If only…. How to deal with pet loss guilt
Something striking when one reads the many stories of loss on The Ralph Site Facebook page, and especially within the private Facebook group, is that – although the circumstances of each loss are different – guilt seems to be one of the unifying emotions.
Pet loss guilt is particularly present and overwhelming in the early days following a bereavement. It can haunt us, keep us awake at night, and turn every day into a living hell that taints the memories of our lost pet.
You’ve probably experienced it for yourself, the endless cycle of thoughts: If only I’d shut the door, if only I’d noticed the signs sooner, if only I hadn’t given him that treat, if only…., if only….
Then, of course, there are the relentless questions: Why didn’t I get a second opinion? Why didn’t I know that they can hide their symptoms? Why didn’t I push for an earlier appointment with the vet?
When it comes to the loss of a pet, there really doesn’t seem to be a circumstance where we’re immune to guilt.
If a beloved pet goes missing or dies suddenly or traumatically, we can tear ourselves apart with guilt for not having foreseen what would happen.
Euthanasia is fraught with guilt too. Was it too soon? Would they have had better days? Did we give up on them? These are all common questions. Many people say that they feel like they betrayed their pet by having them put to sleep.
Even if a pet passes away in their sleep at a grand old age, having lived life to the full, guilt still raises its ugly head, usually in the form of regrets - I should have spent more time walking her or I feel so bad for moaning about the toilet accidents he starting having or even I should have appreciated every moment.
Why do we feel such guilt around the loss of a pet?
Our pets are a lot like small children – in most cases, they are entirely dependent on us for food, shelter, companionship, and medical care. They might be able to show that they’re in pain but they can’t tell us the precise nature or source of the pain.
For these reasons and many more, it’s usual to feel a profound sense of responsibility for a pet. They don’t ask to come into our homes – that was our choice and, with it, a commitment to be their protector, their guardian, to always put their needs first. We must speak up for them, advocate for them, because they can’t tell us what’s right for them.
When a pet dies, it’s understandable that so many of us feel like we failed in our responsibility and are in some way irredeemable for it.
When pet loss guilt is a good thing
It may be hard to believe, especially when it feels like a weight you’ll never escape, but guilt does have a positive role to play in the healing process.
Guilt is about trying to make sense of a circumstance and understand why something has occurred.
In some pet loss situations, there are things we can learn through the questions our guilt forces us to ask.
For example, we might cover up electric cables in the future, having had a pet that bit through them, or we might replace the lock on the garden gate, having had a pet escape when the gate blew open.
Our guilt at not spotting the symptoms of a common illness might prompt us to find out more so that we notice early warning signs in our other pets.
These are all good things that can help us understand our pet’s passing and plan for the future.
When guilt becomes destructive
Unfortunately, guilt can overstay its purpose, a post-bereavement guest in your head taking up valuable space.
Guilt can make you feel like you’re stuck, reliving your loss again and again without reprieve, a scab that you keep picking at. And this can be terribly destructive.
Because of your guilt, you may decide you were a poor pet carer and that you can’t invite another animal into your home. Some people become depressed, isolated and lose confidence as a result of their guilt. Their appetite can disappear, while they struggle to sleep or want to sleep all day. Their relationships can suffer too.
Dealing with pet loss guilt
The thing with guilt is that it keeps you trapped in a past that you’re powerless to change. Many people find the following techniques help them to break the guilt cycle once and for all:
Above all, please remember that letting go of your guilt doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped caring for your pet. Perhaps you can see it instead as a way of honouring the love they felt for you? They wouldn’t want you to suffer.
Many people don’t have empathy for animals and the fact that you do is a special thing. Hopefully, you can embrace this and let go of your guilt for the sake of your pets, past, present and future.