Monday, April 28, 2014

Pet Loss: Guilt in the Wake of the Euthanasia Decision

[Reviewed and updated June 20, 2024]

Once a forever person and a forever cat find each other, nothing can ever separate them.  ~ Christine Davis

A reader writes: I’m asking for help. I don’t know what to do. I’m completely distraught. My dearest cat Shadow got sick and I had to put her down early last Wednesday morning. She was sneezing when she came to us as a kitten seven years ago, and she always had a problem with her sinuses. She was the smallest of all my cats, but still, she grew into a beautiful girl, playful, friendly and smart. She was totally loving to everybody, very psychically aware and sensitive, a real healer.

When I had an accident she spent weeks sitting on my chest healing me as I was convalescing . She sometimes had problems with her nose and I cared for her, which made our bond even closer. She would lick my nose to tell me she loved me. I love her deeply and completely and I believe she returned my love. I love my other cats but I was closest to her.

Now I am trying to deal with grief at her loss, guilt , and feeling terrible that I caused her suffering at the end by her treatments. The last two months were very busy for me and my husband as we were handling a very big work load and deadline. During this time I did not pay as much attention to Shadow as I usually do. Oh if only I could relive those months!

She developed chest sounds, I brought her to the vet and he discovered a slight heart murmur, narrowing of the trachea and chest congestion, and gave her medication. That's when it started. The medication was bitter and she hated it. The bonds of trust that we always had began to be broken as I became a menace to her, forcing this bitter stuff down her throat. It only worsened later when she could no longer eat or drink, and on the vet’s advice I tried unsuccessfully to force food. So I took her into the hospital, where they put her in intensive care for three days and did blood tests, X-rays and ultrasound. Everything came back negative or inclusive, except her white blood cells were dropping finally to the point where she had no immune system left. I would not let her have a bone marrow test because she was too weak. I took her home with a feeding tube in her nose and advice to put her down.

The first day home I was so happy I could feed her through the tube without stressing her and she had a bowel movement on her own. Still, that night we had to put her down. I waited until she could no longer focus her eyes and her breathing was rapid. She suffered during those last two weeks, as I was holding out for any hope to save her.

I’m trying to make sense of this. Obviously what was done to care for her was unsuccessful and stressed her. It seemed everyone had an agenda. Mine was I love her I want her to live, if I’m a good mommy I can save her and she’ll live a long life. Two of the doctors were defending their opposing philosophies. After she had been given the death sentence and I brought her in to be euthanized the doctor told me how good she looked and we should try some more! We ended up putting her down later that night.

I need to know what I did wrong. I know I should have paid more attention to her when we were busy but the vets’ care was wrong also. I need to know how to do better. I’m so sorry the mistakes were made with that sweet soul. She deserved only the best. I know you probably can’t answer these questions for me but I need to talk about it, I need something because I’m not making it right now. Thank you so much for reading this.

My response: I’m so very sorry for your loss; obviously you shared a very special bond with Shadow, and I can only imagine how terribly painful this must be for you. You’ve had other animals in your life, but it’s apparent that this one was different from the rest – this one was for you what some animal lovers I know would call your heart cat or your forever cat. My hope for you is that one day you’ll come to know that you can never really be separated from your forever cat, because the love you feel for her has not died; the connection you have with her will last as long as you keep her memory alive in your mind and in your heart.

You say that Shadow was the smallest of your cats and sometimes had problems with her nose; later a slight heart murmur and a narrowing of her trachea were discovered. Such signs suggest that your kitty may have had some congenital defects that couldn’t have been discovered until she developed symptoms.

Of course there is nothing I can say to erase the load of guilt that you've been carrying around with you for the last few days. The only one who can forgive you is you, as I'm sure you already know.

I certainly can tell you that guilt is one of the most common reactions in pet loss – guilt for what we may have done and guilt for what we may have failed to do – because we want so desperately to do the right thing for our precious fur babies, knowing they are so dependent upon us.  It sounds to me as if you did everything you possibly could for Shadow. Nevertheless, it's only human to want to go back and re-write the ending of this horrible tragedy. Certainly it was never your intention to do anything that would harm your beloved kitty, and I feel certain that no one knew that better than Shadow did. You say that you caused her suffering at the end by following your vet’s instructions and forcing nourishment and treatments on her – but please keep in mind that your intentions were not evil – they were pure, and they came from a place of love, not hatred. You were desperately trying to save her, not to torture her! Would you judge another animal lover in a similar situation as harshly as you are judging yourself?

I happen to believe that when we don't live up to whatever standard we've set for ourselves, we simply cannot forgive ourselves until we think we've punished ourselves enough. How much punishment is enough? You alone will know. It also helps to know that many of the feelings we experience in grief are neither right or wrong, and many are not accurate. Just because you're feeling guilty does not mean that you are, in fact, guilty as charged, or deserving of some sort of punishment. That's why it's often helpful to acknowledge those irrational feelings and express them out loud to another trusted person who will not pass judgment on you – someone who'll help you examine them in the light of day to see how accurate they are. If doing that still does not bring you relief, then I'd suggest you think of how you might make amends to Shadow for whatever wrong you think you've done.

You could write her a letter of apology, for example, and construct a ritual around that. Take the letter to a special place, read it aloud to her, then set a match to it and burn it, letting your guilt float skyward with the smoke as it dissipates into the air. Think of this as a symbolic way to "let go" ~ not of Shadow (whose memory and spirit will stay with you forever, just as long as you hold her in your heart) but of your guilt. Or find another way to let go of your guilt ~ but even as I say that, I know you will do so only when you are ready to let go of it, and that is usually after you feel as if you've punished yourself enough, or you feel as if your apology to Shadow has been accepted by her. As I said, this is a process that takes place over time, and it's okay to take as much time as you need to accomplish it.

The idea is to find some way to communicate with Shadow’s spirit and ask for her forgiveness. That may be by meditating, by writing her a letter and saying all you need to say to her, by finding a quiet place and lighting a candle and speaking to her in your mind – whatever way you choose is up to you. It just helps to find a way to externalize and express all those mixed feelings, so you can release them and move forward in your grief process.

You might also make the effort to find a pet loss support group where you can talk with others whose experiences may be similar to your own. (Call your local library, veterinarian, pet groomer, animal rescue organization or humane society and ask what pet loss resources are available in your community.) Sometimes 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. The point of all of this is to find some way to forgive yourself, to apologize and make amends to the one you believe you have harmed, to learn whatever lessons are to be learned from this and to move on. That's the only way you will begin to heal from this loss.

Right now you may not have the patience and ability to concentrate long enough to read an entire book on pet loss, but if you haven't already done so, I hope you'll pay a visit to my Grief Healing website. There you may find the information, comfort and support you need at this difficult time. Learning what is normal in response to losing a beloved pet can be very helpful, because you will discover that you are not "crazy" or eccentric for feeling the way you do, you'll learn what to expect in the weeks and months ahead, and you'll discover useful, specific ways that you can manage your own reactions. 

I'd especially recommend that you read some of the Related Articles I've listed below, as I think they address a lot of what you are experiencing now. I also invite you to participate in our online Loss of a Pet Forum, even if it’s only to read some of the other messages posted there. I know you will discover that you are not alone in what you are feeling, and you will avail yourself of some very caring support and inspiration from others. See also my Comfort for Grieving Animal Lovers page and my Pet Loss Links page, which will take you to many other wonderful sources of support. You might also be interested in some of the other articles I've written on the topic of pet loss.

I hope this information helps, my dear. No one can take away the guilt you are experiencing now, but I can assure you that you do not have to bear it all alone.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here

© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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