10 Tips for Grieving a Pet
For National Pet Memorial Day — Sept. 12th — we asked 5 grief experts how to cope with feelings of guilt after we lose a pet.
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Will was distraught after his dog died. Though he had been slowing down and sleeping more, Will had passed it off as normal, signs that his pup was simply getting older. By the time the vet diagnosed cancer, there was little that could be done. Looking back, he blamed himself for not getting his pet to the vet sooner, and kicked himself for not being able to afford additional diagnostics, much less treatment. “He was counting on me and I let him down,” Will recalls. “I just didn’t have that kind of money and it’s tearing me up inside.”
Grief + Guilt = Moral Pain
When we lose a canine companion, these self-critical kinds of thoughts and feelings may become a part of our grief. Though rooted in positive values such as loyalty, protectiveness, and a commitment to our dog’s well-being, these values can also leave us in moral pain when we believe that we have failed to live up to them. According to Brandon Griffin, PhD, “Moral pain may be attributed to an event or series of events that a person views as a gross transgression of his or her moral beliefs and values, such as when we violate our own values by what we did or failed to do.”
In his book, The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies, Wallace Sife, PhD, points out that caring for an animal companion involves “a complex set of responsibilities” in some ways “similar to the obligations of raising a child.” Given that we cannot always protect our dogs from suffering and may have to make decisions about when to end their lives, there may be times when we second-guess ourselves and wonder how well we have fulfilled these responsibilities.
In our grief, we may disproportionally focus on our perceived failures and imperfections rather than view our actions as those of someone doing her or his best to stand by a beloved pup during painful circumstances. Thus, when a dog dies, Dr. Sife observes, we may “need to consider the feelings of guilt and failed obligation that almost always crop up during intense bereavement for a pet.”
When it comes to our dogs, there are many potential sources of moral pain. When a dog is sick or injured, we cannot talk with them about what is going on. We can’t get their input and involve them in decision-making. The pressure is on us to make painful but necessary decisions, which may involve euthanasia or treatments that temporarily cause suffering. Under such pressurized circumstances, it’s easy to agonize about what to do and to criticize whatever choices we make.
Veterinary social worker Jeannine Moga points out that dogs can be very stoical and mask underlying physical issues until they are more advanced. “Diseases can progress in their bodies before they start to show overt signs of illness. Add to that the significant expense of veterinary diagnosis and treatment, and people can be faced with animal losses complicated by unknown causation, questions of ‘Why didn’t I see it?’ and worries that they’ve somehow failed to take adequate care of their companions.”
The decision for euthanasia, even when done to alleviate suffering on the recommendation of a veterinary professional, can be a source of acute moral distress. In their book, The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice from Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups, Ken Dolen-Del Vecchio, LCSW, MFT, and Nancy Saxon-Lopez, LCSW, reflect on painful questions that arose after euthanizing a beloved cat, Reggie:
Had we waited too long and prolonged his suffering?
Had we put enough thought into the decision to end his life?
Should we have taken him home and thought it over more carefully?
Should we have sought another opinion?
Should we really have stayed with him when the vet put him to sleep?
According to Maryjean Tucci, MSEd, MDiv, lead bereavement coordinator for a hospice program and coauthor of A Peaceful Path: A Supportive Guide Through Pet Loss, decisions about euthanasia can raise other moral concerns. “When a person’s religious beliefs are such that they believe they are killing their pet by ending their life in an unnatural way, moral distress may play a role in their grief.”
“There are times,” Tucci continues, “when individuals may not understand the medical implications of what is happening to their pet and therefore are unable to make a clear decision on the process of euthanasia. If a pet parent experiences their pet struggling when their pet is being euthanized, this may cause an interruption of their grief experience by thinking they may have made the wrong decision. This is also true if the pet rallies and is perky just before the injection.”
There may be moral anguish if a grieving person looks back and concludes that they failed to understand the extent of an animal’s suffering and/or put off making a decision about euthanasia because it was too painful. In such instances, humans may blame themselves for allowing a pet to suffer. “When this occurs,” Tucci says, “there can be extreme feelings of guilt and low self-worth.” Circumstances specific to an individual dog’s death may also cause moral pain — for example, the dog who escapes through an open door and is hit by an automobile, or the dog euthanized against an owner’s wishes due to aggressive behavior shown to a neighbor.
Sometimes moral pain has nothing to do with the specifics of the death. For example, I worked with a woman who was providing care for her dying mother, which left her little time for her 14-year-old Basset Hound. “I was so stressed by Mom’s care that I just wound up ignoring him. He started having occasional [urinary] accidents, and I found myself getting impatient and yelling at him. I even had occasional thoughts that it would be easier if he were gone.” When her dog needed to be euthanized, she felt at peace with the decision but agonized over having lost her temper in moments of frustration. “I feel horrible. I worry he might have thought I didn’t love him anymore or that I wanted him to die. I wish I could have that time back.”
Ritual and Remembrance
When grieving for a beloved dog, it’s important to have opportunities to share one’s grief and, if desired, engage in rituals that honor and help make sense of the loss. Unfortunately, some who have lost pets find that such opportunities for rituals and support are rare, even nonexistent.
When it comes to our canine companions, says Tucci, “Families, friends and society do not always recognize this loss as important or legitimate. Statements from others such as: ‘This wasn’t a child,’ or ‘The impact isn’t as bad as losing a sibling or a parent,’ minimize the loss for the person experiencing grief.”
