A Guide to Overcoming Guilt About Animal Loss

A Guide to Overcoming Guilt About Animal Loss

Getty/Yusuke Ide

Feeling the loss of a beloved animal companion and conflicted about their passing? Eight animal chaplains offer their wisdom.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,” suggested the French writer Anatole France. Or so the internet tells me. Anatole’s words have been plastered over every social media platform, but I’ve yet to confirm the original source of this wisdom. Regardless, the sentiment is tattooed on my left calf, a testament to the animals I have loved. In hindsight, the ink should say, “Until one has lost an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,” for it is in losing animals that my soul was wrenched wide open, over and over again.

Despite these painful losses, I keep inviting cats into my home to live with my husband Sean and me. I also form meaningful relationships with animals in the rural lands surrounding our house, as well as places where they are kept captive. Yes, I am an unrelenting animal lover. The flip side of that love is grief, which is what we feel when we’re not sure what to do with that love once an animal leaves their body. Over the years, I’ve written several articles for Spirituality+Health addressing different facets of healing from animal loss, including “How to Give a Furry Wake,” “4 Affirmations for Surviving Pet Loss,” “Tips for Helping Kids Survive Pet Loss,” and even practices for honoring roadkill and how to offer a funeral for a mouse.

But there’s a topic yet to be tackled that is perhaps the most difficult one: guilt. Research confirms what we already know: We can feel guilt for myriad reasons in our human-animal relationships, including guilt over how much time and attention we spend with an animal, the choice to leave an animal alone to go to work or take a vacation, or guilt about an animal’s physical health or medical issues.

Guilt related to animal loss is particularly acute, especially when we feel complicit in that loss. Our relationships with animals at the end-of-life often carry a burden that our relationships with humans do not: the choice of whether or not to euthanize. This choice brings with it a host of emotions both during decision-making and afterward. The guilt we can feel over this act is often unrecognized or unacknowledged. People trying to be helpful may try to offer words of solace, such as “You made the best decision you could, or “It was the right time.” And yet, in our gut we remain unresolved and feeling guilty.

What Is Guilt?

“Guilt is the unpleasant emotion associated with one’s behaviors, thoughts, or intentions, and it is based on the possibility that one may be in the wrong or others may have this perception,” offers the authors of “Disenfranchised Guilt—Pet Owners’ Burden,” a study published in the journal Animals.

Beyond just making us feel bad, guilt left unattended can kick off (or worsen) depression and anxiety. The authors of the study also note that guilt has been linked with compassion fatigue, burnout, and a decreased quality of life. On the flip side, an increasing body of research suggests that guilt can also lead us to actions that help repair situations that we might have been complicit in, leading to the healing of relationships. This process is sometimes referred to as “moral repair.”

Coping with Guilt

When we lost our cat Max, I was overwhelmed with guilt. He was such an amusing and active cat. Whenever he went bounding out the back door, every tree shook as squirrels and birds sought higher ground. He exuded joy and was always getting up to something. He even survived swallowing a threaded needle!

One day, Max didn’t arrive for dinner after repeated calls. When my husband went out to search, he found the cat panting heavily and unable to use his back legs. Sean transported him to our local vet, who administered an IV in the hope of promoting circulation. In the morning, grim faces on the veterinary staff led us to choose euthanasia. In the days following that decision, I pieced together what I think happened: Max may have jumped off the second-floor deck to get at a bird or squirrel on the hanging bird feeder, fell to the ground, and dislocated his pelvis after hitting a paving stone. It is possible that something else happened; our veterinarian could not give us a definitive answer “why.” Sudden hind limb paralysis can occur in cats for various reasons. But I still feel a gnawing sense that I created the conditions for his accident.

