Article by adjunct faculty, Dalma Heyn, Pet-Loss Grief Specialist, Psychotherapist
When I speak with pet-parents whose beloved companion animal has died, I often encounter an emotion I rarely encounter with someone whose friend or family member has died: GUILT.
Guilt can take hold as a result of the anger we almost inevitably feel when our beloved animal is no longer here, playing with his toys, eating his dinner, romping at the end of a leash or in the yard. Yes, we’re angry when a spouse dies, or a parent, or a friend, but rarely have we had the responsibilities we have with a pet.
Rarely are we in almost total control of another human being. Think of it: We feed, walk, play with our pets and — this is important — make all the decisions surrounding their end-of-life care.
And here’s the rub: Everything is on us: Chemo or no chemo? Euthanasia or no euthanasia? Is the pain too much—or just too much for me? On and on it goes….all of it is in our hands. The shock of the actual death, however it comes, reminds us of these agonizing decisions and makes us question them over and over (and over) again.
Some people direct their anger at someone else—placing blame for not being perfect, not saving the life, not doing something…. on a vet, a tech person, or a family member.
Others turn that blame against themselves: that’s the guilt I’m referring to. So I hear: “I should have given her favorite treat on her last day and I didn’t have it in the house”; “I couldn’t afford the treatment for cancer that the vet recommended, and I wish I’d been able to”; “I gave him wrong homeopathic and so she suffered so much.” There’s no end to the ways we can find to beat ourselves up when heartbroken. And of course, we’ve rarely done anything wrong. We didn’t have total control of the end, is all….and that makes us mad.
“It’s crucial to understand this because guilt,
like blame, is truly a waste of time”
Okay, so how does this power inform our response to pet-loss grief? I believe it is this: We know our companion animals have shorter lifespans than we do (that’s the we-cannot-control part). So, we should plan on the inevitability of the death of our pets–because it’s our lack of preparation that makes terrible surprises hurt even more. Stoics teach us to face, process and deal with grief immediately, instead of running from it with delaying tactics, like blame and guilt and anger.
We can’t bring back our darlings. What’s more, guilt literally prevents the all-important grieving process. Guilt is not one of the stages of grief. Guilt interrupts the normal, healthy, important, and ultimately healing process which, when allowed to unfold, actually restores our relationship with our companion animal. So unless we have a need to impede that lovely outcome, we must grapple with and find a way to get rid of guilt.
It’s a huge subject, and one that I’ll be returning to.
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.