Monday, August 19, 2019

Pet Loss: When Guilt Overshadows Grief

[Reviewed and updated October 9, 2023]

Grief is not as heavy as guilt, but it takes more away from you.  ~ Veronica Roth

A reader writes: My sister told me about you and your wonderful dedication to helping those suffering the loss of a furry companion. I thank you for your dedication and compassion that we can find in very few people with whom we come in contact on a day-to-day basis.  The guilt that I suffer right now, along with an intense sense of loss and sorrow, is not related to euthanasia or questions like, "Why am I feeling this way?"

I brought my first dog Buster (a male) into our home 11 years ago. We got another Boston terrier (a female), who got along with him very well, and for another 4 years everything was fine. We bought a third one about 3 years ago – Barkley, a male who got along with the other two until puberty, when he and Buster started fighting to the point of drawing blood. It was suggested that I get rid of the second male, but I was already attached, so we lived in our home, keeping the male dogs separated. Our female got along with each of them, but the younger male would have killed Buster had we not kept them in separate rooms, always having to remember who was in which room and to close doors behind us at all times.

During the last few years that led up to our recent move, I had lost my father, completed a PhD, put our house on the market, and suffered daily migraines with the stress of embarking on new jobs (both of us), purchasing a home in another state, and doing the move ourselves. The stress was, needless to say, considerable.

We lived in our new home the same way - dividing our time between Barkley (who stayed in our computer room where I worked) and Buster (who stayed in our large family room where we watched TV or sat by the fire.) During the first month of my new teaching job, I went to the basement to put a load of laundry into the washing machine. I suddenly heard loud barking and fighting between the two. It seems Buster had gotten out of the family room and instigated a fight with Barkley, who was in his crate. I was forced to run around the crate, trying to catch Buster, and I slipped and broke my foot. I was on crutches most of the semester. I was depressed, in physical pain, and had to be waited on by my husband.

A few days after I broke my foot, as I lay on the couch in a very depressed state, I began to cry violently, and I screamed at Buster for doing this to me - I yelled, "I hate you - I hate you!!!!"  I even called my mother to tell her I was thinking of putting Buster down. My husband knew that I would never EVER think of doing such a thing, and I apologized profusely to Buster for yelling so violently at him. 

This outburst was the result of many months of stress, physical labor, and anxiety at starting a new teaching job. All was back to normal until just last week, when our little Buster collapsed on the floor while eating, and passed away. We did everything we could think of, as we thought he was choking - we turned him upside down, we pulled food out of his mouth, and we performed mouth to mouth. Buster just lay there, and my husband looked at me and said, "He's gone." I screamed, screamed louder, wept, and yelled NO, NO, NO!!!!  I called both my mother and my sister, who cried with me over the phone. I was in utter shock - Buster had been energetic up to the day he died, and his appetite was fine. My mom told me that it was probably his heart that gave out.

Right now, my sister is helping me in every possible way to cope with Buster's sudden death - that's why she looked you up. Buster was my loving, funny, adorable friend for 11 years, sleeping on my bed almost every night. 

Marty, my guilt stems from two things. First, I feel that Buster might have gotten short-changed when we bought Barkley - the home was not the same, as the two had to be separated and kept behind closed doors. This was not the living arrangement Buster had been used to, but it became the norm for the past three years. On top of that was my screaming episode after the broken foot, along with my ideas about putting him down. I am so guilt-ridden and so grief-stricken. My husband and sister tell me that I gave Buster a wonderful life, and I should not blame myself for losing my cool during a stressful period. However, I desperately wish that Buster's life could have been better for those last three years after we got Barkley, and I'm utterly humiliated for screaming at him - probably more guilt-ridden for his environment change than the screaming.

I know that you have heard many stories about grief-stricken parents, and I had hoped you could help to ease my suffering. I miss him terribly, the house is so quiet (Buster always snored and slobbered), and I wish I could hold him in my arms again.

Thank you for reading this long and protracted explanation. I really did give Buster more love than most dog parents give their dogs - in fact, my brother says that when he, himself, dies, he wants to be reincarnated as one of my dogs - what a life of leisure and love.

My response: My heart just aches for you as I read your story ~ I can feel the anguish and the guilt that you are suffering, and I'm so very sorry for your loss. I'm not sure that anything I can say will alleviate your pain, but I will share with you some of my thoughts.

First, the fact that you are feeling guilty does not mean that you are, in fact, guilty as charged. Feelings are neither right or wrong, good or bad ~ they just are, and we cannot always control how we are feeling, even when we "know" (in our head, if not our heart) that what we're feeling is completely irrational and unjustified. Such feelings need to be acknowledged and expressed, and exposed to the light of day, so we can examine and evaluate them more objectively, preferably with someone else who is not emotionally involved in our situation. This is why a support group (either online or in person) can be so valuable ~ it is a powerful way to share with others what it is that we feel so guilty about, so we can get an objective response from others ~ and oftentimes what we hear is that, given the very same set of circumstances, others would have done exactly the same thing as we ourselves have done.

