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March 30, 2015

John W. James: Grief Guru to Bereaved Pet Owners



If you live with a pet that you love, there’s no getting around this grim reality: At some point, that animal is going to die, probably leaving you enormously sad, possibly leaving you downright heartbroken.

Hey, thanks so much, Captain Bummer!

I know. Sorry.

But in some ways, it’s just math. Ugly math, maybe. But math, nonetheless.

In very broad strokes, let’s say a dog’s life expectancy is around 10-12 years, while the average cat usually lives a few years longer.

Of course, humans can expect to hang around on the planet six to seven times that long, so many of us are likely to lose animal family members at least a few times before we ourselves shuffle off this mortal coil.

So, that amounts to more than a little animal loss in a human lifetime. Which brings us to more math. More ugly math.

It turns out an estimated 43 million people in this country grieve each year over the loss of a cat or dog. When you add the deaths of exotic pets and other animals, that figure rises to upwards of 63 million new pet loss grievers in the U.S. every year.

Yikes. That’s a lot of loss. And a lot of grief.

John W. James talks Grief Recovery

But, frankly, when we’re devastated by the loss of a beloved pet, we’re not all that interested in the population size of our fellow grievers—we’re concerned with the size of our sadness.

And how to chisel away at that sadness so that we might one day feel better.

John W. James can assist with the chiseling. He can help you shake off that profound anguish.

Founder of the Grief Recovery Institute and co-author of the recently-published The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss, James has been helping people for the better part of 40 years convalesce from the disquieting emotional gut-punch of loss.

Grief isn’t typically a field that people pursue as a career path, and, sure enough, James didn’t exactly arrive there by design.

“What is true for me is true, I think, for everyone working in this area,” he explained in a January 14 interview on Talking Animals. “And that is it’s not an intellectual decision that you make. I mean, you don’t wake up one morning and think ‘Grief, what an idea—I’ll devote 40 years of my life to it.’

John W. James: ‘We discovered that The Grief Recovery Method, the process of completing that which is emotionally unfinished at the time of the loss, works for all loss. And it works for all people.’

John W. James: ‘We discovered that The Grief Recovery Method, the process of completing that which is emotionally unfinished at the time of the loss, works for all loss. And it works for all people.’

 “What happened is that I had a son die, in 1977. And following that loss, I was dumbfounded at the way my wife and I were treated. Things that people said that seemed to be insensitive, or off topic, and that kind of thing.

“So I did a whole bunch of research, and back then research meant getting in the car and driving down to the library and digging around in dusty stacks and so forth—because there was no Internet or any of that.

“So quite by accident, or trial and error, I discovered a process that helped me to feel better. Never dreamed that it would be of any value to anyone else.

“And now, 37 years later, and six continents later and five books later, we discovered that The Grief Recovery Method, the process of completing that which is emotionally unfinished at the time of the loss, works for all loss. And it works for all people. We’re really thrilled about that.”

Of course, in recounting his life story in detail, it turns out it was hardly a hop, skip and a jump to travel from the paralyzing pain of losing his son to being “really thrilled” about devising a method to help others free themselves from similar pain.

James recalls that when he began the journey, he was just careering around, so blinded by emotional agony (“I really got started in trying to feel better myself, to keep from ending my life”) he was just experimenting with any number of solutions he researched—anything to keep moving toward relief.

A guiding principle, then and now, is his firm belief that growing up, we are not taught how to cope with loss—“we aren’t given the tools.” So he zealously studied all the pertinent data available at the time, and fashioned his own tools.

John W. James and Russell Friedman discuss the Grief Recovery Method. Mr. Friedman is executive director, The Grief Recovery Institute and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook

Having eventually landed on a set of solutions for himself, he could have exited from that path, but chose not to. A friend told him about a couple whose child had just died, asking if James would speak with them.

He did. More people with similar circumstances knocked on his door. “Within the next year and half, it got to the point where almost 50% of my day was spent talking with people who had been sent to me,” he said.

“That’s when I thought, ‘Well, there’s a lot of people out there who are hurting, so maybe I can get busy helping them. It’s interesting: helping people is very compelling. The rewards to you, as an individual, are enormous…. I can remember thinking, ‘What is my goal here?’ And the goal was to deliver grief recovery assistance to the largest number of people, in the shortest period of time.”


