When you feel you waited too long to say goodbye to your pet

Losing a beloved pet is an incredibly difficult experience, whatever the circumstances, but how do you come to terms with the belief that you waited too long to say goodbye?

People often talk about their worries around euthanasia, but it’s generally in the context of wondering if it’s the right thing to do or whether they’ll make the decision too soon. A common saying, “Better a week too early than a day too late”, provides reassurance about this.

But what about those of us who feel we were too late – be it a minute, an hour, a day, a week or longer? How do we come to terms with our feelings of guilt and regret? How do we move forward when we believe that our loved one suffered because we didn’t act soon enough?

Guilt and regret often accompany pet loss

The first thing to say is that guilt and regret are often present with pet loss grief.

One of the reasons for this is that our animal companions can’t tell us how they feel or what their dying wishes are. 

Our pets are utterly dependent on us. We determine how they live and, in many cases, how and when they die. This comes with a huge amount of responsibility.

What would our pet choose if they could tell us? Would they prefer a “natural” death without intervention? Would they prefer to say goodbye while they still have some good times in amongst the bad, or would they want to wait as long as possible?

Without definitive answers, we must act on instinct and our knowledge of our pet’s behaviour. After a pet has died, this can leave us feeling guilty that we made the wrong choice or got the timing of our choice wrong.

Euthanasia gives death a time limit

Euthanasia (meaning “good death”) is a deliberate intervention to end an animal’s pain or suffering. 

When offered, euthanasia is intended to be in the animal’s best interests. If most of the animal’s good days are behind them, the intention is to bring about a calm and peaceful death without prolonged suffering.

In this article, we’re assuming that you considered at some stage whether to euthanise your pet (i.e. have them “put to sleep”). It’s knowing that euthanasia is an option that puts death on some sort of schedule and leads to the feeling of waiting too long. 

In the end, you may have decided not to choose euthanasia, or maybe you wish you’d opted for it sooner. If this doesn’t reflect your experience, we hope you will still find valuable advice and support below.

Euthanasia is both a gift and a curse

People often refer to euthanasia as the last “gift” or “kindness” that we can give to our pets. But many of us would agree that euthanasia is both a gift and a curse (at least, for us as pet carers). 

Yes, euthanasia enables us to prevent an animal companion from enduring needless suffering (many humans are currently campaigning to have the same right over their own lives and deaths). However, knowing that euthanasia is an option means that we may feel more pressure to ensure a well-timed “good death”.

This creates an illusion that death is something we can control, that there is a “right time”, but the truth is that this isn’t always possible.

The death of any living being is a strange contradiction – completely inevitable and yet utterly unpredictable. 

Because our pets can’t talk to us, most of us desperately hope for a definitive moment when we know euthanasia is the right choice. Other people might have said to you, “You’ll know when it’s time” or “You’ll see in your pet’s eyes when they’re ready” but, often, this isn’t the case.

Sometimes, it takes an emergency for euthanasia to be the only choice.

It’s more common for an animal to move slowly towards the end of their life, either through ill health or old age. When this happens, it isn’t always obvious when euthanasia is the “right” decision or in the animal’s best interest.

Your pet may have had good days in with the bad. Just when you thought you were clear about it being the right time for euthanasia, they may have rallied. You may have been waiting for a sign or for your pet to give you permission to say goodbye.

In the absence of these things, perhaps you waited longer than you believe you should have done. But you only ever waited with good intentions.

You’re not alone

As we mentioned earlier, you’re not alone if you feel responsible for your pet’s suffering or the timing of their passing. With such a heavy responsibility, it’s normal to question if you made the right decisions regarding your pet’s treatment or euthanasia.

Many bereaved pet carers believe they should have acted sooner or differently. 

You may find yourself dwelling on “what if” scenarios and imagining alternative outcomes. It’s also natural to struggle with the circumstances surrounding your pet’s passing, especially if you feel that you somehow waited too long to say goodbye.

We hope we can offer you some comfort.

