When our pets die, no matter the cause, most of us feel some degree of guilt along with the intense pain of loss. People try to reassure us by saying what a great life our dog or cat had and what wonderful pet parents we were. But those words don’t really comfort us. How could they? We were responsible for everything in our pets’ lives and that profound sense of responsibility doesn’t just stop – even if we were powerless to ease their suffering or prolong their lives.
In our grief, we naturally think of all the things we could have or should have done to protect them. How could I not have noticed that he wasn’t feeling well? Why didn’t I check the gate twice? I should have made her an indoor only cat. I should have gotten a second opinion. What if he suffered because I waited too long to euthanize him?
We worry that we somehow failed them. And that thought can transform into a powerful sense of guilt, whether it’s rational or not. The dichotomy is that we wouldn’t feel guilty if we weren’t so loving and good to our animals; if we didn’t care so much. If you are caught in the throes of guilt, here are some thoughts to consider:
- It is normal to wonder if things might have turned out differently if you had only done more or tried something else. It’s also normal to second guess any medical or end of life decisions you made on behalf of your pet. If you are beating yourself up or agonizing over things that can’t be undone, a hospice social worker once told me something that may bring you some comfort: Any decision you made out of love was the right one.
- If you made a mistake or accidentally played a part in something tragic happening to your pet, try to see past your heartbreak to remind yourself again and again that none of us are perfect. Being a human means making mistakes. It’s not fair to judge yourself by using hindsight or thoughts and knowledge that you developed later. How could you know? If you loved your animal, you did the best you could at the time. If there was an accident, the very word implies something that happened unintentionally and unexpectedly. Since the circumstances were not viciously intended, is it possible to consider forgiving yourself? It probably won’t happen overnight but remember that your pet would forgive you in an instant.
- Forgiveness is an essential part of any relationship with a dog or cat. Think of the times you forgave your pet for scratching up the couch or chewing up an expensive shoe; even for peeing on the carpet. And think of the times your pet forgave you for showing up late or ignoring her or accidentally stepping on him. Treating yourself with the same degree of love, acceptance, and forgiveness your pet gave you will help you move forward and begin to heal.
- Guilt can enlarge the times you felt you made a mistake or did something wrong. Your mind may be filled with images of your dog’s sad face in the window when you drove away or the time you shoved your cat off your lap after being at work all day. Those memories cannot just be shoved away, but you can find balance by also remembering the warm, joyful, and loving moments you shared with your pet.
- How about all the nights your cat purred and purred while you stroked her and let her sleep right next to you in bed? Or all the days you took your dog to the park and threw a stick for what felt like a thousand times until he was finally exhausted with happiness. It can help to look at photos of your pet having fun or relaxing in your arms so you can more easily remember the good times and everything you did for your pet.
- If you are confused or lack information about what led to your pet’s death, you may inadvertently fill in the gaps with guilt. Did I do something wrong? Was it my fault? If you think you should have done something more, speaking to your veterinarian can help you understand the events, illnesses, or conditions that led to the death. That final conversation can be reassuring because it may help you let go of lingering doubts or guilt.
Remember that feeling guilt, regret, and self-blame are natural emotions after a death. If you loved and cared for your pet, be compassionate with yourself. None of us have absolute control over what happens. You took care of him the best you could. It can be helpful to talk with people who are understanding about your feelings of guilt and won’t try to sweep them under the rug. Find others who can listen and support you as you mourn the death of your beloved pet.