Reagan Pasternak is one of my favorite actresses and human beings. You’ve seen her in many shows and films, like Wynonna Earp, Sharp Objects, Good Trouble, and a show loved by so many: Being Erica. I connected with Reagan this summer over her role on Disney Channel’s In a Heartbeat. I knew right away that she is a compassionate, thoughtful, and intelligent woman with a heart that cares deeply for others. I was delighted to talk with Reagan again this week about her new book, Griffin’s Heart: Mourning Your Pet with No Apologies. Out now, the book is an interactive grief guide for those who are mourning the loss of their pets. Reagan’s story is empathetically woven in between the meditations and exercises that she offers readers. For more information, visit griffinsheart.com and purchase the book on Amazon. Now, here is my conversation with Reagan!
Allison: This is so exciting because when we last spoke, you had just finished the book, and here we are, right upon its release. So how has that journey been, of seeing it through to this step?
Reagan: It is so surreal…It’s really amazing, actually. I just got all these photos of the book, and it looks so beautiful. They did such a beautiful job. The idea that this was just an idea, years ago, it was just idea, and it was born out of truth, out of my own sadness after my animal died. I felt very isolated, I felt shy to talk about it with people. And now it’s this thing. And all these amazing things are starting to happen so quickly because I’m seeing that it wasn’t just me. It’s a lot of people who felt this kind of sadness and a need for something, for an outlet for this kind of pain. So, I can’t believe that it’s actually a thing that is coming into the world. It’s just the weirdest thing. I guess everything starts with an idea, but it’s a real thing, and it’s a lot of work. It’s cool. It feels amazing, really. There’s so much energy behind it.
Allison: That’s awesome. And you’ve designed the book in a way that we learn your story of grieving Griffin, but then the readers who are grieving their own pets are given places to journal and reflect. So how did you arrive at this format that connects you with the reader in such a special way but still allows them to do what they need to do in this process?
Reagan: Yeah, when I first started writing the book, I just started writing out my own stories and my own ideas of what it meant to grieve in general, but specifically, an animal, of course. It started out just with me writing and writing. This book was living in me, all these stories were going through me. And then I kept thinking, “Oh God, who am I to write a book? That’s not me.” But it kept nagging at me, you know? I am such a bookworm. All I do is read. I’m just nonstop reading, reading, reading, reading. Subconsciously, things were influencing me. I read the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. That’s a part of my book now. I read all these books that had all these ideas. I read so much about music therapy, about grief, and about meditation. I started meditating about ten years ago and just found it so beautiful and helpful, and it really helped me with my anxiety because I had horrible anxiety. All of those things just started accumulating in my psyche and then, one day my husband woke up (I’m such an early riser) and he came out into the living room and said, “You need to finish that book.”
Ideas just flow to you when you want to finish something. I went through the steps of setting two hours a day minimum; if you’re getting stuck on an idea, move on to the next idea. I just committed for two years to doing all these steps. Amazing things started happening. I met an incredible editor who has her own New York Times bestseller and she loved the idea, and we just started working together. It just fell into place. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that happen to you, but the things that happen are just so cool. It was a lot of hard work, don’t get me wrong. But I just kept going, and most of it just flowed really well. I tried to get clear about my intentions, which were to be a friend to somebody who was having this kind of loss. I thought “how can I be a friend?” I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too academic or cerebral, the way I wrote it. And, as a friend, you listen. How you listen is, get them to write things, to contribute, get the reader to feel that you’re with them. Being silly sometimes, giving advice, and listening. So that’s what I tried to do in the book, I tried to listen, if you can do that in a book!
Allison: Well you definitely did that, beautifully. And there are so many wonderful artistic and spiritual aids that you just mentioned, like music therapy, art therapy, yoga, prayer and meditation. And I have anxiety, too, so I even thought that those breathing exercises you’ve compiled are great, as well. So I’m curious, What did you most latch onto out of all these great tools and exercises that you shared?
Reagan: Well, I definitely think that would have to be meditation because I think the more I learn about meditation, I realize it’s not just sitting cross-legged–that’s one way of doing it, that’s a great way to do it–but listening to music is meditation, kind of just going within yourself. And when you go within yourself, you can calm down and see things clearly. There are so many ways to do that, so I tried to go the traditional routes of meditation; we’ll put some up on YouTube before the book comes out. I’m so open-minded, I love learning about all religions, and meditation is scientifically proven now, how important it is to breathe and not get caught up in our thoughts, how good that is for our bodies. So, I would say meditation, but I think all the exercises. Journaling is also meditation. It’s all meditation, really. So that’s my answer to that.
