We’ve talked in the past about how guilt is often something we feel after a pet dies or goes missing. It may be an emotion you’re experiencing yourself, which is what’s brought you to this site.
However, are you sure that you’re experiencing guilt and not regret? The two emotions are often talked about as though they’re interchangeable but there are actually some subtle but important distinctions that can affect how you process your grief and begin healing.
Guilt vs. regret: What’s the difference?
Look in various dictionaries and you’ll find a range of definitions for guilt and regret.
Broadly speaking though, guilt is defined as ‘the fact of having done something wrong or committed a crime’ or ‘a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person’.
Regret, on the other hand, is defined as ‘a feeling of sadness about something sad or wrong or about a mistake that you have made, and a wish that it could have been different and better’. Another definition is ‘to feel sorry or unhappy about something you did or were unable to do’.
The distinction between the two feelings comes down to intent.
Guilt is the feeling that comes from consciously choosing to do something that is morally wrong and knowing at the time that it could potentially cause harm.
Regret, however, is about wishing you could change things retrospectively but not knowing that something was wrong or could result in a mistake at the time.
Guilt or regret? Does it really matter?
There is an argument that, as guilt and regret can both make you feel awful after pet loss, the differences between the two emotions don’t really matter.
Our brains can trick us into feeling guilty even when what we’re really experiencing is regret, so sometimes it’s hard to recognise the emotions for what they really are. As difficult as it is, it’s worth spending some time reflecting on whether you feel guilt or regret. It could give you valuable insights into how you can move forward in your grief.
Guilt requires forgiveness
Ask yourself whether you intended to cause your pet harm?
The fact that you’re on a website aimed at pet loss grief suggests that you’re probably someone who cares a great deal for their animal companions. It would be hard to imagine such a person deliberately going out of their way to hurt their loved one.
But if there is something you did that you genuinely feel guilty about, there are steps you can take to come to terms with your feelings:
- Accept responsibility for your actions
- Take steps to make amends, if possible – even writing a letter to your deceased pet can help
- Explore what you have learned and how you have grown since your pet passed
- Decide to let go of your feelings of anger, resentment or your desire for retribution, whether these feelings are aimed at you or someone else
- Allow yourself to feel remorse
- Commit to not repeating the same behaviours again
- Offer yourself forgiveness
Self-forgiveness is not about ignoring your grief or the reason for your guilt. Instead, it requires you to accept what happened and to show compassion towards yourself. Guilt comes from knowing that something you did wasn’t morally aligned with your values. But the fact that you feel guilt shows that you care.
As a loving pet carer, it’s much more likely that you need to make peace with regret rather than berating yourself with guilt.
In fact, there’s probably not a person alive who doesn’t feel some form of regret following a bereavement.
Decisions we made, signals we didn’t pick up on, time we didn’t find can all haunt our thoughts.
Again, ask yourself that important question – did I ever intend to cause my pet harm?
Even in the most tragic of circumstances, the chances are that you never intended anything bad to happen to your pet.
Perhaps you left the garden gate open and your cat escaped into the path of a moving car. Maybe you took your dog for a walk and they were fatally injured playing with a stick. Or perhaps your hamster wriggled out of your hands as you were lifting them out of their cage and died as a result of the fall.
In each of these scenarios, you would only have had good intentions for your pet – to let them play in the garden, to enjoy their daily exercise, to experience a loving cuddle. You could never have known that your pet would die.
Sadly, accidents happen. As humans, we make mistakes. We don’t have the ability to see into the future. Sometimes different events collide to create a catastrophe, whereas they would have been harmless in isolation (a stranger driving their car, a stick laying on a forest floor). Regret is about wishing we could change things, even though we know it’s not possible.
Regrets after bereavement
Unfortunately, regrets that come about because of the death of a loved one are probably the hardest to come to terms with.
There’s no way to explain our regrets, do and not do things differently, or make amends because the opportunity has gone.
In this situation, the only option may be to make peace with yourself:
- Acknowledge your regrets
- Accept your limitations – as a human, you are destined to make mistakes
- Reframe your loss by looking at what you can learn from it – what has your pet taught you? What would you want to do differently in the future?
- Express forgiveness
Recognise that you only have regrets because you love your pet so much and that the beauty of that love will continue.
Euthanasia – where guilt and regret meet
Euthanasia is something that causes many pet carers a huge amount of regret and guilt, with the two emotions often overlapping.
It’s a decision that we know will result in our pet’s death and, therefore, it feels like we’re complicit in causing harm.
But, again, it’s important to think about your intentions.
The reality is that you’re complicit in ending harm, not causing it.
You would have agreed to euthanasia because your pet was suffering in some way. Your intention was to end their pain and give them peace. It’s natural to regret that you have had to make this decision but, hopefully, with time, you will be able to absolve yourself of guilt. You only ever had your pet’s best interests at heart.
Only you can let go of guilt
People often go to great lengths to tell someone who’s grieving that they shouldn’t feel guilty. Your loved ones won’t want you to feel bad and, in most cases, guilt is truly misplaced.
But guilt or regret, you can’t help how you feel.
An article telling you not to feel guilty won’t make your guilt vanish in an instant.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is sit with your emotions and acknowledge them. The distinctions between regret and guilt outlined in this blog may help you to find a way to grow beyond your grief, but it’s okay if they don’t.
There is no right way or wrong way to grieve, only your way.
Just know that you’re not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support