Marie felt certain she was responsible for the death of her beloved dog Jasmine. It was springtime when Jasmine’s cough began so Marie assumed that allergies were at play. When the coughing progressed Marie scheduled a veterinary visit. X-rays revealed lung cancer- unfortunately too far advanced for any form of therapy to provide significant benefit. Marie bared her soul at the support group she attended and I facilitated. She felt devastated, mired in guilt because of her certainty that, had she acted sooner, her sweet girl Jasmine would still be alive.
My 30 years as a small animal veterinarian and six years as the facilitator of a support group for folks struggling emotionally with the illness or loss of pet have taught me that Marie’s feelings are not at all unusual. “If only I had……” and “If only I hadn’t……” are frequent guilt-ridden sentence starters for those experiencing heartache over a four-legged family member.
In fact, guilt is so darned common that, in my own little world of veterinary medicine, I have deemed it to be the sixth stage of the grieving process accompanying these five already officially recognized:
Denial: This river in Egypt is a mighty fine place to take an emotional vacation, just so long as it is not a permanent one.
Anger: Serious illness and death can feel so unfair. What better way to vent about such injustice?
Bargaining: By offering up a “deal” to a higher presence or power, one might be able to influence the ultimate outcome. For example, “I will walk Tully twice a day, every single day if only he will get better.”
Depression: A most natural response to sadness and loss.
Acceptance: Thoughts and memories of the animal elicit smiles rather than only tears. There is some recognition that things are going to be okay.
Keep in mind that these stages are not experienced in any particular order. And sometimes, the grief-stricken will circle back to a particular stage more than once. This is all very normal. What’s important is that progress is made. Staying stuck in a particular stage of grief is not healthy. And nothing is more capable of keeping a person “stuck” than strong feelings of guilt.
So, back to the question posed by the title of this post. Guilt, what is it good for? My emphatic response is “Absolutely nothing!” The quicker guilt can be dislodged, the better! Using Jasmine and Marie as an example, here are some strategies you can use to help others (or your own self!) move beyond guilt:
- Verbally acknowledge the emotion. Name it and put it out there on the table. For example, “It sounds like you are feeling really guilty about Jasmine.”
- Shift the focus back to what the individual’s intentions were for their pet. For example, “Marie, think about how you cared for Jasmine all of these years. She lived like a princess! I am certain that you have never had anything but the very best of intentions for her.”
- Reassure Marie that she is not being judged. This can be difficult to do, particularly if you believe Jasmine should have been examined by the vet sooner. If you cannot give an Oscar worthy performance to hide such feelings, probably best to avoid being part of Marie’s support network for the time being.
- As natural as it is to want to say, “Marie, you shouldn’t feel guilty!” I encourage you to avoid doing so. Marie is not experiencing guilt by choice. She cannot simply turn off this emotion. Being asked to feel a different way only adds to her emotional burden.
One last bit of advice. Be aware that grief is not reserved only for those who have lost a pet. Most of us launch ourselves into the grieving process the very moment we receive news that heralds a bad outcome.
Have you ever experienced guilt as part of a grief process? If so, what was your strategy to get past this?
Wishing you and your four-legged family members a joyful and healthy holiday season.
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.