children and small school-age children the book is intended to reach, but of course it is also for the parents who will go through the book with their young ones in the wake of the loss of a special family member — the pet dog.
There are literally dozens of books about grieving over the loss of a pet — about how to do it, how to cope. It’s an industry unto itself. But Fred Rogers’ book, published almost 30 years ago, still stands out among other books on the same topic. No wonder The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books calls When a Pet Dies “both a sensitive and sensible first book about death.” And no wonder Booklist says the narrow paperback is “filled with warmth and reassurance.”
The book, even though more pictures than words, with just a line or two of copy on each beautifully photographed page, expresses a multitude of truths that are universally felt by dog lovers but perhaps rarely expressed. Through their expression, however, they can help a young child grieving over the death of a dog know that her feelings are okay. Among these truths: teddy bears get sick only for pretend so they don’t need doctors, whereas real animals do get sick and need medical help to help them get well; even pets who have had the very best care sometimes grow too sick, or too badly hurt, or too old, for anyone, even a vet, to keep it alive; it can be very hard when a pet you love dies and you feel that you’ll never stop being sad (but you will).
The book goes on to let children know that it’s okay to cry a lot and that’s it’s okay to feel angry and “wonder why such a sad thing had to happen.” It also makes clear that it’s okay to want to be alone for a while. It explains, too, the difference between dying and going to sleep and makes the point, in an age-appropriate way, that some people feel guilty that they didn’t do enough to keep their dog from dying even when there was nothing that could have been done.
In addition, When a Pet Dies points out that some people have a ceremony when they bury a dead pet “called a funeral.” Finally, Rogers articulates the fact that at some point, the good memories will take over for the sad feelings.
He never pulls punches, making clear that “sad times are part of everyone’s life” and that it isn’t always easy to talk about sad and angry feelings.
The author says at the front of the book that parents and their children are supposed to go through the pages together because the work was “created to encourage family talk.” He suggests that parents share their real feelings about a pet’s dying.
Rogers never refers to ideas about heaven or the afterlife or the “Pearly Gates,” as a number of other books on grieving over a pet do. Instead, he says that “as for what happens after death, I believe that’s best discussed in light of each family’s traditions and beliefs. Those traditions and beliefs are important things to share with your children if and when they ask!”
Rogers also uses photos of children and their parents from different races and ethnicities. It would be hard for a child to look at the pictures in this book and feel, “it’s not about me.”
Finally, he remind parents that “since all living things die at one time or another, I trust that this…book will be of service to you beyond the death of a pet.” It will.
✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ 5 stars. Highly recommended