Dealing with Feelings of Guilt After Euthanasia

euthanasia-guilt

Guest post by Sarah Chauncey

For several days after the vet gently stopped my 20-year-old cat Hedda’s heart, I couldn’t get past the feeling that Hedda didn’t want to die, or at least, she wanted it to happen in her own time, naturally.

I had been one of those people who was adamant that I would not choose euthanasia unless I believed Hedda felt death would be preferable. I didn’t believe her life was mine to end. Nobody would likely look at a photo of Hedda, compared to her prime, and say it was too soon. But all I cared about was whether she felt it was too soon. I felt like I betrayed her trust.

I’ve heard people say that, in this situation, we choose the path that will give us the least cause for regret. With euthanasia, no regret is usually not an option. Except for those instances where an animal is in acute distress and nothing can be done, the timing for euthanasia is rarely clear-cut. It’s also largely influenced by our personal beliefs, and our resources.

No regret is usually not an option. Except for those instances where an animal is in acute distress and nothing can be done, the timing for euthanasia is rarely clear-cut.

During our last 24 hours together, I vowed that if there were any negative karmic repercussions from my decision, that I bore them wholly (I also really, really hoped there weren’t).

black-cat-bed

Hedda

How Guilt Tries to Protect Us

Guilt is the mind’s resistance to what is, a futile attempt to change the past. In the context of euthanasia, guilt prevents us from feeling the full pain of having to say goodbye to a being we love. In a roundabout way, our mind tries to protect our heart by creating thoughts of guilt: “I should have…” “I shouldn’t have…” “I gave up too soon,” “I waited too long,” etc. Those thoughts—the mind’s incessant activity—keep painful emotions stuck in our bodies.

The thing is, guilt doesn’t change anything. It simply makes us feel miserable. And guilt compounds the grief, because as long as the mind is whirring, the heart can’t process its pain.

After Hedda’s death, I wanted to know that she forgave me. Because that wasn’t an option, I was the one who had to forgive myself.

I wanted to know that she forgave me. Because that wasn’t an option, I was the one who had to forgive myself.

Guilt and Inquiry

In the midst of all my inner turmoil, I came back to what I’d been practicing for several years. Guilt is simply a thought—the thought that I should have done something differently. So I decided to examine that thought.

The following is loosely based on The Work by Byron Katie, combined with questions a good therapist would’ve asked me. For each of us, the answers may vary. My answers don’t indicate what your answers “should” be—they’re what came up for me. The questions, though, can give you insight into how your thoughts of guilt may be trying to protect you.

Is it true that I should have done something differently? I don’t know. Let’s say “yes,” just for the purposes of this exercise. Let’s say I believe I absolutely should not have deliberately facilitated Hedda’s death.

Can I be absolutely certain that that thought is true? No, of course not.

Can I see a way the opposite statement might be equally or more true (i.e., that I absolutely should have ended her life)? Well, yes, but then there’s a story behind that, which is that if that was true, then maybe she had been suffering for a while, so I still wasn’t off the hook.

What if this was absolutely the perfect timing, and I didn’t do anything wrong. Could I see that as a true statement? Yes. [Huge energy shift here]

If I didn’t use up energy believing this thought, what would I have to feel? Pain, loss, grief, emptiness. It’s much easier to distract myself with thoughts.

If I didn’t believe the thought “I shouldn’t have had her euthanized,” what would I feel? Relaxed, calm, expansive. Appreciative of her love and our time together.

This series of questions helped to release me from the shackles of guilt. Not entirely, but substantially. I came to see that “guilt” was just a way of distracting myself from feeling the pain and sadness, the silence (SO MUCH silence), the ache in my chest. Guilt also prevented me from appreciating the mystery of life, of love, and of death.

I don’t mean to sound like “and everything was sunshine forever more.” It wasn’t. I still missed Hedda’s physical presence—even more than when I’d been distracting myself with guilt thoughts. Yet once I was able to feel the waves of grief directly, unencumbered by guilt, I found that each wave dissipated more quickly.

black-cat

Hedda

Finding Self-forgiveness

Letting go of guilt doesn’t mean the love is gone, or we miss our cat any less. It simply frees us to experience what we’re feeling in the moment instead of trying to change the past.

