Pet Loss: When Guilt Goes Unresolved

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Dealing with guilt is often thought of as the “dark side” of grieving. In fact, if you were to write a play about grief, guilt would be your villain.  ~ Dana Durrance

A reader writes: First I want to say that my 10-year-old dog is the love of my life sent to me by God to care for. He is epileptic and I devote my life and time to helping him in every way. I dread the day he has to leave me. My prior dog I also loved, perhaps not as closely, but she lived to be almost 17 and I loved her. My problem is that many years ago I gave away a little dog to someone, even knowing in my heart it was not the best home, and I am pretty sure she got run over as they lived on a busy road. It is a long story, but what was I thinking?

Then I had a German shepherd who with the right training could have been a great dog, but he was difficult and at the end he got hind-end problems. I am ashamed to say that when he was at the vet for a different reason I called them and asked them to put him to sleep, I wasn’t even with him. I am haunted by these bad decisions.

I am a Christian and I know that God forgives but can He forgive this? And can I ever forgive myself? On good days I tell myself that I will adopt and help many dogs in the future, but I am in my late 60's and the dog I have now cannot have strange dogs here in case they hurt him during a seizure. I sometimes think and hope that God placed my epileptic dog with me to teach me unselfish love for my dogs, which indeed it has. I am so deeply depressed, please forgive me for writing about this when most people are suffering the grief of losing their beloved. You must think I am terrible and indeed I deserve it. I work with a volunteer group helping by doing home visits and reference checks, as it's the best I can do right now with my dog's needs. I have loved dogs all my life and I don't know why I made these selfish decisions. The strange thing is that for many years I haven't really thought about it that much, but lately I cannot stop thinking of my sinfulness. Thanks for listening to me, I was going to post it on the discussion group site, but I'm so ashamed I edited it and removed it.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the difficulties you're having, and of course there is nothing I can say to erase the load of guilt that you've been carrying around with you, since you relinquished that little dog many years ago and a few years later decided to have your German shepherd euthanized because you couldn't cope with whatever problems he had. The only one who can forgive you for these past decisions is you, as I'm sure you already know.

I certainly can tell you that guilt is one of the most common reactions in loss -- guilt for what we may have done and guilt for what we may have failed to do. Since you are in your "late 60's" and a Christian, I suspect that you're in the stage of human development when you're more aware of the transitory nature of our existence on this earth, and it is only natural for you to be engaging in some sort of examination of where you are in your life, where you have been and where you are going. I, too, am in that "seniors" age group, and very well aware that I have more life behind me than ahead of me -- and that awareness certainly does lead me to sometimes question why I am here, what I am doing with my life, and how I will be judged for what I've done with my time here on Earth.

As I read your story, it seems to me that you are a good and decent person who probably did the best you could with whatever circumstances you were faced with at the time you made your decisions about these two dogs, and as you grow older, I think it's only human to want to go back and re-write the endings of certain stories in your life, to correct what you see now (with perfect 20-20 hindsight) as "mistakes." But that is not an option! What's done is done. Certainly it was never your intention to do anything that would harm either of these animals. Nevertheless, if after examining all the facts you decide that you should have done things differently in either of these cases, then the only thing you can do at this point is to learn from your mistakes and promise yourself that if ever you are presented with the very same set of circumstances again, you will do things differently next time. Harsh as it sounds, there is nothing you can do now to go back and change what has already been done. If you feel a need to do so, you might also think about finding some way to communicate with these dogs' spirits and ask for their forgiveness. That may be by praying, by meditating, by writing them a letter and saying all you need to say to them, by finding a quiet place and lighting a candle and speaking to them in your mind -- whatever way you choose is up to you. It just helps to find a way to externalize and express all those guilt feelings, so you can release them and move forward in your grief process.

I understand that you were going to post your story in our Loss of a Pet Forum but you "felt so ashamed I edited it and removed it." I want to encourage you to reconsider posting in the forum. Oftentimes sharing our story in this way enables us to unburden ourselves and to obtain the absolution we may need from others. None of us is perfect; we are all human, we've all made mistakes and we've all done things about which we feel guilty. I think if you read some of the other messages posted in the pet loss forum, you will see that our members are some of the most caring, compassionate people you'd ever want to meet, and there is not a person there who would pass judgment upon you, beginning with myself.

In any event, the point of all of this is to find some way to forgive yourself, to apologize and make amends to the ones you believe you have harmed, to learn from your mistakes and to move on. That's the only way you will begin to heal from these experiences in your past. You've taken the first, important step by writing to me, and I respect and admire you for that, as I know it took considerable courage for you to share your story with me. You say that you think God placed your epileptic dog with you so that you could learn some valuable lessons about selflessness, compassionate caregiving and unconditional love. It sounds to me as if you've learned those lessons well, and my prayer for you is that you will forgive yourself just as surely as a loving God has already forgiven you for being human. As they say, when you made what you now see as mistakes with those two dogs, God wasn't finished with you yet. Look at the lessons you've been given since, and how very much you have learned! That is something to celebrate, don't you think?

We are all sinners, my dear, in one way or another -- that is what separates us from God, the angels and saints. Like all the rest of us, you are a work in progress, but you are trying your best to be good and to do good, and I, for one, think you should give yourself credit for that.

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

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