LOSS AND THE BURDEN OF GUILT
 
Even if there is no basis for it, we often feel guilty for what we did or didn't do to save a pet from a terminal illness or accidental death. We really do assume a god-like role in our pets' lives, taking complete responsibility for every aspect of their care. When something goes wrong, it's only natural that we feel responsible for that as well.

Guilt is a normal response to the perception that we've somehow failed in our duties and obligations or that we've done something wrong. It generates a whole mixture of feelings including shame, inadequacy, insecurity, failure, unworthiness, self judgment, anxiety and fear of punishment.

If your pet is diagnosed with a terminal illness, you may feel guilty for not having noticed symptoms sooner. You may feel guilty about your decision to euthanize your pet, thinking you should have let your pet live longer. Conversely, you may feel guilty that you didn't euthanize your pet soon enough, thinking you were selfish in your unwillingness to let the animal go. If your pet was critically hurt or killed in an accident, you may feel guilty that you didn't foresee it or prevent it.

Know that guilt is a normal part of grieving. It's only human to dwell on the what if's and if only's: "If only I'd done something differently, this never would've happened." Yet it's probably safe to say that, when your pet's accident, illness or death occurred, whatever happened was not intentional on your part. You were doing the best you could and, given the information available to you at the time, you were doing what you normally would have done. Harsh as it may seem, consider that even if you had done things differently, your pet still could have died in some other way the very next day! Sometimes we act as if we can control the random hazards of existence, even when we know that death is a fact of life.

Healthy guilt allows us to own up to and learn from our mistakes. It gives us a chance to make amends, to do things differently next time, to come to a better understanding of ourselves, to forgive ourselves.

What You Can Do That Helps

If you find yourself saddled with guilt over the loss of your cherished companion animal, here are some things you can do to get relief:

 

  • Listen to the messages you give yourself (the should have's, could have's and if only's), and realize the past is something you can do absolutely nothing about.
  • When guilty thoughts come to mind, disrupt them by telling yourself to stop thinking such thoughts. Say "STOP!" firmly, and out loud if you need to.
  • Live the next day or next week of your life as if you were guilt-free, knowing you can return to your guilt feelings any time you wish. Pick a start time, and stop yourself whenever you make any guilt-related statements.
  • Write down your guilt-related statements, set a date, and pledge that from that day forward you won't say them to yourself anymore. Post them and read them every day.
  • If you believe in God or a higher power, consider what He or She has to say about forgiveness.
  • Participate in a pet grief support group - it's a powerful way to obtain forgiveness and absolution from others.
  • Be your own best friend. What would you have said to your best friend if this had happened to that person? Can you say the same to yourself?
  • Memorialize your pet so he or she won't be forgotten.
  • Have a visit with your lost pet - or have the lost pet write a letter to you. What would your pet say to you about the guilt and sadness you've been carrying around?
  • Ask what it would take for you to forgive yourself. Can you begin doing it? Say out loud to yourself, "I forgive you." Say it several times a day.
  • Remember the good things you did in your relationship with your pet and all the loving care you gave. Write those things down, hold onto them and read them when you need to.
  • Channel your guilt into a worthwhile project. If you've learned a lesson from this loss, you may want to share your newfound knowledge with other pet owners, so that other animals won't meet with the same fate.

Copyright by Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC    All rights reserved


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