Monday, November 25, 2019

Pet Loss: Negligence or Accident?

[Reviewed and updated October 9, 2023]

Since human wisdom cannot secure us from accidents, it is the greatest effort of reason to bear them well.  ~ John Paul Jones

A reader writes: I read your piece on guilt but I still feel terrible. As I write this I am devastated by the loss of a baby lovebird. Only three hours ago I went to hand feed him and found he was gone. I had checked on him about an hour before that and he was sleeping. This little peach face delight was the only survivor from a clutch and what an unusual little bird he was. I started hand feeding him at only a few days old and I could see early on he was much different than any other baby I’ve ever raised. I have raised dozens over the years. This little one could perch and climb at a younger age than any youngster I ever had – and this is the root of my guilt.

"Loner" met his demise by crawling up on a rack device I use in my glass brooder box for laying wet cloths (keeps the humidity right). It's positioned well over the baby birds’  heads – he must have reached up with his beak and got hold of enough of the cloth to pull himself up. Once on the rack he apparently fell off the edge and got his head lodged between the leg of the rack and the glass wall of the box. I don't think he was being pinched in terms of breathing, and he could have released himself by turning his head ever so slightly. So I don't know if he broke his neck in the fall or struggled enough trying to back up that he literally strangled himself.

All I know is that I could see he was climbing at a young age (normally the babies are already out of this brooder box before they can climb) and I should have had the foresight to see disaster – though dozens of birds have been through that box and nothing happened, I really should have seen this coming and can't help but blame myself.

You know, I really believe in God, but I can only wonder: this little guy was totally innocent – if it was anyone's fault it was mine – so shouldn't I pay for it with my life instead of a little bird? Is this a natural feeling?

I’m just overwhelmed I guess, but it’s so unfair. I just feel like saying to God, “It’s my fault – let me pay for it instead of the little bird.” I just can’t imagine not having this little creature perching on my finger and eating out of an eyedropper anymore. I have lost pets before and I don’t deal with it well under any circumstances I suppose, but in a case like this one – where I know I could have prevented it – and even though he was very special – somehow I didn’t let myself see anything extra from that specialness to take better care of him.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the death of your precious baby lovebird, Loner. I can only imagine how sad and upset you feel.

If you read my article on guilt, you already know that guilt is a natural component of grief. When something terrible like this happens, it's only human to search for an explanation, to look back at what you did or did not do, to agonize and tell yourself, "If only I'd done something differently this never would've happened." Sometimes, though, there simply isn't anything you could've done differently ~ and we both know that what happened to your baby lovebird was not intentional on your part. You said yourself that dozens of birds have been through your brooder box without incident ~ but this particular one did something that none of your other babies had ever done before. So it seems to me that there was no way that you could have foreseen what happened. Think of all the good things you did in caring for that baby bird and all the loving care you gave.

Nevertheless, if after careful examination of the facts you find that things could've been done differently, it's important to face and take responsibility for that. There may be something in the design of your breeder box that you'll want to change before you use it again ~ or some changes you'll want to recommend to the manufacturer so this won't happen to someone else's baby bird. Healthy guilt allows us to own up to and learn from our mistakes. It gives us a chance to make amends, to do things differently next time, to come to a better understanding of ourselves, to forgive ourselves, to let go of our guilt and move on.

I know that you’re also overwhelmed with the unfairness of it all, and questioning why God would let this happen. Know that to an extent, we all do this when we lose someone we love. At such times it's important to understand that we've not been singled out for suffering by some divine plot. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that along with the animals we love so dearly, we are real live mortals living in a mortal, frail, imperfect world in which the word "fair" does not apply. We are never ready for the death of someone we love ~ human or animal ~ and there is no good time for it to happen. Experiencing loss is not optional in life, and life does not come with a fairness clause!

You say that, although you've lost pets before, you "don't deal with it well under any circumstances.” If that's the case, I urge you to find someone to talk to, whether it's a friend who understands your attachment to Loner, a pet loss support group (either online or in person), a chat room on the Internet or someone on the other end of a telephone helpline. I also suggest you find and read one of the many excellent books on pet loss, most of which you'll find on Amazon or at your local public library. (For what it's worth, I am especially drawn to children's books on this topic. See, for example, Using Children's Books to Help with Grief.)

Grieving is hard work, and you shouldn't be doing it alone. Please know that I am thinking of you and wishing you peace and healing.

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

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