From the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine
Coping with Guilt
Although the specific reason for feelings of guilt differ from person to person, almost everyone feels some guilt after the death of a pet. Most often, we believe we had more control over the situation than we actually did, and this is the cause of our guilt.
You might be thinking “I could have saved him if only I would have…,” or, you might be telling yourself things like “I should have picked up on my cat’s symptoms earlier;” “I should have gotten my horse to the vet sooner;” “I shouldn’t have let my dog eat so much;” or “I shouldn’t have given my bird that new toy.”
It is a natural reaction to grieve to try and make sense of why an animal dies, and sometimes we choose to put the blame on ourselves, even when we did everything possible to help our animals survive. Most people eventually realize that the death of their pet was outside of their power and that they were in fact a very positive part of their pet’s life.
In cases where a pet died as a result of an accident where a person who loved them was directly involved, guilt can (but does not have to) be overwhelming. However, it can still be worked through.
Guilt can hinder the grieving process and prevent healing from occurring. Therefore, it is vitally important for you to acknowledge your feelings of guilt, work through them, learn from the experience, and then move forward. Following are some thoughts on how you might handle your feelings of guilt in a healthy way.
If Your Pet Died From an Accident
- Do not focus on only one event that led to your pet’s death. Instead, think of those events as a puzzle for which your part was one piece. For example, suppose you let your dog out in the yard and she got outside of the fence and was hit by a car. You might think “If only I wouldn’t have let her out when I didn’t have time to be outside with her.” Perhaps you play that over and over in your mind and have convinced yourself that you are totally to blame for what happened. Try breaking the events down so you have a better understanding of your role. For example, did you have control over something attracting your dog’s attention so that she wanted outside of the fence? Did you have control over the fact that just at the time when she was out a car was coming? Or, that the person driving the car did not see her in time or was unable to avoid hitting her? Did you have any control over the extent of her injuries? You can apply this type of thinking to any situation where an accident was involved and hopefully you will begin to see that many events occurred that led to your pet’s death.
- Focus on your intent. Remember the love you had for your pet and that your actions were never done with intent to harm. Had you known what the outcome was going to be, would you have acted differently? We feel guilty after we know what happened and look back on the event. But when we are making decisions and doing things for our pets, our actions are based on the fact that we care about our pets. We cannot see into the future and know what is going to happen.
- Quality of Life. Remember that with anything we do there always is some risk involved. If we kept our pets totally protected at all times minimizing much of the potential for harm or accidents (we can never keep them totally out of harms way), what kind of quality of life would they have? A bird who is always inside the protection of a cage might live more years, but is that bird as happy as one who enjoys the freedom of knowing about life outside of her cage? Most pets enjoy running, jumping, and interacting with people and nature and need these types of experiences to maintain good physical and mental health. This in no way gives us the right to be careless with our pets but rather is an acknowledgement that accidents do happen, even when we are trying to be the best guardians possible for our pets.
- Express How You are Feeling to Your Pet. Many people find it helpful to tell their pets what it is they feel guilty about and to ask their pets for forgiveness. This also can be done by writing a letter to your pet. Some find it helpful to take this a step beyond their own feelings and to write themselves a response from their pet. This can help you to realize that your pet would not want you to spend your time feeling guilty over what happened. Even if you don’t believe your pet can hear you, it is an opportunity to express your feelings and to get some of the pain outside of yourself.
General Feelings of Guilt
- Guilt sometimes results from a need to “make sense” of death or to answer the question “why did this happen?” If there is no obvious reason for the death or when a pet dies unexpectedly, people sometimes blame themselves in an effort to answer the question “why?” They will say things like “I should have known something was wrong,” or “I didn’t take good enough care of my pet.” Understand that sometimes we never know exactly what happened that leads to a pet’s death and not all illnesses are able to be diagnosed. This does not mean that anyone is to blame; it merely indicates that the cause of death or the illness was not known.
- Talk to Your Veterinarian. Sometimes people feel guilty as a result of not understanding the events or illness that lead to a pet’s death. Asking your veterinarian for clarification on the cause of death can be helpful.