Allison: I love that. And going back to the beginning of the book, you bring out the fact that grieving an animal, a pet, is very different from grieving a human loved one. But it’s no less important. It sounds like your visit you shared about with a psychiatrist helped illuminate your need to grieve Griffin properly. What did that feel like, when this professional person took you seriously and helped guide you to that turning point?
Reagan: It felt like validation. There’s this book called The Choice. It’s beautiful. It’s by Dr. Edith Eger. I’ve read it twice now because it’s so incredible. She says in her book, there is no hierarchy on grief. It makes me want to cry. This is a woman who survived the Holocaust. The point is, there is no hierarchy in grief. Your pain is your pain, and if you don’t honor it, it lives in you and becomes who you are. I want to take that and use it in a positive way instead of a negative way.
Allison: Of course.
Reagan: And for me, I lost my mom this year, which was horrendous.
Allison: Oh, I’m so sorry.
Reagan: It was really sad, but it does all tie in. You grieve everybody differently. You grieve every human differently, you grieve every animal differently. So, why wouldn’t you take it seriously if it’s hurting you? The truth is, with my mom, I actually did use a lot of these same exercises to work through it. And I just did a podcast with somebody who said that the book can be used for people too…You can use all the same things to explore how you feel. It’s just about exploring love, really.
Allison: Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it. And it’s beautiful that you then tell the reader, “I’m going to take you seriously, and your grief seriously.” And you’re even acting on that in another way, now that we’re so firmly into this an age of social media, you’ve used that tool to connect with other people who have lost their pets and miss them. So, what has that additional interaction on the Griffin’s Heart Instagram page added to this project for you so far?
Reagan: Well, that’s just beginning. We’re just setting that up with the book available in December, and I’m really hoping people use that. One of the [organizations that] received the book was The JAYC Foundation, for Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped for 18 years and has come out with an animal healing farm. So, she read it, and her mentor, who is a doctor, read it. And they want to form a grief group with me for people who have lost animals. We’re going to take this far and use the book for the curriculum for this grief group. If it can help anybody, if it can make anybody feel connected.
Allison: That’s such a great example of how it can be used. It doesn’t have to just be one person—people can talk about their shared experiences with it in that way.
Reagan: Exactly, and people are sending me their stories, so we’ll see what happens when it comes out. I’m hoping that people really do share, and I’m hoping that they send me their stories, their tributes. And we’ll post them, and I think it’s a way to commemorate your animal, your Being, as I call it in the book. So, I’m really hoping people take advantage of that, and that it makes them happy to have a beautiful tribute.
Allison: Of course. It’s like you’re building this big digital scrapbook for everybody. That’s awesome.
Reagan: That’s a great way to put it, a digital scrapbook! I’m going to write that down, Allison.
Allison: So in the past, you and I have talked about memory and nostalgia in terms of film and television, but memory and nostalgia are very real in a situation of grief, too. You encourage the readers to remember, to find actual pictures of their pets or Beings, the lovely term you bring into the text. And so, why is that bittersweet act of remembering, even if it’s a little bit at a time, so important here?
Reagan: Well, I think if there’s a theme in my book, it’s about allowing. And, if you’re resisting, “what you resist persists,” as Carl Jung said. By remembering and allowing, even if it feels like “ugh, I wanna run away from this,” you can’t run away from it. It is living in you somewhere. So if you can actually just get through it, and not resist it, you really do feel bigger and stronger afterwards. You know, there are painful memories that we have for everything. With my mom, my animals that have passed, I could just turn away from it and pretend that everything’s okay, but that doesn’t mean that it is okay. That just means that I am running away from it. And I think that if you can look at things in increments, you actually do heal. That’s the irony, if you can look at the pain and breathe into and know that it’s okay, and actually, it’s good. I don’t want to forget people or animals that I loved. I don’t want to. So, that’s what I would say.
