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Coping with Guilt during Grief

“Was there anything else I could have done?” “Did I act quickly enough?” “Did I act too quickly?”

The pain of pet loss can be overwhelming. Sadly, amidst the grief, many pet owners can also find themselves experiencing further suffering by questioning or doubting their decisions. Even when it’s abundantly clear and medically warranted, deciding to say goodbye can be heart-wrenching and is almost never an easy decision. It can leave us susceptible to a world of ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ and pangs of unnecessary guilt.

Sometimes, once our special companion is gone, instead of focusing on all the love and quality we contributed to their life, we find ourselves second-guessing everything; struggling through the quicksand of self-condemnation. We may imagine what other course of treatment we could have explored or agonise over whether we should have waited a few more days? Conversely, we may feel guilty about not euthanising sooner, thinking ourselves selfish for being unwilling to let them go.

We might even find guilt about how we behaved while out pet was alive. “If only I had spent more time with him”, “If only I had given her more attention”, “if only I hadn’t been so busy”. Whilst some level of guilt is normal, unhealthy levels of guilt or prolonged guilt, is never beneficial.

Even the most responsible and doting pet owners can find themselves engaging in self-blame. Grief is a process, and everyone recovers from loss in their own ways and in their own time. Here are some of our tips if you find yourself struggling with guilt over the loss of a cherished pet.

Psychologist Laura Grace, from the University of Queensland Psychology Clinic says, ‘it’s important to avoid thinking that involves words such as “should”, “could have”, or “what if””. She says to keep in mind that we all have these kinds of unhelpful thoughts from time to time, but you can choose to not give them more attention or power than they deserve. Go easy on yourself and stop the critical self-talk. When you feel negative thoughts creeping in, break the cycle by telling yourself stop. These thoughts are not a good use of your energy and are not helping anyone. Instead, try and reframe your self-talk and stop mentally rehearsing the guilt. Treat yourself with the same degree of love and acceptance your pet gave you and you gave them. Practice forgiving yourself and ameliorating the feelings of inadequacy by focusing on the good times you shared with your pet and the positive things you did for them. It may even help to imagine or write down what your pet would want for you or say to you. Very often this wouldn’t be critical, it would be about appreciating the care and love you gave them throughout the years. You could even try imagining what you would say to a friend who is going through this and direct that towards yourself.

Another tip, reach out. Externalising your thoughts/feelings with someone supportive can help provide an objective view and a healthy outlet. Speak with a supportive friend or family member about how you’re feeling or even seek out a grief counsellor a support group that specialises in pet loss. Another thing some owners may find reassuring is to speak to your veterinarian if you have unanswered or enduring questions about your pet’s condition and the decisions that were made.

Remember, above all, that you were doing the best you could under the circumstances and given the information and resources you had at the time. You are only human and cannot control or know everything. The reality is your compassionate courage on behalf of your friend has been a merciful end to their suffering, despite the pain it causes you in having to say goodbye and make the hard choices. Euthanasia is known as ‘the good death’, it’s about a final act of love and grace to a pet that is lacking the quality of life they deserve to have.

Feelings of guilt and grief are normal, but not without an end. However, keep in mind that long term distress is a sign to seek professional help. Remember too, that acceptance does not mean you are ‘over it’ and releasing the guilt doesn’t mean you don’t or didn’t care deeply about your pet.

For additional support, please feel free to contact the team at info@sunsetvets.com.au or 1800 368 763. We offer complimentary grief support sessions through the University of Queensland as well as private grief support counselling sessions. View more information on the services we have available.

Sunset Vets Palliative and End of Life Care

Sunset Vets is a dedicated end-of-life and palliative care service for pets. Our veterinarians are available to support families with in-home care 7 days a week by prior appointment. Get in touch for more information about how we can help.