Guilt: What is it Good For?

Marie felt certain she was responsible for the death of her beloved dog Jasmine. It was springtime when Jasmine’s cough began so Marie assumed that allergies were at play. When the coughing progressed Marie scheduled a veterinary visit. X-rays revealed lung cancer- unfortunately too far advanced for any form of therapy to provide significant benefit. Marie bared her soul at the support group she attended and I facilitated. She felt devastated, mired in guilt because of her certainty that, had she acted sooner, her sweet girl Jasmine would still be alive.

My 30 years as a small animal veterinarian and six years as the facilitator of a support group for folks struggling emotionally with the illness or loss of pet have taught me that Marie’s feelings are not at all unusual. “If only I had……” and “If only I hadn’t……” are frequent guilt-ridden sentence starters for those experiencing heartache over a four-legged family member.

In fact, guilt is so darned common that, in my own little world of veterinary medicine, I have deemed it to be the sixth stage of the grieving process accompanying these five already officially recognized:

Denial: This river in Egypt is a mighty fine place to take an emotional vacation, just so long as it is not a permanent one.

Anger:  Serious illness and death can feel so unfair. What better way to vent about such injustice?

Bargaining: By offering up a “deal” to a higher presence or power, one might be able to influence the ultimate outcome. For example, “I will walk Tully twice a day, every single day if only he will get better.”

Depression: A most natural response to sadness and loss.

Acceptance: Thoughts and memories of the animal elicit smiles rather than only tears. There is some recognition that things are going to be okay.

Keep in mind that these stages are not experienced in any particular order. And sometimes, the grief-stricken will circle back to a particular stage more than once. This is all very normal. What’s important is that progress is made. Staying stuck in a particular stage of grief is not healthy. And nothing is more capable of keeping a person “stuck” than strong feelings of guilt.

So, back to the question posed by the title of this post. Guilt, what is it good for? My emphatic response is “Absolutely nothing!” The quicker guilt can be dislodged, the better! Using Jasmine and Marie as an example, here are some strategies you can use to help others (or your own self!) move beyond guilt:

  1. Verbally acknowledge the emotion. Name it and put it out there on the table. For example, “It sounds like you are feeling really guilty about Jasmine.”
  2. Shift the focus back to what the individual’s intentions were for their pet. For example, “Marie, think about how you cared for Jasmine all of these years. She lived like a princess! I am certain that you have never had anything but the very best of intentions for her.”
  3. Reassure Marie that she is not being judged. This can be difficult to do, particularly if you believe Jasmine should have been examined by the vet sooner. If you cannot give an Oscar worthy performance to hide such feelings, probably best to avoid being part of Marie’s support network for the time being.
  4. As natural as it is to want to say, “Marie, you shouldn’t feel guilty!” I encourage you to avoid doing so. Marie is not experiencing guilt by choice. She cannot simply turn off this emotion. Being asked to feel a different way only adds to her emotional burden.

One last bit of advice. Be aware that grief is not reserved only for those who have lost a pet. Most of us launch ourselves into the grieving process the very moment we receive news that heralds a bad outcome.

Have you ever experienced guilt as part of a grief process? If so, what was your strategy to get past this?

Wishing you and your four-legged family members a joyful and healthy holiday season.

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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11 Comments on “Guilt: What is it Good For?

  1. The way I combat guilt is by telling myself that I made the best decisions for the dog with the information I had at the time. Seven years ago, I lost my first golden retriever, Tiger, to cancer. A couple of years later, I learned what I could have done differently that could have extended his life. I tell myself that I cannot beat myself up today for things I did not know yesterday.

    One of the last things Tiger taught me is to a do a baseline bloodwork when they’re in the prime so I can spot changes as they age. I do that with all my dogs now. Knowing that he taught me something with his illness and death that helps my current dogs helps combat the guilt too.

  2. I do agree that guilt should be a stage of grief… at least for pets. Not only have I felt guilt with the loss of each animal companion, I have found that in building a community around my own blog that a percentage of the animal community that will attempt to heap it on you.

    It saddens me that it is this way.

