The voice choking with pain releases the worst of it all: “and it’s my own fault.”
Guilt seems to be an integral part of grieving.
When grieving for an animal that we loved, we all seem to spend some time in a painful cell of guilt: “I should have taken him to the vet sooner.” “I wish I had taken her for more walks.” “I wasn’t there at the end.” “It’s my own stupid fault.” “I gave her the chicken bone.” “I should have checked the gate.” “Putting her down was the most awful thing I’ve ever done.” “I wasn’t patient enough with him in his old age.” “He counted on me and I let him down.” “Maybe I shouldn’t have euthanized when I did.” “Maybe I should have euthanized sooner.”
We seem to let go of the guilt, and then cycle back around to it. “Why did I…?” and then “Why didn’t I…?”
Guilt can be seen as part of the denial stage, a way of hanging on to those moments before the curtain fell. As long as we can keep replaying our own part in the painful story, we have the fleeting illusion of being able to change the outcome. Had we done something differently, our pet would have had a happier life or would not have died. We had control. That’s what we are telling ourselves as we cycle back through Guilt time and again.
When we are mourning a spirit that depended on us in a child-like way, the guilt seems to make sense. Our animal companion depended on us for survival. Our dear friend has died, thus it must be our fault. The very dependence that fosters bonding also fosters a sense of responsibility, and when sickness, accidents or death come, a sense of guilt.
While the guilt seems to make sense, and may even be a necessary stage to pass through on our path to healing, in actual fact the guilt is usually irrational. Most of the time, in our interactions with our animal companions, we are doing the best we know, as the imperfect and flawed human beings we are. Not all accidents can be avoided. We cannot expect ourselves to know every precaution to take. We cannot look back and expect ourselves to have been able to predict outcomes. We act from love. We also act from ignorance sometimes. Accepting both aspects as human and forgivable, we can heal.
As we struggle with the guilt, and sometimes let it win and wash over us in a painful wave, we can observe that feeling and let it be. As we sit with a feeling, it tends to change. So when we’re ready to allow another feeling, we can try this: How would our animal companion want us to feel right now? What did he or she always want us to feel?
As we consider those questions, we may feel a kindling in our hearts of that joyful love, that very pure connection that our animal gave us—and will always give us, whenever we go to this place of feeling that loving intention, that unique energy shared between human and animal.
In this heart-place, the relationship goes on, even after death.