Article by adjunct faculty, Dalma Heyn, Pet-Loss Grief Specialist, Psychotherapist
“If I hadn’t taken Scout on that hike in the heat, she wouldn’t have died.” — Sarah, pet-parent
This is the first thing Sarah told me when we met, two days after the death of her beloved Corgi, Scout. I knew we had to take action against this pernicious second-guessing, her guilt. While guilt is not included in Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief (which do include, but not necessarily in this order, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), it is prevalent among grieving pet-parents.
Why? Well, after all, we were in total control of our pet’s life: feeding, training, walking, playing with, and loving her. Suddenly, she is gone. How could we have had no control over that? “You could have, but you blew it!”, our subconscious says. So we ruminate as Sarah did: Should we have given her chemo? Should we not have given her chemo? Was euthanasia really called for? Could we have arranged to pay for those medical bills if we’d tried harder? Did we arrange the timing of her death for her or for our own convenience? The self-doubt goes on and on.
I want to say, first, that usually, guilt is unwarranted. In most cases, nothing we could have done or not done could have prevented our darling companion animal’s demise. But our minds race to self -blame like the proverbial moth to a flame. And there, in the fire, it invents an imaginary control we wish we’d had and are convinced we should have had. And it won’t budge (“I shouldn’t have taken my dog for that last walk;” “I shouldn’t have given her that last bite of meat”…etc.). If only; if only…..
And this is most important: Guilt prevents grieving.
If we don’t work through self-blame, we stay stuck, sometimes for years, covering and delaying all the emotions inherent in the grieving process. We must see guilt as a mind game in this context: a tool ostensibly to protect us from pain, but really inhibiting the healing offered by facing the revitalizing emotional journey ahead.
Until next time….
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Dalma Heyn, MSW, LMSW, is a therapist, author and certified pet-loss grief specialist, who lives at the Connecticut shore with her scruffy, fluffy Havanese, Luna. Dalma graduated from The University of Southern California with a degree in psychology and English, and from New York University with a MA degree in social work.
Speaking and writing about human intimate relationships for so many years brought her to another kind of intimate relationship: the one we have with our companion animals. Dalma finds that many aspects of this love are woefully underestimated, for reasons she discusses here with other passionate readers on this site. Her mission is to shed light on this important reciprocal love–which she believes can transform the inevitable loss of our pets from an unbearable experience to a meaningful and healing one. Dalma is now available for consultations for our members.