There’s a popular quote, attributed to multiple people, from Lily Tomlin to Jack Kornfield, that says, “Forgiveness is giving up hope of a better past.” We all do the best we can, with the resources we have, in each moment. A friend of mine, when thinking about the euthanasia of her cats, turns to another quote, from Jeff Foster, “Simply let go of the illusion that it could have been any different.”

If you can’t stop the torrent of thoughts, that’s okay, too. Try to show yourself the same compassion you’ve shown your cats. Grief (and guilt) are painful enough without adding an extra layer of feeling bad about feeling bad.

If grief or feelings of guilt are interfering with your day-to-day life, it’s okay to seek professional help. There are growing numbers of pet loss support groups, both in person and online, as well as one-on-one counseling options. You are not alone.

Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, an upcoming gift book for adults grieving their cat. She runs @morethantuna on Instagram and Facebook, “a celebration of nine lives,” and she started #tunatributes, a support community for people grieving their cat. She lives on Vancouver Island.

20 Comments on Dealing with Feelings of Guilt After Euthanasia

  1. Elaine Harrington
    March 7, 2019 at 10:04 am (2 months ago)

    I understand, I put my 18 year old Blue down August 7 th and still can’t get past the what ifs. All of my other animals died at home, but they did suffer at the end. I don’t think there is right answer, its just painful. You do what you think is right and in time its more memories, less pain. Blessings, Elaine

    Reply
  2. rafe
    March 6, 2019 at 6:36 pm (2 months ago)

    I had to have my cat put to sleep two days ago he was filled with cancer and couldn’t eat or drink I kept going to different vets and they were unanimous about PTS I realized their expertise . after syringe feeding him food and water for 3 weeks I felt I was doing more harm than good. I was there all the way through the process, I know his suffering has ended, but mine is just beginning , I had 15.5 great years with my Leo and miss him so much

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 7, 2019 at 6:10 am (2 months ago)

      I’m so sorry, Rafe. My heart goes out to you.

      Reply
  3. Elaine
    January 8, 2019 at 9:27 am (4 months ago)

    I put my 18 year old cat down August 7th and I’m still miserable about it. I knew he was miserable, but I had always waited it out before. The horrible part was that I brought him to the Humane Society and there was nothing humane about the way they treated either of us. I wasn’t allowed to come in and say goodbye, I could hear him yelling and then thye returned my carrier with the whole zipper ripped!!!!!! I replay it over and over. Its the right thing but it still carries terrible guilt that we have to learn to forgive ourselves for.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 8, 2019 at 3:23 pm (4 months ago)

      Oh Elaine, I’m so sorry you have such awful memories of his final moments. I hope you can eventually find peace. My heart goes out to you.

      Reply
  4. Dustin
    January 7, 2019 at 8:08 pm (4 months ago)

    3 days ago I had my 22 year old calico, Roxy, euthanized. Her condition got so bad, so quickly. It felt like out of nowhere she’d lost several pounds, couldn’t walk, and was constantly in a daze. Ending her life was probably the right decision, but I also feel like I betrayed her, and I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself. She and I grew up together, I had since I was 6, I named her myself. I’m struggling daily with forgiving myself.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 8, 2019 at 9:15 am (4 months ago)

      I’m so sorry, Dustin. 22 years – that’s amazing! And yet, no amount of time is ever long enough. My heart goes out to you.

      Reply
  5. Gary Mitchell
    December 8, 2018 at 9:59 pm (5 months ago)

    I had to get the vet to put my beautiful Persian boy to sleep .He was sixteen and a half
    years old having been with me all that time.Stopped eating was crying and became
    very thin.Gave me huge amounts of attention before becoming inactive.To keep him
    alive would be for my sake.Putting off euthanasia several times before deciding to end
    his misery.It hurts terribly and the silence but his eyes told me what had to happen.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 9, 2018 at 6:17 am (5 months ago)

      I’m so sorry, Gary.