Hence, The Grief Recovery Method, The Grief Recovery Institute, The Grief Recovery Handbook—now approaching the 30th anniversary of its initial publishing. Hell, the Institute’s website offers 30 years worth of articles, interviews and other material that anyone can access. In that sense, James has furnished a gigantic, online “tool” belt.

So, with all those resources directed toward countless folks in the throes of grief (the Institute not only helps people coping with loss, but also offers training programs whereby attendees become grief recovery specialists), it feels almost inevitable that James and two co-authors have now published The Grief Recovery Handbook For Pet Loss.

The book is a helpful and fascinating guide in all kinds of ways, including its double-barreled myth blasting. More specifically, the Handbook repudiates several notable notions we have learned early in our lives when dealing with loss.

I was particularly struck, for example, by the “Just give it time” myth. Although I’ve never absorbed the idea phrased quite that way, I have embraced the conviction in dealing with loss of both humans and animals that time is an ally, time will help heal, etc.

And over the years, I’ve counseled many bereaved loved ones with these and comparable adages. In our Talking Animals conversation, I explain all this to James and ask him to clarify how such beliefs about the healing value of time are wrong—why they constitute a grieving myth?

“What it is, is half of the information,” he said. “Let’s say that this morning, you walk out of the radio studio and the left, front tire of your car is flat. Would you sit down on the curb and just wait for time to put air back into your tire? And the answer is: ‘Of course not.’

“You’d come out and within time, you would take action to solve the problem. You’d open the trunk and get out the spare. Or you’d call the auto club, or whatever. But you’d be taking appropriate action within time.

“Recovery from loss indeed takes some time. But it isn’t the time alone that helps you—it’s the actions you’re taking within time. Now, when we say to someone, ‘Oh, just give it some time,’ the thing that happens most is that memory fades. So they indeed appear to look better, they sound better, that kind of thing.

“But inside, that kernel of sadness is still there. And it negatively affects future choices and future decisions. I forget the most recent statistic, but pet owners who have the death of a pet, close to 60% of them never get another pet. It’s not because they stop liking pets. It’s because the thought of having another pet brings them all the pain that is unfinished from the previous one.”

Which directly brings us—at least for that other 40%–to another grieving myth addressed in The Grief Recovery Handbook For Pet Loss: Replace the loss.

Even though I’ve personally sidestepped this response to the death of a pet, I recognize that it’s common for people who lose an animal on a Monday that, by that weekend, they’re at their local shelter picking out the new cat or dog.

To the people taking these steps, it‘s a perfectly good solution, and to me, it looks well meaning—a reasonable bid to ease the pain and restore an animal presence to that household.

At the same time, from here, it also looks like folly, an impatient misstep.

But when faced with similar circumstances, I’m not sure I could articulate precisely why it seems a mistake, why it seems to be moving too fast.

To gain a nuanced understanding of these matters, who ya gonna call? That’s right—Mythbusters!

“When we are grieving—we’re grieving the end of an emotional relationship,” James pointed out. “And no two are the same. So every relationship is unique. Therefore, every griever is unique.

“So let’s say we have a family where a dog or a cat or a horse dies. It affects everyone in the family, but differently. Because their emotional relationship was unique.

“Now when we Replace The Loss, I’ve even seen people go out and get the same breed of dog, and get a dog with the exact same markings, and so on. And they’re trying to replace the relationship”—James laughed heartily here—“and that can’t be done.

“The most important issue is that ‘I must grieve and complete what is unfinished emotionally in the relationship, before I go get another pet.’ In other words, you can’t say hello to the new until you first say good bye to the old.”

‘A magical creature’: the Strauss family’s beloved Curtis, RIP

‘A magical creature’: the Strauss family’s beloved Curtis, RIP

This sounds highly reasonable. It also resonates in a newly poignant way: While I was in the very beginning of writing this column, we lost our beloved cat, an impossibly sweet, orange tabby named Curtis. (Curtis was a girl. It’s a long story.)