She likens this to what Dr. Kenneth Doka, PhD, calls “disenfranchised grief.” In his book, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Dr. Doka describes situations in which the significance of a loss goes unrecognized, unacknowledged or is dismissed by others—situations for which there is no recognized social or communal context in which to express one’s grief and receive support.
Feeling isolated in one’s grief can intensify the suffering of moral pain by presenting barriers to processing one’s thoughts and feelings as well as to receiving reassurances. Attempting to grieve in isolation can complicate such pain and even cause some to wonder if there is something wrong with them. Sometimes, this isolation is experienced as abandonment, even betrayal, by those from whom a grieving person expected compassion. Over time, moral pain typically lessens as we grieve and gain perspective. For those who are struggling with this kind of pain, the suggestions that follow may be helpful.
Tips for Coping With Moral Pain
1. Give yourself a break
Moral pain comes from caring about doing the right thing and wanting the best for your dog. If you did not care, you would not be feeling this kind of pain. Sometimes, there are things we don’t recognize or cannot control. We may need to make decisions under duress. Intense emotions and conflicting responsibilities can make these decisions very difficult, and whatever we decide, we may criticize ourselves. Acknowledge the difficulty of this kind of pressure and let yourself be human.
2. Find someone you can talk to
If you don’t have someone, think of somebody in your life, even if they are no longer alive, from whom you have felt love and compassion. Imagine they are in the room with you and tell them what you are thinking and feeling. Imagine their response.
3. Get creative
Some people find it helpful to write in a journal. Some write poetry or letters to their dogs, telling them what is in their hearts. Others express their feelings and honor connections with deceased dogs through other forms of creative expression, including music, art, storytelling, play, humor, or dancing.
4. Share your story
As we tell the story of our dog’s life, even if it’s just to ourselves, we see the longer journey we had with our pet, not just the last weeks, days, or hours. When we place end-of-life events in the larger context of a friendship that may have unfolded over years, we remember good times and moments of connection and warmth that may have been minimized or forgotten in the midst of our pain.
5. Create formal or informal rituals to honor your dog’s life
Tucci says these kinds of rituals “legitimize the grief experience and reflect the importance of the pet in this person’s life. This also becomes part of the letting go and moving forward process necessary in the healing of grief.”
6. Be mindful
It’s easy to get caught up in negative thoughts and beliefs. Being mindful means paying attention to what we are thinking, sensing and feeling in the present moment without avoiding, judging or identifying with negative states. In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Feelings, psychologist Christopher Germer, PhD, observes that “it seems that the more intense our emotional pain is, the more we suffer by obsessing, blaming ourselves or feeling defective.” He recommends bringing gentle attention to our inner experience and responding with self-compassion, “taking care of ourselves just as we’d treat someone we love dearly.”
7. Beware of cognitive distortions
Part of mindfulness is being aware of our thoughts and what we are telling ourselves. When doing this, it’s important to be on the lookout for what psychologists call cognitive distortions. These are ways our minds convince us of things that aren’t true and unconsciously reinforce painful beliefs that keep us feeling bad. There are dozens of cognitive distortions, including personalizing, black-and-white thinking, and negative mental filtering.
For example, emotional reasoning refers to a belief that if you feel something, it must be true. If you worry that your dog was angry at you or felt unprotected because you discovered too late that they were sick, you assume it’s true even though it’s not. The key to not getting hooked by cognitive distortions is to notice when they are occurring and gently “talk back” to them. “Oh, I’m falling into the trap of emotional reasoning. I feel sad about what happened, but Maggie was good at hiding when she was in pain. She knew how much I loved her.”
8. Don’t confuse regret, guilt, and shame
This is easy to do. In simple terms, regret is a sense of sadness that things turned out the way they did. It can convey a wish that we had understood a situation better so that we could have done things differently. Guilt refers to a belief that we knowingly did something that violated our code of ethics. Shame takes guilt to a whole new level by replacing the belief “I did something that was bad” with “I’m a bad person because of what I did.”
It’s easy to confuse these experiences. If you’re feeling intense regret, it’s easy to start blaming yourself. Before you know it, regret can turn into guilt and guilt can lead to shame. If you’re feeling shame, ask yourself, “Could this really be guilt?” If you’re feeling guilt, ask yourself, “How much of what I’m feeling is really regret?”
9. Tend to your body and spirit
Moral pain doesn’t just affect your heart and mind. It’s important to take care of your body by getting exercise, rest, and practicing good nutrition and sleep habits. If you have a faith tradition or spiritual/contemplative practice, these can be sources of strength, comfort, and perspective.
At times, moral pain can be intensified by destructive messages we’ve received and internalized at some point in our lives, often as children. Messages like, “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t do anything right,” “I have to be perfect,” “It’s my fault when something goes wrong,” or “It’s my job to make sure everyone is safe and happy.” People for whom this registers are warmly encouraged to find a safe context, possibly with a caring professional, to explore and gain perspective on these messages.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help
Or to join a support group. It’s okay to reach out to a psychotherapist or professional bereavement counselor. Many counselors understand this kind of pain and how deep the grief can be for a deceased animal companion.
Veterinary hospice and palliative care expert Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, on an alternative to euthanasia.
Scott Janssen, MA, MSW, LCSW
Scott Janssen, MA, MSW, LCSW, is a hospice social worker and dog lover who frequently writes about end-of-life transpersonal experiences.