      Reply
  6. Connie - Tails from the Foster Kittens
    August 26, 2018 at 3:54 pm (8 months ago)

    When my cat Em’s time had come, she did not want to go. She wanted to remain with me as long as she could, despite what cancer was doing to her body. I attempted to make the appointment several times and each time she told me very clearly she was not ready. In the end, I made that appointment without her consent. It was beyond time as her poor body was ravaged by the cancer, but I have always regretted that I ended our time together before she was ready. I do not regret the decision, I do not regret doing it, but I regret that it had to be that way. I wish she had been ready. I know what I spared her and am glad that she didn’t have to suffer additionally..

    Reply
  7. Amy
    August 25, 2018 at 8:40 am (8 months ago)

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It was most helpful.

    Reply
  8. AKP
    August 23, 2018 at 12:39 pm (8 months ago)

    thank you….i still struggle with these feelings. my beloved kitty had lung cancer and it was getting harder to breathe. The vets warned me to do it sooner than later so that she wouldn’t be trying to rush her to the vet while she was suffocating (she said that’s how they die from lung cancer). I guess that thought scared me enough to do it…but i still postponed it 3x. She was still very vibrant in most ways so it was an excruciating choice…

    Reply
    • Danielle
      August 24, 2018 at 3:08 pm (8 months ago)

      My year and a half baby had fib. He ended up only five pounds at the end.I felt my baby’s heart stop. I cried,screamed,was very sad. But, I knew it was the best thing. I knew it was the best thing I could do. Yes,it hurts like hell, he was a baby but in the end I did the best thing

      Reply
  9. Pat Wolesky
    August 23, 2018 at 7:28 am (8 months ago)

    I think guilt and second-guessing are extremely common, no matter what you choose. My beautiful Raleigh died naturally, and I felt guilt that I didn’t euthanize her, because the last couple weeks of her life were very hard on her and me. I think ultimately you make the best choice you can and learn to live with it.

    Reply
  10. Jennifer
    August 22, 2018 at 10:14 pm (8 months ago)

    Guilt continues, for years. It’s a struggle between the heart and the mind. I can rationalize what I had to do, but my heart aches, making me question my decisions.

    Reply
    • Brian
      August 23, 2018 at 5:30 pm (8 months ago)

      Exactly.

      Reply
  11. Janine
    August 22, 2018 at 8:13 am (8 months ago)

    I think guilt over something like this is very common and it is hard to move past. I am dealing with guilt for putting Pono down, even though I feel I did the best thing for him. I couldn’t let him suffer any more than he already was.

    Reply
  12. Elaine
    August 22, 2018 at 8:02 am (8 months ago)

    On August 7th I had my 18 year old adopted Russian Blue, named Blue euthanized. I had always let the animals pass on their own. He was skeletal and I finally felt it was the best thing, but the guilt and pain were overwhelming. We contacted a reliable Pet Medium, and Blue told he he wanted a memorial, which we had planned on anyway and told me not to be upset. I still cry, and i still feel miserable, but better when he told me he did not know how to get out of this skin. He didn’t know how to let go on his own. I hope this is some comfort to those going through this. Thank you for sharing a very difficult time. In memory of Blue

    Reply
  13. Joan
    August 22, 2018 at 7:28 am (8 months ago)

    We all grieve in different ways. Ending the life of my spitfire torbie Matilda brought relief and peace after many months of up and down suffering and huge vet bills. Ending the life of my Ozzie the good luck black cat was much harder. He was in pain, yes, and had used up more than his 9 lives in his 17 years but was not yet on death’s door. I still cry for all my furry babies in kitty heaven. Thank you for this article and I will look for the upcoming book as a future gift for friends who are now dealing with end of life issues.

    Reply
  14. Nora
    August 22, 2018 at 5:30 am (8 months ago)

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    Reply

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