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Some Reflections On Guilt During Bereavement

This is the second in our series of articles by our founder, Dr Wallace Sife, that we’re publishing as part of celebrating 25 years of the APLB as a not-for-profit. In this article Dr. Sife talks about guilt – an intrinsic and very painful component of grief. We acknowledge that some thinking and research on this topic may have changed since it was published in the Autumn 1999 edition of our newsletter.



Guilt is a psychological invention, based on insecurity or negative self-evaluation. It is a normal response to failing some duty or obligation. It thrives in an atmosphere of self-blame and punishment, and is one of the most common emotions in the human repertoire. This reaction regulates behavior within societies, ranging from nations, through small groups, families and even individuals. In most instances this is necessary and good for the well-being and even survival of the social cluster. But too often, guilt is unfairly conceived and irrationally self-applied. In those instances it too easily digresses from its positive social values. We are all familiar with this, during the initial stages of pet bereavement. At that critical time it is a normal response to lose objectivity and some degree of rationality. After all, shock and disbelief are the first two stages we experience. At this time our passions are overwhelming, and we certainly are not level-headed about many things. A great tragedy has happened, and somehow, we feel profoundly responsible for it.


Guilt is a normal protective reaction of the human psyche, staggering after a great trauma – and it is to be expected. Because of our complete loss of control of the pet’s life, we have a great need to still cling to some kind of responsibility – any kind. Otherwise, the loss at this time would be almost unbearable. In this situation, the human mind invents guilt, to shield itself. At a time when everything else seems so lost and numbing, this is something we can sense, profoundly. Guilt is so dominating and tangible that we can almost taste it. And it will overwhelm everything else, during this interval. Strange enough, it serves a powerful psychological need at this time.


Our irrational subconscious takes over and gives us something we can still cling to, during these tortured days. It is an emotionally-driven substitute for the dominant sense of responsibility we lost, and it unconsciously serves that urgency. Incidentally, this is also very closely related to needing to blame others, who may be insignificantly involved in the pet’s death – or even absolutely faultless. Again, we must keep in mind that this is a temporary phase, during which passion and irrationality hold the reins. Our feelings are controlling us at this time, and logic is too easily jettisoned. It is a normal reaction to feel at this time that we need to cling to our pain and grief – as a tangible reassurance of our love for the deceased pet. We feel that if we stop grieving, we will lose the last contacts with the loved one. It feels as if it is necessary to clutch the grief tightly, or even our most loving memories will be lost. We must cling, desperately, to the agonizing here and now of heartache. And when good people try to counsel us, saying that time will help heal the pain, we can almost respond with anger. How dare anyone suggest that we ever would want to let go of our feelings and loss? The thought of getting better and coming to closure can seem at this time like disloyalty to the beloved pet’s memory. But what we need to understand is that we will only be the letting go of the raw edge of pain and grief – not the loving memory. Often, we are so blinded by guilt that we can’t see this, at first. And despite our inclination to feel disturbed by being told that time will help heal our pain, somehow, it always does! That is why we call these stages of bereavement.


Then we go through innumerable moments of self-torture, thinking all kinds of “what ifs” and “should haves”. Volumes could be filled with just the examples we have shared in our chat rooms, in the last year. But in the long run, we must learn a poignant lesson: Hindsight should be used for positive purposes, not negative ones. A great part of the loving legacy left us by our pets is to become better people, because of them. We have been enriched, with their dear memories, forever within us. And we must move on and evolve. Lamenting over the past, and what might have been, is always destructive, as well as completely non-productive. It can’t help, and it is sure to handicap and distress us – until we can finally get past that all-consuming stage.


There is one very important lesson we can learn from pet bereavement and all its accompanying forms of guilt. We must give ourselves permission to heal. Without that, we are indulging in an unending form of self-flagellation, and even the best of counselors cannot help. We each create our own overwhelming remorse and emotional distress, and must eventually learn to repossess ourselves.


