The Double Whammy of Death and Guilt When A Dog Dies
Have you heard of the five stages of grief that you go through when you lose a loved one? Supposedly, they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. That said, though, I don’t believe that everyone grieves in the same way, and I don’t give a whole lot of credence to the five stages.
I have been privileged to have had several dogs in my life, and I can honestly say that I’ve never gone through the five stages. What is there to be angry about? Who is there to bargain with? God, perhaps?
Depression, yes. I usually move straight to depression and stay there for a while. Finally, I do come to some sort of acceptance.
The Missing Stage
What the so-called “experts” on grief don’t tell you is that there is another stage, and it can last for a very long time. It can also hold you back from moving through to acceptance. It can cloud your every thought, keep you awake at night, destroy your appetite, and even make you feel as though, in a fair and just world, you should have been the one to die. This is the guilt stage.
Grief Is 50% Guilt
I’ve heard this said many times, and I believe it to be true. Certainly, if your dog dies because of inattention on your part (perhaps you left the door open and he ran into the street and was struck by a car, or you left a box of chocolates on a low table and he ate them and died of kidney failure), then certainly guilt is going to punch you in the stomach and keep on beating away at you for quite some time.
Even when there’s no cause of death that would allow for blame that you can reasonably pile on yourself, you may still feel guilt. “He might have looked a bit off this morning,” you say to yourself. “Why didn’t I stay home with him?” Or “I could have asked my neighbor to check on him.”
Then, of course, there’s the great-granddaddy of all guilt – euthanasia. You knew he was ill; you knew he wasn’t going to recover; you knew that you were doing the kind thing. Even then, you don’t let yourself off the hook. You ask yourself, “Did he think I was putting him to sleep because I didn’t love him anymore?”
Okay, before we go any further, let’s get this one out of the way. Your dog most certainly did not know that he was going to the vet to be put to sleep, so that thought would not even have crossed his mind.
You Are Still Obsessing
Of course you’re not going to stop there. Even if you know beyond any shadow of a doubt that you did the right thing for your dog, you are still going to feel guilty. You’ll remember the times when you were busy, and ignored his approach, carrying his squeaky, with the “Let’s play” look lighting up his eyes.
You’ll remember the time that you were upset about something that happened at work, and pushed him off your lap so you could have some “alone time” to think. You’ll remember the time you tripped over him in the night on your way to the bathroom, and yelled at him out of fright.
And when you remember all these things, you will convince yourself that you are absolutely the worst dog parent who ever lived. If only you could make it up to him. If only you could go back in time and get everything right.
You feel this way because you were always responsible for your dog’s health and safety. And if you think that you got it wrong, even just a little bit, then you tip over from feeling responsible into feeling guilty.
Let It Go and Move On
Sometimes, guilt can work in a positive fashion. If you left the chocolates out, you’ll know better than to do that with another dog. If you left the door open too wide, you won’t do that again either. But you can’t go back, no matter how much you want to. And guilt can destroy your life and make it hard for you to bond with another dog.
You can’t change the past. But you can work toward a better future. So even if you feel that you have things to feel guilty about, try to move past it. Stop focusing on what went wrong, and think about the things that were right – the wonderful times you had with your dog. Maybe you weren’t perfect. But if you’re reading this, I have to think that you weren’t awful, either.
Don’t focus on real or imagined wrong-doing. How many times did you forgive your dog for messing on the floor, chewing up your shoes, breaking a cherished heirloom, or snapping at you when you tried to take something away from him? Countless times, I’m thinking. And he no doubt forgave you for not wanting to play from time to time, for pushing him off your lap, for shouting at him or arriving home late. A lot of the time, that’s what love is all about – forgiveness.
So forgive yourself. And love again. Find another dog. There are countless dogs out there who need a home – who need YOU. Your lost one will look down upon you from the Rainbow Bridge, and be so very proud of you!
Author Bio: Franklin Medina lives in comfortable squalor with Boxers, Janice and Leroy, and spends a lot of time with human and canine friends down at the dog park. You can read more from Franklin at SimplyForDogs.com.