Every day, the topic of guilt comes up in my conversations with clients. Guilt is also a common theme explored by many people who attend our weekly Pet Loss Support Group. As a grief counselor and someone who has grieved the loss of my own animals, I find that guilt is an incredibly common experience for so many people. So, why do so many grievers feel guilty when they lose their beloved animal?
Before we explore why feelings of guilt can be common, let’s first look at the definition of guilt. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language defines guilt as “remorseful awareness of having done something wrong”. Guilt is an emotional and cognitive experience stemming from the perception (real or imagined) that one has committed a moral offense or violation, and therefore has a feeling of responsibility and remorse for the violation. Perception is important, because this can be the sticking point when it comes to grief. It is also important to understand that guilt is a different emotional experience from other common grief reactions such as shame, embarrassment, regret, and anger.
We refer to guilt in grief as the “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda’s”… “I could’ve done a better job…why didn’t I see the signs?”, “I should’ve known something was wrong with her”, “If only I knew, I would have taken him to the vet sooner”. The list of all the things we either feel we didn’t do well or think we did wrong can go on and on. The guilt loop can feel like a heavy burden and can quickly turn into a self-defeating, self-destructive, consuming cycle that keeps us stuck and doesn’t help us at all (in fact it hurts us) in our healing journey.
So, why might we experience the “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda’s”…?
We want order and control. The idea that life and death is random and outside of our control can throw us completely off-balance. It can create an experience so acute that it feels unbearable and we don’t want to linger in it. Without this, we have to accept that the universe is unpredictable and chaotic and that no matter what we do, we really don’t have as much control as we think we do. So we analyze, search, and sift out piece by piece…trying to make it fit and put the broken pieces back together. We are desperate for it all make sense. Sometimes a perception of control is easier to deal with than the acceptance that we have no control.
When we hold onto to guilt we have hope that maybe we could have controlled the outcome. A perception of control can be more comforting and reassuring than considering (or accepting) that we really did not have control, or we had limited control.
Grief is messy. Grief does not follow a linear and clear line. Despite societal myths, there are no set “stages of grief”. Grief does not follow an orderly, set pattern and it is a unique process for each person. Because of this, many grievers feel like they are “going crazy” through their waves of emotions. Grief is not solely an emotional experience – it impacts us on a cognitive, psychological, physical, behavioral, social, and spiritual/existential level.
It is devastating to accept the loss of our animal and adjust to a new world without him or her. We can find ourselves dissecting every single moment with them…focusing on the last months, weeks, days, hours because those are the most fresh memories. There can be fear that if we let go of dissecting those memories, this means we will let go of them (which is not the case). Over time as we heal on our journeys, we remember our animal’s last moments along with so many other meaningful memories. We honor their death, our shared bond, and their entire life with us.
Hindsight bias. We have all heard the phrase “hindsight is 20-20”. As we look back on our experience, we are biased because we know the outcome now. But remember, we didn’t know and could not have predicted the outcome then. We did the best we could with our capacity, knowledge, information, resources and treatment options available to us at the time.
Our animals cannot tell us how they feel in the same way as human beings. One of the most beautiful and rewarding aspects of our relationships with animals is that they tend to be less complicated and can feel more unconditional than our human relationships. Humans in our lives can communicate with us verbally by telling us how they are feeling. Our animals speak to us in their own beautiful language, which is both rewarding and challenging when we are faced with making treatment decisions on their behalf. We know our animals better than anyone else…we know their personalities, behaviors, and routines. We are their best advocates, their messengers. This is both a gift and a responsibility that can leave us questioning our decisions around their care. Each situation, just as each animal, is unique. Trust yourself. Forgive yourself and know that you did the very best you could with the information and capacity that you had at the time.
We feel we don’t have enough information (medical or otherwise) to find meaning-making. Meaning-making and our narrative (our “story”) is very important to moving through our grief process, growing and developing continuing bonds with our animal. We may find ourselves sifting through the medical information and searching for clear-cut answers…for many this is where we can get stuck in the guilt loop. Meaning-making not only applies to our animal’s death, but also his or her entire life with us. It helps us find an enduring connection with them while we adjust and embark on a new life. Death does not end your relationship and connection with your animal, it changes it.
What can help us navigate and move through our guilt?
- Acknowlege it. Acknowledge and normalize for yourself that guilt is a common grief response and a part of your current process.
- Focus on the positive. Focus on the positives of the relationship. Think about (or write) what you are grateful for, the lessons you learned, and the gifts your animal gave you. Memorialize and honor your animal in ways that are special to you.
- Realize that when the death occurred, you were doing the best you could and likely doing what you would normally be doing. Re-frame it for yourself, such as “I was doing the best I could at the time” or “Even if I had done things differently, he or she still could have died” (remember, you don’t know the outcome of a different path taken because you cannot possibly account for the factors leading to any given outcome).
- Focus on what you can control and work to let go of what you cannot. You can control you and how you choose to respond to your grief. You cannot control what has happened (the past) or what will happen (the future).
- Work on identifying, reducing, and eliminating self-punishment. Write out or verbally ask yourself: “How have I punished myself?”, “For what reason am I punishing myself?”, “Am I willing to let go of some or all of the self-criticisms?”
- Examine your self-talk. Replace statements like “should have” or “should not have” with “What can I do now?” or “What do I have control of now?”
- Give yourself a “break” or “vacation” from your guilt, knowing you can pick it back up anytime you want. Pick a date and commit to it for a certain time frame (e.g., one day or one week). If you find yourself feeling guilty or saying guilt-statements to yourself, hit the “pause” button and say to yourself “that’s it, I’m letting this guilt go right now”. Be kind to yourself, and provide self-praise for the work that you are doing.
- Do something active or expressive with your guilt. Physical or expressive activity can help release stuck feelings from the body. This can be in the form of physical activity, exercise, art, photography, music, or writing.
- If you are spiritual or religious, have a conversation with your higher power.
- Use the “best friend”approach. Imagine your best friend, rather than you, is in the same situation. What would you say to him or her? Now take those same words and apply them to yourself.
- Have a conversation with or write a letter to your beloved animal. Say or write – “What do you have to say to me about the guilt that I’ve been carrying since your death?”. Imagine what he or she would say. Listen.
- Practice self-forgiveness. Ask yourself “what would it take for me to forgive myself?”. You can ask this question again and again, as needed. Self-forgiveness is truly at the heart of working through one’s guilt.
- Ask yourself – what is my guilt teaching me?
Lastly, I want to share with you the following excerpt from the book: “The Legacy of Beezer and Boomer: Lessons on Living and Dying from my Canine Brothers”. As you read this, consider…if this letter was written from the perspective of your beloved animal, what would he or she say to you?
Please know that you are not alone in your grief. Many people can experience confusing emotions such as guilt, regret, anger or shame during their grieving process. If you find that you are having a challenging time working through your feelings please contact us. We are here for you. Our Pet Loss Support Group runs every Thursday evening from 6:30 – 8 pm, and I offer grief counseling for individuals and families.
Take Good Care,
Rachel Wright, MSW, LSWAIC, CDP
Veterinary Social Worker