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:
  1. Spend some time with your thoughts – guilt tends to create repetitive thoughts, sending you down the same path time and again without hope of a new destination. For many people, a first step in breaking free of them is recognising guilty thoughts for what they are – a protective mechanism that comes from your brain trying to make sense of what has happened. It can be helpful to tell yourself, “These thoughts are natural. They – like me - are not all good or all bad. It is OK to think them but they aren’t the truth of my loss”.
  2. Choose to change direction – once you begin to recognise a repetitive thought pattern, it becomes easier to decide to think about something else, even something mundane like the ingredients of tonight’s dinner or your hour-by-hour plans for tomorrow. The key is to distract your brain.
  3. Challenge your negative thoughts with positive ones. As we’ve seen above, guilt tends to amplify all the times you feel you did something wrong as a pet carer. Yes, there may have been times when you didn’t go for a walk or you felt irritated by your pet, but there were good times too. How about a time when you spent hours walking through the countryside and your dog was beside himself with excitement? What about the many evenings your cat curled up in your lap or when you would cook them their favourite dinner? Those good, precious things happened too.
  4. Realise that your guilt is only a sign of how much you care. If you were really a bad person who let down the animals in their care, you wouldn’t be affected by guilt. You would shrug off their passing with ease. You only feel guilty because you love your pet. How wonderful that your animal had someone who loved them so much!
  5. Forgive yourself. Imagine a friend is telling you about the guilty thoughts you’re having as though the thoughts were theirs and not yours. You would be kind to them. You would show compassion and remind them of all the good things they did for their pet. Now is the time to talk to yourself in the same way. Your pet never thought in terms of blame and you never blamed them. You forgave them when they weed on your carpet or chewed the sofa leg. You forgave them when they ate your child’s birthday cake off the kitchen counter or when they accidentally head-butted you in their excitement for a cuddle. In turn, they forgave you when you accidentally stepped on their tail or took them to the vet to get their nails clipped. And they would forgive you now because they love you.
  6. Recognise that you can’t change the past. As I’ve said before, guilt keeps you trapped in a past that you can’t change. You could think these thoughts a million times and the outcome will never be different. That feels cruel and unfair but it’s true. Instead, you might want to think about how you could honour or memorialise your pet, or how you could give something back to other animals by adopting a new companion or volunteering for an animal rescue organisation.
  7. Talk about your feelings. The problem with guilt is that it often comes hand-in-hand with shame, which is a feeling that can hold us back from talking to others. Do try to talk to your friends and family about your loss. If that feels impossible or you want to talk to someone impartial, you might want to speak to a pet bereavement counsellor who is completely independent of your situation. If you still have questions about your pet’s passing, you can arrange to speak to your vet about your animal’s health and the decisions that were made. Many people find it helpful to talk things through when emotions are less heightened or urgent.
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.