Wrestling with the decision to say goodbye to a beloved pet is never easy. Even when that decision appears to be the most humane thing to do, considering the finality of the action and the ensuing mixed bag of emotions makes it more difficult. One of the toughest emotions to come to grips with is that of guilt.
Guilt, in many ways, is natural. Initially, it usually enters our minds as questions & statements. Are you emotionally and/or mentally having the following questions or statements?
- Have I done everything I can possibly do?
- Am I playing God to even think about this decision?
- What if I’m wrong?
- My friend’s pet recovered when they thought it was the end; what about my pet, how can I know that making a decision now isn’t a mistake?
- I’m considering costs and don’t think I should, but I really can’t afford any more expenses.
- I should have gotten that extra treatment.
- I know I missed that one vaccination, but I didn’t think it would matter.
- I caused this; it is my fault!
- I feel guilty because I’m being selfish and don’t want to think about life without my pet.
The string of questions and statements surrounding guilt are virtually endless. Some feelings of guilt might have a basis in fact. Work to come to terms with those, then set them aside and focus on what is most compassionate and humane for your pet.
Many feelings of guilt won’t have any real basis, but our sadness over our pet’s condition and second-guessing about our actions, or lack of, preoccupy our thoughts. Talking with your Veterinarian about the cause of your pet’s condition should help you sort out any situations where you may have had an impact versus those that were inevitable.
One condition, extreme old age, is actually a gift that you and your Veterinarian, working together, gave to your pet. Eventually, all natural systems and functions finally just wear out. So, in the case of old age, you did do something. You gave your pet a life span which, if converted to human years, would be the envy of us all.
If some of the questions or statements above touched a raw nerve, think them through. Discuss them with your Vet. Talk about them with your trusted friends or, in more serious cases, with a counselor or therapist.
Say what you feel you did or didn’t do, then work to look at your statements and feelings objectively. This is difficult when you’re emotional, but getting a clear understanding of the situation is important for releasing some of the strong emotions involved with making a final decision concerning your pet.
If there were actual times when you could have done something differently and didn’t, and it negatively impacted your pet, consider two things:
Telling your pet you are sorry asking for forgiveness, (which I believe you will see is immediately given.)
Work to leave the situation in the past. We are humans, and have all made mistakes, and will continue to make mistakes in the future. Admitting mistakes, asking for forgiveness where possible, and resolving not to repeat the same behavior in the future is the healthy way to move on.
One special form of guilt, that is often mentioned by people who have gone through this decision making process, is the feeling of “playing God.” As Jerry Osteryoung, Ph.D., Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus), College of Business, Florida State University noted, “The hardest thing with my dogs was to decide if it was better to let them go, or to continue the medical treatment, knowing they were still in a lot of pain.”
This idea about “playing God” has two sides to it and brings up an interesting dichotomy.
When considering the procedure, some human companions feel that even contemplating the decision puts them in the position of “playing God.” Their belief is that making this decision is unnatural, unfair and perhaps even cruel.
However, let’s think about the implications of humans making major decisions FOR, and on behalf of, their pets. Let’s walk through the logic of the “playing God,” argument backwards. Through your pet’s life, have you:
- Taken your pet to the Vet regularly?
- Gotten all or most of the recommended vaccinations?
- Fed your pet a healthy diet and provided exercise?
- Taken your pet to the Vet to cure a disease or to care for after an accident?
Are any of the actions in “B” natural? They are common, normal and expected of a loving and humane human companion, but would they occur on their own if you, the human friend, had not intervened? No.
You, together with your Vet, have blessed your pet with a state of health, vitality and age that probably would not have occurred without your loving and considerate care. So, now, as your pet nears the end of their earthly stay, should you withdraw from or abdicate the final act of compassion? Should you suddenly stop acting in your pet’s best interests? I think we can all see the answer is no.
You do not act in the role of God when, with a heavy but open heart, full of love and compassion, not wanting to see your pet suffer in needless pain, you decide, “yes,” it IS time to say goodbye.