Admitting this to people was scary, and I felt vulnerable, but I needed to talk about it. When I did, the response was, “Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known.” This did little to assuage my guilt. What did help was learning a lot about animal paralysis and what I could do differently if this happened again. I researched rescues that accept animals with hind-limb paralysis who could have helped me learn how to attend to Max’s needs or might even take him in. I learned about wheeled carts and the amazing animal prosthetics created by Derrick Campana, the “Wizard of Paws.” I also pondered how to question how assessments of a “good quality of life” are made by looking at the intersections of animal advocacy and disability advocacy in Sunaura Taylor’s work.

In these ways, I repaired Max. Not physically, of course, but I repaired my relationship with the loss. I used it as a way to learn how to educate others facing similar situations. I can’t say that I overcame the guilt 100 percent. A hazy, tiny shadow of it remains, but I was able to move on.

Because guilt over animal loss can appear in so many different contexts, I recently asked some of my animal chaplain colleagues to share their own “guilty losses” and the actions they took to cope. Here’s what they had to say.

When You Feel Guilty About Making the Decision to Euthanize

I’ve facilitated an Animal Loss Grief Support Group for over a decade. Guilt, the tyranny of hindsight, is present at every gathering. I’ve also experienced it myself! When my senior dog Chewy unexpectedly quit eating (his favorite pastime) for many days, what helped me make the decision to let him go peacefully and live with the decision was emailing with my veterinarian.

Tearful and confused, I wrote: “Chewy just had a few sips of water on his own. Questioning my decision. Chewy doesn’t seem to be in pain … just not eating. Our hospice vet is coming tonight. I am a mess with this decision. Do you mind affirming this isn’t premature?” My beloved vet’s response soothed my soul then and many times since when I need reminding: “Pets mask their pain well, so it's extremely difficult to evaluate their pain level. I don’t think you’ve made a premature decision. Yesterday, I could see the emptiness in his eyes. I think Chewy will continue to decline—drinking on occasion but not eating. I know making these decisions is difficult. Even we ‘in the business’ greatly struggle. I hope this helps. Please give Chewy a big hug for me.” —Animal Chaplain Rev. Ginny Mikita, JD, Animal Blessings

When a Pet Is Attacked by Wildlife

Our blind companion beagle, Abby, was attacked by a mountain lion in our yard one night. We raced her to the 24-hour emergency vet to see if they could do anything to save her, to no avail. I was distraught, in tears for hours, and heartbroken. Abby was a very successful blind dog who knew our yard and home entirely, and we had never had a threat like this at our house. The guilt that came with the loss was unbearable for a long time.

What helped the most was giving ourselves time to grieve and also viewing pictures and videos of her enjoying her life. It reminded us that we’re human and we had done our absolute best to give her a good life. We also used this experience as a lesson about our habitat: We took our dog door out completely before our current beagle pair came to live with us. They are escorted for their outside visits day or night and seem to love the routine. —Animal Chaplain Jennifer Leigh Baker, Paws for Compassion

When a Pet Harms Another Pet

Living with gerbils as a child drew me to Timothy, a rescued adult gerbil, at the Boulder Animal Shelter. He was so small! Timothy came to live with Meeka (a dog family member) and me in the spring of 2018. One day, I accidentally left the door open to the area where Timothy lived in his home. I swore I had a heart attack when I found that Meeka harmed Timothy. It took time for me to transform my guilt and find peace. When shame, remorse, and many other emotions washed over me, I closed my eyes and counted while taking deep breaths. I focused on the numbers of inhales and exhales. This deep breathing got me through the really tough moments, such as when I asked myself, “How could I be an advocate for animals when someone was killed on my watch?” I brought myself back to my breath, slowing down and focusing on who I was with in that moment and how I could attend to their needs. My path looked brighter. —Animal Chaplain Alaina Sigler, The Night Sky Garden: Bereavement Care

