By Becky Murray, CVT, LPC —
Hi all! This is Becky, the counselor at Veterinary Specialty Center, and you are reading my “Counselor’s Corner” blog. Thanks for joining me again. As I stated in the last blog, I am going back to the beginning and addressing some of the more common questions and statements I hear after someone has lost a pet to death or euthanasia. A close second to the “Am I crazy” question I addressed last year is the question “Would my loved one have died if…” The question can be finished in dozens of ways, from “…if I had known sooner?” to “…if I had fed different food?” to “…if I hadn’t gone out of town?” I have heard many, many versions of this question and they all usually accompany a deep feeling of guilt
Before I continue, I want to talk about the difference between irrational and invalid. Irrational merely means that the thought or idea does not stand up to logic. Invalid, as an adjective, means not true. An example of an irrational thought is, “I think I should have known my pet had a tumor even though my veterinarian did not know it was there after a physical exam and the only way to find it is with an ultrasound or other tests which are not run on a regular exam.” This thought is an irrational thought because it is pretty much stating, “I should have known something I could not have known.” However, this same thought is valid, because the person thinking it really does believe it on some level. This is an important distinction because emotions are not rational and may influence our thinking. They defy logic and often make no sense. This does not mean, however, that these feelings are invalid.
After a loss, many people’s thoughts are colored by emotions. Because of this, most people have a lot of irrational thoughts. These thoughts, and the feelings behind them, are still valid. A great example of this is guilt. After a loss, it is so very easy to blame the loss on something we did wrong. Most of the time, we did nothing to cause the death of a loved one, but that does not keep us from harshly judging ourselves. Unfortunately, even if feeling guilt is irrational, that feeling is very much valid and real.
One reason we feel responsible is our role as a caregiver. For the majority of our furry friends’ lives, we did have control. We control what and how much they eat. We control who they see and what exercise they get. We take them to the doctor and make sure they get their medicines. Our schedules revolve around their care. For their whole lives, almost nothing happens to them that we do not direct. We fool ourselves into thinking we control everything about them. The reality, however, is that we cannot control disease, not completely. And we cannot control death at all. This is a harsh reality for a caregiver.
Another reason people feel guilt is the need to answer the question “why” We want to know why our pet died, why she developed this disease, why he bolted out the door and into the street. Why, why? When we feel this way, we often churn through details of their life trying to figure out what went wrong. When we do that, we might begin to feel as if we should have been able to prevent death, which in turn leads to guilt.
People often think that if we could go back and change something, the outcome would have changed for the better. What if it would have changed for the worse? We do not know what would have happened, although we paint such a strong picture that we can fool ourselves into thinking we can. We assume that we failed when perhaps we have succeeded. For instance, the thought, “If only I had fed a different food, he would not have developed that disease.” Perhaps, but what if that other food caused him to develop a different disease? We cannot know.
So, what can we do when we feel guilty? Well, we can understand that the feelings of guilt are not going to leave quickly. When we think an irrational thought that has an emotional origin, we can challenge the validity of it. For instance, “I feel guilty because I miss her and want her back, but I made the best decision for her with the information I had. I am human, not all-knowing.” Another is, “I do not know whether the outcome would have been better or worse if I had made another decision, but I made a lot of good decisions for him during his life.” This may seem like a weak tool against the wracking guilt we feel, but over time it does help to minimize the guilt.
The takeaway message this month is: be kind to yourself. You loved that little/big furry/scaly/feathered creature and you gave him a good life. Their short lifespans are not fair, but you do not bear the responsibility for that. In fact, you probably extended it with your good care. The decisions you made were driven by the intention of good care and love. What more can any of us ask of our families?
Becky Murray is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT) that counsels clients of VSC and our referral community on pet loss, quality of life decisions for pets and grief. She also lectures extensively in the veterinary community on Compassion Fatigue. You may reach Becky at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about our services may be found here.