Many recent publications have come out on pet bereavement, including my “The Loss of a Pet” (with a special chapter on guilt). Although all of these books are very well-intentioned and caring, some lose the important perspective that guilt is a normal, overwhelming, irrational emotional response, during the initial stages of bereavement. Their approach is to offer logical textbook instruction on how to get out of this – through certain carefully formulated intellectual means. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. It is a theoretical strategy which overlooks the natural reactions of the human psyche, during extreme bereavement. Passion can destroy clear thinking. Life won’t conform to books; it should be the other way around. Effective therapists have long known this, and use it in their healing strategies.


The world first became aware of the term “survivor’s guilt” after the Holocaust. Now, we can find rare examples of it in pet bereavement. Of course, professional help is needed in extreme cases of this, as well as other acute expressions of guilt.


Euthanasia is probably the most profound expression of responsibility and love we can ever know. We have learned from observation that there are a few different kinds of guilt that commonly arise from this. If the personal belief systems of some pet owners do not support its acceptance, euthanasia can be a double edged sword of guilt. On one hand, these pet owners can cause unnecessary suffering for their companion animals by not “believing” in this option. And then, if they do choose to mercifully terminate the pet’s life, many will struggle with their doubts and resultant “religious” guilt, as well.


All pet owners agonize over how will they know when to choose the right moment for euthanasia. This so often ends up in a passionate wrestling match with one’s self. This is a personal covenant between each individual and the beloved pet. Although good advice is often available from veterinarians and close friends, the final accountability is always with the owners. Guilt is often the natural consequence, regardless of which way they turn. We constantly meet people who feel conscience- stricken because they now question whether they euthanized too early, or too late. And the distortions of reasoning here can produce acute emotional distress. The resultant guilt is profound, and unlike any other. It takes time, TLC and many tears to finally come to some sort of closure. Unfortunately, we must always go through the pain, before we can put it behind us.


Another intense form of guilt is experienced by people whose beloved pets disappear or are stolen. This is like grieving for a MIA in the armed forces, and there can never be any real closure, here. One knows the old saying, “It is too late to close the barn door, after the horses have escaped.” In this instance, it is so much worse; and in sharp contrast to the many other kinds of guilt. Sometimes feelings of self-blame are justified, because of a moment’s inadvertent oversight. What a heartbreak that is! Again, the “should haves” and “if onlys” overwhelm our breaking hearts. But we must always continue with our lives and move on. Again, time is a great friend and healer. However, in this case, there will always be an emotional scar. They will always hurt from this, and closure in the usual sense can’t be found. But what do we say to good people who inadvertently cause other kinds of accidents? Certainly, some healing should follow the contrition and pain. We all make mistakes, and some are bigger than others. Self-forgiveness is the issue, here.


So we must finally ask, how can we control or alleviate guilt? And the simple and sad answer is that this is a very personal experience that everyone must go through to learn from. In bereavement, we must first experience the tears, and encounter the pain. Then we can put it behind us. The guilt we create is something we have to learn to identify and understand. Otherwise it can consume us. Again, we must focus on some kind of personal amnesty.


If our beloved departed pets were able to send us a message from wherever they are, I am sure there are a few things they would want to say. But first, they would surely tell us to stop blaming and hurting ourselves. There is a profound logic to this, and each of us must feel its truth, within. The spiritual bond we have is a two-way exchange, and we must now accept the other side of that covenant They want us to be well and go on. We would be honoring them, as well as ourselves by observing this. Let each one of these dear souls enshrined in our hearts continue to enrich us, as we begin our new lives.


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Live Webinar

Navigating Pet Loss & Grief

Thursday, June 6th, 2024
7:00 pm – 8:00 pm Eastern

Sponsored by:

Navigating Pet Loss & Grief, hosted by Moose’s
March, this webinar is designed to support pet
owners through the difficult journey and depth of
pet loss, anticipatory grief and understanding
guilt. This webinar will also provide 3 key
takeaways for the management of grief,
Featuring insights from renowned experts
Colleen Rolland, Association of Pet Loss and
Bereavement and Dr. Nancy Curotto, Pet Loss &
Bereavement Specialist. Attendees will have an
opportunity to ask questions of the experts.

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