Ask yourself this question: Would a jury of your peers judge you as harshly as you are judging yourself for whatever "crime" you think you've committed against your beloved Buster? Or would this jury consider and weigh all the extenuating circumstances, and take them into consideration? Would they hold you to some super-human standard of behavior, or would they decide that, given the tremendous stress you were under at the time, you did the best you could under the circumstances, your intentions certainly were not evil, and like all the rest of us, you are only human, after all?

You see, my dear, you can obtain all the understanding and forgiveness you can find from others, but in the end, the person from whom you most need forgiveness is yourself. Unless and until you are ready to forgive yourself, you will not find the peace you seek. I happen to believe that, when we feel this sort of guilt, we cannot let go of it until we feel as if we've been punished enough, or until we've made some sort of atonement, to make amends to the one we think we have harmed. (To learn what you can do with some of this guilt you're carrying around, see my article, Grief and the Burden of Guilt.) I also happen to believe that guilt is not such a bad thing, after all. Only the really good people feel guilty ~ have you ever noticed that? Bad people don't feel guilty about anything, and certainly not about how they treat companion animals! It is only a person like yourself, clearly a loving, devoted animal lover, who would agonize over having lost your temper with your dog (once!) because you were coming unglued under extremely trying circumstances. And your fleeting thoughts of euthanizing Buster or wishing him gone certainly did not cause his death ~ no matter how angry we are at anyone, we simply do not have the power to wish death upon another, any more than we have the power to bring the dead back to life simply by wishing it so. As for how Buster spent the last three years of his life, it seems to me that you bent over backwards to make your home as loving a place as possible for all your dogs, regardless of the price you had to pay. You probably did more than many other folks would have done.  And so, again, the guilt you feel is probably unjustified ~ but IT IS STILL THERE, and so it still must be acknowledged and expressed and examined ~ confessed, if you will ~ so that you can be done with it, obtain the forgiveness that you need, and eventually let it go.

And so I urge you, my dear, to get yourself to a pet loss support group, either in person or online, where you can begin to unburden yourself of this heavy load of guilt.  I invite you to join our own Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which include a Loss of a Pet Forum that I moderate. This is offered at no cost to you; it is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week ~ and I know that you will find the most caring, compassionate, understanding people there as you can ever imagine. I also encourage you to write a letter to Buster, expressing all your guilt and sorrow, and asking for his forgiveness. Construct a private ritual around this for yourself (as elaborate as you choose), read the letter aloud to Buster, then set it afire, and let your guilt go and dissipate into the air, along with the smoke.

I hope this helps, my dear, and I hope you know that I am thinking of you without judgment or reproach.  And whenever you begin to doubt yourself, I suggest that you re-read the last sentence of your letter to me, above ~ out loud, if necessary.

Afterword: Dear Marty, words are insufficient for expressing my appreciation for your comforting and erudite letter.  Your words are full of insight and compassion, and your years of expertise in this field are evident.

You're so right about our lack of control over feelings, which is why statements like, "It's silly to feel that way" are nonsensical.  It's like saying, "You're silly to have blue eyes."  Moreover, one person's feelings in a given situation have nothing to do with how another would feel.  I told only one colleague at school of Buster 's death, simply because the majority of people out there lack compassion and understanding; they can only muster up some kind of callow platitude that is shrill and harsh to the ears of somebody grieving over such a loss as mine.  In fact, many people today are so completely and utterly devoid of compassion even when it comes to expressing sympathy over the loss of humans, which is what our society deems the severest tragedy.  In sum, why waste my breath on those people whose dry and empty hearts cannot even compare to Buster's own heart.

When, at your suggestion, I wrote my letter to Buster, I realized that the very reason why we got Barkley was to expand the love in our home - we thought that Buster and Lady would enjoy a new brother and that they would all have fun playing together. In the months before we could bring him home, I remember telling Buster every day, "Barkley is coming; Barkley is coming. Where's Barkley?" Unfortunately, the curious rules of the animal kingdom smothered our good intentions, and I suffered guilt because of the resulting situation. So, I now believe that I did the best I could and never intended to cause strife, just as Buster, with this curious urge for male dominance that only canines can understand, never intended to cause my broken foot.

So, you see, you're right - what became an ongoing battle for dominance in their little world was never a reproach to me for creating the situation. I'm sure Buster never thought, "Mom, why did you do this to me?" He simply acted on instinct when the need for dominance arose. Funny how we project human feelings onto these delicate and complex little creatures whose lives are governed by an entirely different set of laws. I cringe to think of those barbarians who purposely pit one dog against another for sheer sport. How can I even compare that to my own situation?

Buster 's ashes came home yesterday, and, you know, there's something very comforting in having him rest right here, by our side. Since he loved water so much, I'm shopping for a tabletop water rock garden in which to place his urn.

I registered for the Loss of a Pet forum and will probably try it out today or tonight. I am confident that only the most compassionate people on this earth would be found there.
I thank you for all that you do, and I have been begun to heal because of it.

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