When There Is No Diagnosis

My cat Becca began sort of wasting away when she was about 16 years old. Her whole body started getting stiff and hard, and she spent most of her time just resting. We had no way of knowing if she was suffering, and there was no veterinary diagnosis for what she was going through. It was as if we were just waiting for her to die. When her entire existence became sleeping and occasionally getting up and walking a few feet before laying back down, we made the heart-wrenching decision to have her euthanized. Becca's body was so weak that the vet had a difficult time finding a vein. I held her rigid body as she died. We immediately took her to the pet cemetery to have her cremated. The things that helped me during this time were holding her as she died and then sitting with her body as she was prepared for cremation, and assisting the person who created her commemorative paw print. I also prepared her favorite toy to travel with her to the next world. “Holding space” for Becca throughout all the stages of the end of her life was very comforting for me. —Animal Chaplain Kathleen Opon, Infinite Pathways

When an Animal Is Killed by Someone

I was raised in a violent home. My only confidant was my furry companion, Whiskers, a schnauzer. He came to me when I was six and was my sole support through years of fear. When I was 15, my mother raised a fist to strike me. Whiskers, leashed to a doorknob, lunged to protect me. He could not reach her. She lowered her fist, walked to the phone, and called the sheriff to have him kill “a dangerous dog.” She took Whiskers, and I never saw him again. For decades, I lived with the guilt of his death for “someone as worthless as me” (as I had been told). For the past five years, I have been chaplaining hurt souls, and I have learned that when people tell me their stories, it is not to burden me, but to be able to say out loud their anguish, to have their story heard. Through these conversations, I have learned how we all help each other and how, in this helping, we may sacrifice things important to us. I have learned to apply these lessons to Whiskers. He did not give his life for me to live in guilt. I healed by sharing his story. A year before I turned 70, I said his name out loud and finally did not weep. —Animal Chaplain Cheryl Sherman

When You Can’t Be with the Animal at Their Death

When my heart dog Maggie died, I felt incredible guilt because I was not able to be with her when she transitioned. I love her and will always miss her. Some days are still hard. What has helped me deal with the loss is acknowledging that it is okay to miss her and be sad sometimes. Where there is love, there will be loss, and it will hurt. That’s okay. I don’t let it overpower the compassion and dedication she taught me. I use my feelings to share about her impact on me, which helps others just starting a loss journey to see all the positives our animal companions have brought into our lives. In this way, I honor her and keep her alive in my heart while helping others focus on how blessed we are to have the ability to share connections with our non-human loved ones. —Animal Chaplain Michelle Tinkham, Dr. Tink Animal Chaplaincy

When You Struggle to Accept a Loss

Twenty-five days after my dad passed from congestive heart failure, my beloved dog went into cardiac arrest. It was almost sundown when he was rushed to the ER, his small terrier body shaking wildly, his gums turning blue. I knew this would be the end of little Bravo’s long life. The vet suggested keeping him going another six months with drugs, but all I wanted was to stop his suffering, so I made the difficult decision to have him euthanized. Bravo was buried in the moonlight under an olive tree. The next morning, I woke with horror in my heart and sharp grief. What. Just. Happened? I killed my dog! I went to his gravesite and sobbed and, in a primal moment of longing, considered digging him back up. Instead, I buried my face in his little dog bed to smell his scent. I went to his potty area and searched for his poop—looking for evidence of him, for proof he had been alive. I sought comfort that did not come. I felt rage that had no placement. I had guilt that consumed me. Then, I just decided it was okay to feel all the feels, and I asked Bravo for forgiveness. One night I had a dream; he appeared in full tail-wagging glory, whole and perfect, happy and free. —Animal Chaplain Diana Rousseau

What to Do After the Loss of a Companion Animal

Losing an animal can be difficult. Research suggests that one of the best things we can do to help ourselves heal is to talk with others. Talk to your friends and family. Reach out to an animal chaplain. Attend a free grief support group. Above all else, don’t try to go it alone. Help is out there.

Want more help for animal loss? Read "Attending to Your Pet’s Body After Death."

Overcoming Guilt About Animal Loss

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