In past blogs, we’ve talked about how guilt is a major factor in pet loss grief and how guilt and regret can be hard to distinguish. Today, we want to go a step further and talk about self-forgiveness and why it’s so important when you’re grieving for a pet.
Our sense of responsibility towards our pets
People often compare the sense of responsibility they feel towards their pets with the responsibility of caring for a young child. Neither animal nor infant can tell us what they need and they are entirely dependent on us for food, shelter, safety and love.
As pet carers, we have the responsibility of advocating for our pets based on our instincts and knowledge at the given moment in time. The pet cannot give us their perspective.
What if we get something wrong? The emotional toll of a pet dying because of something we did or didn’t do is huge.
Sometimes we make tragic mistakes
Sadly, there are times when we make tragic mistakes in relation to our pets.
Perhaps we accidentally leave the garden gate open or pop inside for a wee while the dog plays near an open pond. Maybe we reverse out of the drive without seeing our cat asleep under the car or leave the dog’s collar on while they are playing unsupervised.
These small things can happen a thousand times over with no consequences but it can take just one moment, one unfortunate colliding of events, to turn your world upside down.
Of course, the truth of life is that accidents happen. We can’t plan for every possible outcome. If we could, our A&E departments would be practically empty. But the guilt can be overwhelming when you know that something you do or didn’t do directly resulted in a beloved pet dying or going missing.
Sometimes we miss a sign or make the ‘wrong’ decision
Another responsibility we have as a pet carer is to make decisions about our pet’s healthcare without being able to talk to the animal about their symptoms.
We have to decide when to contact a vet, what treatment plan to follow, whose opinion to trust, what symptoms to worry about and so much more.
As many of us know too well, there are times when our action or inaction can result in a pet’s death.
Again, the guilt is tough to manage.
Sometimes we do what we believe is right
Euthanasia is another factor in pet loss guilt. We talked in a past blog about many of the feelings pet carers experience after having a pet ‘put to sleep’.
You may be struggling to forgive yourself for having chosen euthanasia. You may believe you left it too late or acted too soon. Or perhaps you believe your pet was scared or felt betrayed at the end of their life.
Even with the knowledge that you acted in your pet’s best interest, coming to terms with actively consenting to end your pet’s life can be hard to process.
Why self-forgiveness is so important
What can you do when you know that you personally had some part to play – however unintentionally – in your pet’s passing?
As humans, we often have the desire to blame someone for tragic events, but what do we do when the person we want to blame is ourselves?
A lot of research has been done around this topic, although most of it relates to human bereavement or when a person goes missing.
However, there are a growing number of psychology professionals who recognise that pet loss can be just as devastating and result in just the same feelings.
The overriding research finding is that self-forgiveness is essential if you are to ever find some kind of peace about your role in your pet’s death. People who are able to practice self-forgiveness and self-compassion are associated with lower levels of emotional distress and are less likely to experience PTSD, complicated grief or depression.
But how do you practice self-forgiveness and what does it even really mean?
What forgiveness is and what it isn’t
Before we look at some tips for practicing self-forgiveness, it might be helpful to look at what forgiveness is as well as what it isn’t.
Research from Enright and North (1998) defined forgiveness as:
“A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgement and indifferent behaviour to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love towards him or her”.
In other words, forgiveness is not about pretending that a mistake didn’t happen or glossing it over but, instead, choosing to show compassion towards the person who made the mistake rather than judging or blaming them.
In the case of self-forgiveness, you give the compassion to yourself. But how?
10 tips to help you practice self-forgiveness
The tips below come from a mixture of bereavement counsellors and individuals who have suffered a bereavement where their actions either directly or indirectly led to their loved one’s death.
1. Embrace your guilt
Guilt is a distressing emotion, both for you and for the people around you. It can fester inside of you. People may tell you not to feel guilty, often because it’s an uncomfortable emotion to confront. But the truth is that this advice doesn’t really help. Fairly or unfairly, you do feel guilt.
Embracing your guilt isn’t about wallowing in it or letting it overtake you. This tip is about sitting with your feelings, as unpleasant as they may be. If you did something that contributed to losing your pet, it is helpful to acknowledge this and bring it out into the open by talking about it.
2. Be specific about what you need to forgive yourself for
Guilt has a way of growing and becoming quite generalised. Left unchecked, it can start to colour the way that you see yourself.
A crucial part of being able to forgive yourself is being specific about why you feel guilty. For example, if you left your garden gate open and your dog ran out into the road, the thing you have to forgive yourself for is forgetting to shut the gate.
You didn’t wish your dog harm and you didn’t leave the gate open intentionally. What you did was make a human mistake.
3. Think about your intention/motives
It’s important that you look at your intention or motives in the events leading up to your pet’s death.
- What did you know?
- Why did you make the decisions you did at the time?
- Did you intend to cause harm?
- Did you do the best you could do with the information you had?
