Guilt in pet loss - what is it and why do we feel it?

Guilt what is it and why do we feel it?

Written by Kirstey A Lee LSBP

We all have things we wish we had done differently. Things we wish we had or had not done. Things we feel terrible about. These things that are left unresolved will haunt us; we need to resolve them to enable healing.

When a pet dies, it is understandable why so many of us feel that we failed in our responsibility and are in some way irredeemable for it. It is not guilt – trust me - pop that word into room 101 or the waste bin and leave it there. I will explain why.

The definition of guilt – is the intention to cause harm or of an actual criminal act. It also states that ‘guilt’ is a feeling of anxiety or unhappiness, due to doing something immoral.

The definition of immoral – is consciously violating accepted principles of right and wrong.

So why do we use the word ‘guilty’ so much in pet grief? We would never have deliberately caused pain and suffering or consciously violated our pet’s health and wellbeing? Ask yourself this question: “Did I do anything deliberately with intent to harm my beloved pet to cause his/her death?”

‘Guilt’ is not the right word to define how we are feeling. A better term is torn emotions.

Torn Emotions

The feelings that we experience in grief are related to all the unanswered and conflicted questions of what ifs and if onlys – the shoulda’s, woulda’s and coulda’s and the yearning to find meaning in our pets’ death. All these emotions keep us focused on just one moment – the death of our pet. That one moment is not the story of his or her life and I am sure that the actions of this one moment does not define the life that you shared together. If you hold onto your torn emotions, then it is your lifelong memories that are now being lost.

Also, what is known as hindsight bias is the ‘knew it all along’ effect – after the event (death) has occurred, despite there being no actual evidence for predicting it. Hindsight bias causes us to have memory distortion with the recollection of events that can lead to false theoretical outcomes -we over analyse things and come to illogical conclusions.

Hindsight bias could be applied in many cases of torn emotions due to grief. We think we should have known, or in fact we believe we DID know what the outcome was going to be in a given situation, and we blame ourselves for not doing more to prevent that outcome. We run the various possible outcomes through our mind and begin to engage in "if only I'd done this instead, I could have saved my pets life".

So, we know that guilt is the wrong word to use for how we feel but we still have this painful feeling inside of us.

Here is a little exercise to help you if you are struggling with torn emotions:

Draw the letter Y

On one branch of the letter Y write down the What if’s statements

On the other branch of the letter Y write down the If Only’s statements

On the bottom of the letter Y write down what you could have changed to prevent your pets passing

When we do this exercise, we find we could not have changed the outcome ourselves, nor did we intentionally cause our pets passing. This can bring a sense of comfort and release from our torn emotions.

The ‘what if/if only’ exercise mentioned, helps us to put things into perspective and reality.

It may be helpful to understand that the brain is wired to be inclined toward negative thoughts.

Focus on knowing that your torn emotions are only there because of how much your pet meant to you. If you did not care, then you would not be affected by these emotions. Focus on the meaning of your pet’s life, and you will naturally begin to heal the grief and learn from your torn emotions. Think of the good times and the funny antics that your pet got up to. Think of the happy and the precious memories that you shared together.

Be kind to yourself, imagine if you were comforting a friend, what would you say to them to help?

Recognise that you cannot change the past and that letting go of your torn emotions does not mean that you have forgotten about your pet or stopped caring. It is the path to healing well and being able to offer love again.

For some people, torn emotions can become a habit, as it feels safe because they have been holding on to them so long. It starts to feel like part of them - like they don’t know how to be happy, or content, or calm.

I wish to add that not everyone feels emotionally torn and it is also normal and acceptable to feel relieved after your pet has died especially if your pet has been struggling with a long-term illness.

When we get another pet, we may feel torn between the life we once shared with our previous pet and the new life we have with our present pet. This is completely natural, but our feelings of being torn are more pronounced if we haven’t grieved well for our pet that has passed.

In Grief

I am Emotionally Torn, Mentally Harassed, my Brain and Heart are Fighting Each Other, I am Physically Existing Just – Kirstey Lee

In Grief

You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You have to go THROUGH it, you HAVE to ride it.

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