  3. The wrong kind of “support” from friends and relatives very often magnify the feelings of guilt. When someone tries to make us “feel better” and says stupid things like “you can always get another dog/cat”, or “it” was only an animal, what’s the big deal?” (I particularly loath the “it” when referring to an animal), “you didn’t feel so guilty when your Uncle Joe died” (ah, but did you get the love and loyalty and generosity you received from your Companion from Uncle Joe”?

    It is best to avoid such toxic people and ibnstead talk to fruiends who have gone through the grief and the sorrow of your loss. And ask yourself whether would anyone else had been as dedicated, as loving and as caring of your pet as you have been? If you find them, talk to them and share the pain.

    And remember – we do NOT get over the loss of a beloved animal, ever. But we do get used to it and keep them in the best place of their burial – our hearts.

  4. I have a Collie/Golden mix 11 yr old boy who has DM. He is now in the back harness as well as a front one. He was adopted at 3 1/2 yrs of age and has served as a registered therapy dog giving joy to others. It is so hard to watch him slowly get worse. I am to walk him a little each day and he has exercises to do also. The way he looks at me sometimes just makes me so sad. I guess the guilt I feel is sometimes I wish he were already gone and other times, it’s wishing I could do more for him or at least let him know why he can’t do some things anymore. He is a very gentle, lay-back dog and the vet has said he will probably give up sooner than some other type of dogs. I’ve never had a dog with this disease and I hate it. I know the day will come when he tells me he has had enough and then I pray I don’t feel guilty about not doing more for him. It can be a no-win situation very easily, but I know I am doing all I can. He even goes to hydrotherapy 2 1/2 hrs away once a month. I wish it was closer. The day will come when he won’t be able to make that trip.

  5. When I was in therapy for family issues my therapist would tell me that “I am the only one that can make myself feel guilty”. You have to talk yourself through the guilt. Sometimes I was able to reason the guilt out of me and other times no such luck.

    With my Mitsu, who is now suffering through osteosarcoma, I am now experiencing the bargaining stage and offering up years of my life for her. I have gone through the guilt stage feeling I should have been a neurotic pet owner and called the vet when I first saw her favor her leg. We are now trying to manage her pain and have realized we will have to make a decision one day. Yes my heart will break in another place for her, along side the other breaks for my dogs. My guilt is gone and I know I will have to go through the depression one day soon.

    For everyone out there work through your guilt and if you can, the support groups will help out. It is so comforting to hear other owners experiences and share with them. Being at the clinic a good deal, I feel it comforting to help others out who need a shoulder to cry on or a hug. It’s been rewarding for me and probably helped me work through my guilt this time. Always remember you are human and it’s okay to feel a little guilty at times but never let it consume you.

  6. Dear Nancy,

    As a grief counselor who also specializes in pet loss, I deeply appreciate your heartfelt message about the guilt that so often accompanies the loss of a beloved companion animal, and I agree completely with the strategies you recommend for dealing with it. (See, for example, my article, “Loss and the Burden of Guilt,” http://j.mp/SRDVkt .)

    My only concern is your including guilt as “the sixth stage of the grieving process accompanying these five already officially recognized.” What I’m sure you’re describing are the stages of dying originally described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her still popular book, “On Death and Dying.” Since that book was first published (in 1969), many people have taken her findings much too literally, expecting the dying process to occur in neatly ordered stages, one following the other. As wonderful as her groundbreaking work in death and dying was, her “stages” model was never meant to apply to those who are in mourning. Her studies were focused on patients who were terminally ill and dying. That is a common mistake we find repeatedly in the literature still today. But in the last four decades, there has been a wealth of research done since Kubler-Ross’ pioneering work that focuses specifically on bereavement, loss and grief.

    What we know now, and what bereaved animal lovers need to know, is that grief is the normal response to the death of a loved one, and it doesn’t happen in neatly ordered “stages” as such.

    Most of us who specialize in grief counseling prefer to think of grief as the personal experience of the loss, and mourning as a process (not a single event) that can affect us in every dimension of our lives: physical, emotional, social, spiritual and financial. Everyone’s grief journey is unique, and there is no specific time-frame for it.