Allison: Wow, that’s so beautiful, and that’s so true with anything you go through like that. It helps to have this design in those increments so that people can think about the feel of their pet, or as you mention in one place, the quirky things about that animal that stick in someone’s memory. I think all of those things come together in a really meaningful way for people.
Reagan: I hope so!
Allison: You really are the perfect person to write this book because you’ve thought of everything, even responses to people who just don’t understand the pain of grieving a beloved pet. I think that that’s a really great addition. So, what was it that led you to include human interactions where it’s not always the best, but sometimes it is?
Reagan: There were actual things that happened when I lost Griffin, and I didn’t even include so many other ones that left me feeling so misunderstood or so alone. I’m also an actress, I’m an emotional person, I’ve got this deep well of tears ready to come out. And so, for me, there were a bunch of things that happened. I realized, “I can’t talk about this with people, they’re going to think I’m a nut.” And also, “get a grip, there are problems going on in the world. It’s a cat.” That’s how so many people think.
And actually, now that I went through the biggest human loss I’ve been through with my mom, I think [with] grief in general, people just want you to get over it. They do not want to have to deal with it. And I didn’t know what that would be like for a person to lose their mom. I really didn’t. And many people, if they don’t love animals the way that I love animals, they’re not going to understand what it does to you to lose an animal. With the help of my editor…it just kind of came together. I thought, I’m going to make a little bit of a funny thing because we get so wounded by people’s responses. So, I tried to make it more lighthearted. Not everyone’s going to get this, and that’s okay. You know, you can think of something snarky to say back, but just be okay in yourself, and you know that some people really do get it. So you don’t have to worry about the other people who are going to say something that might be hurtful.
Allison: Right, and you have those great experiences where you share Erin Karpluk’s reflection, and you share your husband’s reflection. So it’s like you’ve got both sides. You have people who haven’t been through that, but then you include some really moving reflections from those who have. It opens up another use for this book—it’s a powerful way for people kind of like me, who have a more limited experience with pets, to better understand and support loved ones when they go through that grief process. So it introduces this whole new outlook for people who haven’t been pet owners, and that’s a huge testament to owning a pet and drives home the fact that that is such a gift. How do you see the book even drawing pet owners closer to their Beings through the interactive guide in that way?
Reagan: Again, just it’s allowing your pain to be there. I don’t like to say the word “closure,” because everyone has such a different experience. And you don’t need to have closure. That’s something that’s big. I think that everything you love, whether it’s your animal or your parent or your spouse or whoever you love, or your friends, every Being that you love, reflects something about them and reflects something about you and me and everybody. And I hope that this book brings more awareness about the reasons why we love something. And then on top of it, you can feel once you finish the book…I even have a pocket at the back where you can put more cards that people gave you. I wrote a little note that goes into every single book. But there are so many places where it really is a keepsake…You put it in a slipcase so that nothing will fall out. Anything you put in there will stay in there. Once you’ve finished, you can feel proud of yourself for honoring this little, or big, Being. You honored them in a world that keeps us busy and not really taking time to do those things. And I feel like that is a meditation. It actually can center us, and I think it can really help us, I don’t want to say spiritually, because I’m a spiritual person, not everybody is (and you don’t have to be to read the book), but it just helps you grow; your heart grows a little bit from doing those things.
Allison: That’s so true, and I love what you just said about how you’re putting together, remembering the aspects of a thing that you loved. To me, seeing the way that you describe that, and the way that you encourage people to think about that, that really makes me see the importance of this process for people who have lost their pets. But, also just the gift that it is to own a pet at all. I think it can be a way to encourage people who have never had that experience growing up, in adulthood even, to consider becoming pet owners, and learning to love a Being in that way. That’s kind of an interesting other side effect of it.
Reagan: Hopefully; yes, that sounds right!
Allison: Absolutely, well I’m so excited for you. Congratulations! It’s such a wonderful project, you must be so thrilled.
Reagan: I’m so, so excited, and I couldn’t do it without my husband, he’s the marketing, the brains behind pushing me to keep going with it. Yeah, we’re both really excited.
Allison: I’m so glad you did it, and I’m so grateful to talk with you about it.
Thank you again, Reagan, for sharing your heart behind this important book with us.
Visit griffinsheart.com for more, and see real stories of pet owners on Instagram @griffinsheartbook or on the book’s Facebook page. You can find Reagan on Instagram @reaganjpasternak.