My wife and I are crestfallen—Curtis was truly an extraordinary animal. Lots of people think their (insert one: dog, cat, horse, bird, etc) is special, but if you spend enough years with enough animals, you realize that not every animal is special. Not by a long shot.

In fact, we have some other animals currently living with us who underscore the point that many animals are decidedly not special. Indeed, in introducing a tribute to Curtis I broadcast on the first Talking Animals after Curtis died, I noted that there a couple of our current cats that in no way should ever expect a comparable on-air remembrance…

But from her beginnings as a feral kitten who wandered into the garage of our house in Costa Mesa, CA, some 15 years ago, Curtis was always a magical creature.

Magical, how?

In ways too numerous to mention, but including her unusually kind and compassionate personality (when our son was a baby, Curtis alerted us when he was experiencing even the slightest distress; we called her Nurse Curtis), to the profound connection she forged with my wife—Curtis slept next to her head every night for 14-plus years—and a purr that was so ridiculously loud that one time when Ozzy Osbourne was visiting, he asked us to please turn down the cat.

The sadness and pain of Curtis’ passing has been magnified by it happening totally unexpectedly.

Now, this may land a little higher up on the touchy-feely scale than I typically register, but I can’t help but wonder about the timing here.

I mean, I’d listened to and transcribed my interview with James, had spent time flipping through The Grief Recovery Handbook For Pet Loss and re-reading certain passages, and had just started writing this column. And—boom!—Curtis is gone.

Still, even if this constitutes nothing more than sheer coincidence, I’ve taken great comfort in James’ words.

For example, there was this moment in our Talking Animals conversation when he was explaining why the loss of a pet can feel like a Manny Pacquiao punch in the gut by way of observing why we connect so powerfully with our animals in the first place.

“This goes way back to the ‘90s. One of the things we tried to research, which is impossible to do, so everything I’m about to tell you would fall into the area of anecdotal research—which, sometimes, I think, is the most valuable, actually. But one of the things we discovered is that the most honest emotional conversations that take place in the world, take place between a pet owner and their pet.

The Grief Recovery Method Outreach Program explained, including testimonials from alumni

“And then the question is: Why is this true? And it is because pets don’t judge.

“I mean, if you came home today, and you’d had the worst day of your whole life, and you walked in the house, the dog wags his tail, licks your face and starts to negotiate a place at the table for dinner.

“Now, the next day, you come home, it’s the best day you’ve ever had in your whole life, and you come home and what does the dog do? Wags his tail, licks your face and starts to negotiate a place at the table for dinner.

“Not one time has your pet ever looked at you and wagged its finger at you and said, ‘Oh, you should have done better. Oh, you should lose that 15 pounds. Oh, you’re just so silly.’ They are the safest emotional place in our environment.

“And the problem is we kind of forget to tell them the truth about what they’ve meant to us. And then it’s only after the loss that I begin to think, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done this differently, I wish I done that better. I wish I had known more,’ and so on. And those are the kernels of incomplete loss.”

Fortunately, I think there’s very little second guessing of that kind when it comes to Curtis. We treated her like a queen, and gave her a damn good life. We just wish it were longer.

We also wish we weren’t feeling so heartbroken and raw. All sorts of friends have called and written with lovely, often soothing condolences.

Some friends and acquaintances have sought to do the same, but were clearly wobbling around on unfamiliar turf, saying some awkward things–one suggesting that we’d feel better as soon as we got a new orange cat….

These comments have triggered multiple echoes of something James pointed out at the end of our interview that struck me as quite wise then, and hits me as even wiser now.

“The worst thing that you can possibly say to someone is ‘I know how you feel.’ Let me give you a tip,” he said.

“The next time you run into someone who’s had a pet die, say instead, ‘I can’t imagine how you’re feeling,’ and then close your mouth and open your ears. And they will tell you exactly how they’re feeling.”


Click here to listen to the Talking Animals show featuring Duncan’s interview with John W. James.



About the author: Duncan Strauss is the producer-host of Talking Animals, which he launched at KUCI in California in 2003, combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy. The show has aired since late 2005 on Tampa’s WMNF. Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, an as yet unverified claim.

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