    Although grief is different for each individual, I believe that finding a way through it successfully requires some knowledge and understanding of the grief experience and the work of mourning. I also think it is incumbent upon those of us who work with the bereaved to avoid perpetuating the myth that grief occurs in stages.

    Respectfully yours, Marty Tousley, Grief Counselor

  7. Thanks for this article. I think that guilt is a common, although sometimes unexpressed, emotion when a pet dies. Thanks for your thoughts on it.

    Happy holidays to you too.

    Barb Stanek, CPDT-KA

  8. “Have you ever experienced guilt as part of a grief process? If so, what was your strategy to get past this?”

    To be honest, I still feel guilty about euthanizing my beloved Suki back in 1990, as if I didn’t do enough (never mind that she was a 15-yo husky-mix that had moved to the tropics with us at age 10). Unfortunately, she was being treated by poorly-trained vets in a developing country and under remote circumstances that had never really seen an elderly large breed dog. We “did the best we could,” “but,” “well, if only” — everything Dr. Nancy said above.

    When Maggie came to us many years later, I vowed to do better. But not in the way you may think. Sure, we absolutely did the best we could when she developed a vaccine reaction, giardia, dental problems, cherry eye (twice), bladder infections with crystals, and tick disease. But it was the congestive heart failure at age 12 or so that finally prompted us to euthanize her last April after 2 years of nursing her through this heartbreaking disease.

    By “do better,” I mean to love and cherish every moment with your companion, never ever take them for granted, and find that extra bit of patience when you both need it. I was able to do that with Maggie and believe that she had the best life we could possibly give her — no guilt.

    With our new girl, Esme, I plan to stay the course, and she’s a girl that really does need that extra bit of patience. I’m really convinced that animals make us far better people.

  9. Grief and guilt and intertwined, and we see this a lot in the ER. Kudos to you for supporting these folks in their hour of need, Dr. Kay.

    We often see guilt as a motivating factor when people become involved in the way a pet is injured or made ill – for example, folks that roll over an older dog in the driveway – a dog who may not hear the car coming. Sadly, not an uncommon occurrence – I did this to my older dog once, several years ago.

    The guilt of being the one who injured the pet (through no fault of their own) can often push people past normal financial boundaries (or what they would normally consider doing for a pet) into financial hardship, or subjecting a very aged pet to medical therapies that they can’t withstand. In these situations, as in the ones you mention, the guilt clouds thinking and can get in the way of doing the right thing. This is a hard situation to overcome.

    Thanks for another thoughtful article, Dr. Kay!

  10. I used to do a lot of volunteer work at a local crisis hotline.

    The first year is hard because it is the first year without the pet … and all the memories of what this special day was with pet (the cute pictures or remember when stories).

    One of the things we would ask sometimes is: What was happening a year ago? Often negative memory days we are less aware of their existence such as: It was about this time last year that I noticed she limped just a little bit more and then we learned later that she had cancer.

  11. Guild or regret kills you every time. Being able to grieve guilt or regret-free is a huge blessing.

    That’s probably why I run to the vet with “every pimple” and spend long time agonizing over every decision I make for my dogs. And even with all that effort, there will always be some “if I did/didn’t …”

    I think it’s a good place to bring up an example which was work related but puts things into perspective. The details are unimportant. But there I was, facing a fallout of a utterly stupid decision, which I clearly made earlier.

    At first I was banging my head against the wall, “how did I make this stupid decision?” Then I decided to go back to see what the heck I was doing. And going through the records I realized something liberating. It WAS NOT a stupid decision at the time I made it! With the information I had available then, it was the best decision I could have made. Things had changed since I made it … things I couldn’t have known about at the time I made it. When I made it it was a perfectly good decision and couldn’t, and wouldn’t have made a different one if I got to do it over.

    It was life that screwed it up, not me.

    Well, I hope it might help SOMEBODY. Does it help ME? SOMETIMES. All one can do is to make the best decision, with the best intentions, and that’s ALL one can do. And just because things work out wrong, doesn’t mean that the decision was wrong at the time it was made.