Feelings of guilt associated with euthanizing a pet is something that profoundly affected my life. It was also something that I had a very hard time talking about. Compounding the grief I felt when losing my beloved pet was the isolation I felt in this guilt. A guilt which made my heart ache that much more.
In 2008 I made the decision to euthanize my Rottweiler, Hercules. He had osteosarcoma (bone cancer). Hercules had received the best in veterinary care to treat his cancer. When I made the decision to let him go I had the support of my veterinarian (she has been our vet for 10 years and I completely trust her judgment). I had the support of my husband who loved Hercules as much as I did. I knew in the depth of my heart that it was time to let Hercules go and logical reasoning dictated that it was time as well. I want to be clear; I am a logical, critical and confident thinker. I have a master’s degree. I studied philosophy, epistemology and logic at the graduate school level. I should have been confident in this decision that I had so carefully reasoned out and prayed deeply about. But the reality was; once Hercules was gone I was filled with a terrible sense of guilt. I felt that I had killed the creature I loved most in the world and it was simply horrible. I went over and over the facts and would reaffirm to myself that I had made the right decision but logic mattered not. I believed that I had let Hercules down and I was the reason he was gone. These feelings were crushing my spirit.
I was also ashamed to share these feelings. Really, what do you say to someone? “I am wracked with guilt because I believe I killed my dog!” It was not a conversation I had the courage to have with anyone, even my husband. My husband did know how deeply I was grieving though. Several times he suggested I read a book called “Rescuing Sprite” by Mark Levin. After weeks had passed and I was still mulling about in my stupor of grief and guilt my husband asked me several more times to read the book and I finally complied. It is a good book (have a box of Kleenex ready if you choose to read it). What struck me about the book was that Mr. Levin shared this same sense of guilt that I was feeling. I felt a small sense of relief for the first time. I was not the only person who felt this and it is ok to talk about it, and in this case, write it in a book! Solidarity in grief became very meaningful in my life and it gave me the courage to share the guilt I was experiencing with people who I trusted. Finally, with a new-found sense of solidarity the healing could begin.
I have spent the better part of the five years since Hercules’ death reading everything I can get my hands on in regards to the topic of the souls of animals and studying the work of some of history’s greatest thinkers in regards to the relationships we have as humans with creation, particularly with animals. I am the type of person that when faced with a dilemma responds by diving in and actively solving it …my way…which is to study and analyze it to its end. With many of the vagaries of life this is an effective approach, but alas, it does not work well with emotions. I had to find peace with the decision to euthanize my pet elsewhere and eventually I did. I found my answer by learning to trust what was most real about the seven years that Hercules was mine…and that was how much I loved him. There is a simplistic element to this because love means a lot of very specific things when it comes to a pet. It means providing their basic needs; food, water, medical care, exercise, socialization and a safe environment. I did this and I did it with great joy. Love is protecting our pets from harm and giving and receiving affection with them. I did this too. Over time I could reflect on how I loved Hercules well in all these ways and that my relationship with him was not defined by one difficult and traumatic act but rather that we had a seven year narrative of joy and love. I began to realize that love for my dog began with an unspoken covenant between us the day he became mine. A covenant that for me reads something like this; “I will love you forever. I will never abandon you. I will meet your needs physically and emotionally. I will be your voice. I will defend you, be your advocate and have the courage to make difficult decisions for you.” I came to realize that I fulfilled this covenant and that I was loving and courageous for doing it even though parts of fulfilling the covenant were traumatic for me. This is how I found peace…by seeing my courage to act for him when he needed me the most.
Over time, by reading other people’s stories (something I highly recommend) I was able to reframe euthanasia in a more balanced way. I came to terms with the fact that it is simply not about me at all but all about the dog and protecting him from suffering. This seems obvious, but when you are in the throes of grief it is hard to see past your own pain and in my case guilt. Eventually, I started to view helping Hercules cross over as the ultimate act of love. No animal deserves to suffer and certainly not one that I love. Instead of feeling guilty I began to once again feel the love I had for Hercules and I was able to mourn and heal.
This is an important journey as I will face end of life decisions again, many times. I have four dogs and three cats right now; four of the seven are seniors. I feel differently now than I did five years ago. Yes, I absolutely dread the day I lose any of them and I will cry a river of tears for them all. But I feel confident that I can trust my love for them when I am faced with difficult decisions. I have an unspoken covenant with them and I will honor it with courage.
Solidarity is powerful, especially in grief. The reason I started The Rescue Mama blog was to create a place of solidarity for people who are trying to cope with the loss of a beloved pet. I hope this article helps in your process of healing. I would love to hear your story of love, loss and healing. Please feel to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Always, peace to you and yours.