The chances are that you didn’t do anything at all with malice or an intention to harm in your mind.
You may have decided to wait to see the vet, for example, because you didn’t want to stress your pet out unnecessarily in the middle of the night. You may have delayed looking for your cat because they had a history of disappearing for days at a time. You may have left the door open because you were distracted.
4. Let go of feelings of shame
Sometimes, when we know we made a mistake with devastating consequences, our feelings of guilt can morph into shame.
Shame is defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour”. It’s an emotion often rooted in the knowledge that you knew what you were doing was wrong at the time of doing it.
However, as we’ve seen above, it’s unlikely that you deliberately made a wrong decision about your pet. You did the best you could with the knowledge you had at the time.
Shame is a problematic emotion because it tends to lend itself to black and white thinking. Instead of recognising, “I did a bad thing or I made a bad decision”, shame leads you to believe, “I am a bad person”.
Self-forgiveness is about being kinder to yourself. You’re not a bad person. You did not intend any harm to your pet.
It’s okay to feel guilty. Guilt can help you identify mistakes and learn from them. Taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences is an important part of self-growth. Researchers say that feelings of remorse, repentance and a sense of being humbled are all a healthy way to respond to guilt in grief and to eventually integrate these feelings.
Where guilt is unhealthy and unhelpful is when it crosses into self-recrimination.
5. Show yourself the same compassion you would show to a loved one
Sometimes, we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. If a loved one had been through the same loss as you as a result of the same decisions/actions, what would you say to them?
What would it take for you to forgive them?
It’s likely that you would be far more compassionate to someone else than you’re being to yourself. You would probably look at the big picture and consider all the ways your loved one made their pet’s life a happy one.
Every time your critical inner voice starts berating you, try to stop it and reword what you’re saying with the words you would use towards a loved one in the same situation. How would you talk to your child, a parent, your partner or a best friend? Show yourself the same kindness.
6. Guilt isn’t always rational
When a pet dies, it’s often as a result of unlikely circumstances coming together. This could be a cat running into the road at the exact moment a car was passing or a dog running into a randomly placed stick in the woods. Perhaps your pet managed to get trapped somewhere or caught by their collar.
While you may have taken the dog for the walk or put the collar round their neck, there is no way you could ever have predicted how events would collide and unfold. If only clairvoyance could be part of the pet keeping package!
Of course, just because guilt isn’t always rational or deserved doesn’t mean that you won’t feel it.
Again, it can be helpful to think back to your intentions and motives here.
You took your dog for a walk because you wanted to give them enrichment and exercise. You gave your cat a collar so people would know how to contact you if your furry friend ever strayed too far from home. You let your cat out because you wanted them to have a fulfilled, interesting life.
These are all good, loving decisions.
7. Pay forward making amends
The real kicker when a pet dies is that we can never make amends to them for our role in their passing. If you want your pet’s forgiveness, this knowledge can be hard to accept.
One option is to make amends in another way, paying it forward in your pet’s honour.
For example, you could volunteer at your local animal shelter or make a donation to an animal charity. If your pet died in tragic circumstances that could affect other people, you could start an awareness raising campaign.
8. Talk to your pet
Many grief counsellors advise bereaved people to talk to their lost loved one.
One way to do this is a variation of the popular therapeutic exercise known as ‘The Empty Chair’. In part one of this exercise, you imagine that your pet is sitting in an empty chair opposite you and you tell them all the things you’re feeling, including your guilt.
In part two of the exercise, you swap to the empty chair and talk back as though your pet is able to answer you. As you no doubt knew your pet to be loving towards you, the words you imagine for them are likely to be more loving and compassionate than you would otherwise choose to be towards yourself.
This can be a powerful way of offering self-forgiveness.
9. See your mistake as part of the human experience
As human beings, we are all destined to make mistakes in life, some large and some small. And with each mistake we make, we face a choice. We can choose to stay stuck, reliving the moment of the mistake even though we are powerless to undo it, or we can learn as much as possible from the mistake and choose to use that knowledge on the rest of our journey through life.
If you said or did something that resulted in your pet’s death – or your inaction played a part – what can you learn from this? What will you do differently knowing what you know now? How could your experience help others? Could it make you a better pet carer in the future or make you more compassionate in some way?
10. Actively choose self-forgiveness
Above all, self-forgiveness has to be an active choice. Every time, you fall into the pattern of self-condemnation, you will need to actively decide to interrupt your internal voice with more compassionate thoughts. At first, this will require a lot of conscious effort on your part but it should become more natural with time.
Self-forgiveness is not about claiming you don’t hurt or denying the part you played in your pet’s passing. Instead, it’s about choosing not to place blame and recognising that you never had bad intentions.
With time, self-forgiveness will hopefully enable you to remember your entire relationship with your pet rather than just the circumstances surrounding their passing from your life together.
Until that time, know that you’re not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support