Guilt and regret often accompany grief

Feelings of guilt and regret are normal reactions to loss. There’s a good chance that you would wish for a different course of events or outcome, regardless of how or when your pet died. In part, these thoughts are about helping you make sense of what has happened. They also enable you to draw on your experience in the future. 

Recognise the good intentions behind your decisions

You provided love and care for your pet throughout your time together. If you feel in hindsight that you waited too long to say goodbye, you only did so from a place of love and good intentions. You would never have chosen to let your pet suffer.

Sadly, there are cruel people in the world who cause animals immense suffering, but you are not one of them.

As we’ve already highlighted, we’re often led to believe that animals somehow communicate when they are at peace with dying, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, death approaches slowly, and we must decide what a good quality of life might look like to our pets based on what they loved when they were well.

Of course, this is subjective – talk to ten different people, and they may all have differing opinions about what constitutes a decent quality of life. This is one of the reasons why end-of-life decisions on behalf of our pets are so challenging. Yes, there are quality-of-life scales that can help, but even these are subjective.

Every pet or situation is unique; you also have a unique perspective based on your life experiences. You made the decisions you did – even decisions to wait before acting – with the information you had available to you at the time, and based on what you could live with in the moment.

You couldn’t have done more.

It can be hard to see clearly when we’re in the middle of a situation. Even if people you know urged you to act sooner, remember that they had the benefit of distance and a more detached perspective.

Be kind to yourself. You did your best in impossible circumstances.

Although it’s difficult to think about anything other than how or when your pet died right now, remind yourself of the good memories and the bond you shared. This will be what your pet carried with them, and it’s in these memories that you’ll find them again.

Death from your pet’s perspective

Because we share such an intense bond with our animal companions, it’s easy to anthropomorphise them (i.e. attribute human behaviours, thoughts, or characteristics to them). However, we must remember that other animal species may not approach death in the same way as humans.

Do they fear or despair at the thought of dying? Do they wrestle with or understand the choice between a future life of suffering or a quick death? Do they want to stay alive to be with us, even if it means that their suffering will continue?

Even people who have studied the animal species we keep as pets for decades can’t answer those questions.

Many would say that while animals are sentient beings with rich emotional lives, and some species undoubtedly mourn and recognise that the dead are gone for good, it is possibly only humans who understand that death will come for us all. This means that your pet wasn’t reflecting on their mortality or even the cause of their pain. More likely, they were inhabiting their physical body with a complete focus on the moment, not the past or the future. 

When any suffering did end for your pet, just know that the relief was instantaneous.

Find ways to mourn, honour and celebrate your pet

If love could have saved your animal friend, they would have been with you forever. Sadly, though, no one is immortal. 

It’s understandable that you want to reflect on how your pet died and that you might have regrets. It can be helpful to sit with your feelings, acknowledge them and express them, but it’s also important that you don’t stay in this place of loss and guilt forever.

Your pet died, and there are things you wish you could change about this, but crucially, they lived too – and it’s their beautiful life that deserves to be remembered.

It can be helpful to find ways to honour and celebrate your pet. This can include creating a memorial, writing to your pet, planting a tree in honour of them, sponsoring another animal in their name, or any other act that feels meaningful to you.

Talk about your pet loss

The Ralph Site exists because we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to talk openly about their feelings when a pet dies.

It can be comforting to seek the company (online or in person) with people who have experienced something similar. If you post in The Ralph Site pet loss support group, you may be surprised by how many people believe they waited too long to say goodbye.

These conversations can encourage you to exercise self-forgiveness. What would you say to someone who is wrestling with the same thoughts as you about waiting too long?

If your guilt and regret are becoming overwhelming, you might want to seek guidance from a bereavement counsellor or someone who specialises in pet loss support. 

Healing from the loss of a pet takes time, and everyone responds differently. When you feel you should have acted sooner to end your animal companion’s suffering, it can stir up complex feelings.

Be gentle and compassionate towards yourself. Focus on your intentions towards your pet – they were only ever good.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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