Why forgiveness is so important to the grieving process 

Pet loss grief is deeply personal and can include an array of emotions and feelings such as anger, regret, guilt, sadness, and anxiety.  

Wanting to apportion blame can be part of the grieving process, too. 

This is because it’s human nature to want to find a reason for why something happens, especially if there’s an unhappy or tragic outcome. It’s a protective mechanism, too. If we can understand what caused a death, we can prevent it from happening again.  

But, of course, this is futile. All living things must die eventually, and that can be hard to accept. 

It’s easy to get trapped in the mindset that someone or something must be to blame for your pet’s passing. Indeed, maybe a mistake was made, or with different information or resources, the outcome could have been different. 

Unfortunately, focusing on who or what to blame can take you down a lonely and difficult path, and may keep you frozen in this difficult time. As harsh as it sounds, thinking about what could have been done differently won’t change the reality that your animal friend has gone. 

We understand that this is difficult to accept. 

This is why many bereavement experts believe that forgiveness is a vital component in learning to manage the difficult emotions associated with grief and find some peace moving forward.  

We’ve talked about the importance of self-forgiveness in a previous article, but today, we want to look at the idea of forgiveness more broadly. This might include forgiving your vet, a friend or family member or another of your pet’s caregivers, or even your pet themselves.  

What is forgiveness? 

The Greater Good Science Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, defines forgiveness as “a conscious, deliberate position to release feelings of resentment or vengeance towards a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness”. 

They further say, “when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of the offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offences. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you or release them from legal responsibility”. 

Forgiveness is about letting go of corrosive anger and other deeply held feelings that can damage your wellbeing. It’s about recognising your pain without letting the pain define you. 

Understanding the role of forgiveness in grief 

When a pet dies, it’s common to harbour feelings of guilt or regret.  

You might find yourself grappling with “what ifs” and “if onlys,” questioning decisions made and actions taken. You might think your vet made a mistake or feel angry that a family member forgot to shut the front door. Maybe you’re angry with your pet for eating something that harmed them, for not responding to treatment, or even for getting old. 

These thoughts can become a heavy burden, intensifying the pain you’re experiencing. 

Blame is one way to shift these difficult feelings to an external cause. However, when we focus on placing blame, it can prolong our sense of anger and injustice, turning to resentment or even a need for revenge. 

These feelings can take root, hurting our relationships or changing how we see the world. Plus, by keeping us focused on the moment of a pet’s death, we lose touch with the wonder of their life. 

In this context, forgiveness is not about absolving anyone of responsibility or minimising the significance of one’s loss.  

It is about finding the compassion and understanding to begin to release the weight of guilt and regret and make space for healing and acceptance. 

What forgiveness isn’t…. 

You might be struggling with the idea of forgiveness.  

People often talk about how it’s important to “forgive and forget”, but it’s understandable if you don’t want to forget mistakes that were made or lessons that can be learned from your pet’s passing. 

You might find it more acceptable to explore how you or the people involved can learn from your loss and then forgive.  

For example, if your pet ran into the road because the garden gate was left open, there’s a lesson to everyone you know to always lock the gate or check where a pet is if they’re free roaming in any way. Forgiveness comes from recognising that all it takes to leave a gate open is a moment’s lapse of judgement or concentration, and what human doesn’t experience those? There was no malice involved. 

If someone did intentionally harm your pet, you may feel that giving forgiveness lets them “get away with” their bad behaviour. Here, it’s important to remember that forgiveness isn’t for the offender – it’s for you, the griever. Being angry or wanting justice or revenge won’t change what’s happened, but it may prevent you from grieving. 

As appealing as that may sound, grief is a natural reaction to loss and an expression of love. It might not feel like it now, but making space for your grief is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself.

Where forgiveness and acceptance meet 

Acceptance is a key part of the grief journey. In this context, it’s understanding that your pet is no longer here without trying to change the outcome or fight that reality.  

However, acceptance can be challenging to reach if we are mired in self-recrimination or focused on blaming someone or something else for what happened.  

Forgiveness serves as a bridge to acceptance, allowing us to move from a place of blame to one of understanding and peace. 

For instance, after the loss of a pet, many people struggle with the decision to euthanise. Questions like “Did I act too soon?” or “Could I have done more?” often plague the grieving mind.  

Forgiveness in this scenario involves recognising the love and care that guided such decisions and understanding that the intent was to alleviate suffering and provide peace.  

By forgiving, we acknowledge the compassionate motivation behind an action, facilitating a more profound acceptance of the loss. 

Practical steps towards forgiveness 

Forgiveness, while essential, is not always easy. It requires introspection, empathy, and, sometimes, professional guidance. Here are some practical steps to incorporate forgiveness into your grief journey: 

  1. Self-reflection: Take time to reflect on the circumstances of the loss and your feelings about it. Journalling can be a helpful tool to articulate these emotions and understand them better. 
  1. Seek support: Engage with supportive communities, whether through friends, family, or bereavement support groups (e.g. The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group). Sharing your story and hearing others’ experiences can provide perspective and comfort. 
  1. Professional guidance: Consider seeking the help of a therapist or counsellor who specialises in grief. They can offer strategies to navigate complex emotions and facilitate the forgiveness process. 
  1. Mindfulness and meditation: Practices like mindfulness and meditation can help you stay present and manage overwhelming emotions. They offer a space to cultivate compassion for yourself and others. 
  1. Rituals and memorials: Create rituals or memorials to honour the memory of your much-loved animal companion. These acts of remembrance can provide a sense of closure and peace. 

Embracing forgiveness  

Forgiveness is a powerful tool in the grief process. It helps to acknowledge the love and intentions behind our actions and to release the hold of negative emotions.  

Navigating grief is never easy, but with forgiveness as a guiding principle, we can find the strength to heal and the courage to move forward. Remember, it’s a personal journey, and it’s OK to seek help and take your time. Healing is possible, and you don’t have to face it alone. 

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

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