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).

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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.

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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.

p.s.-i-love-you-more-than-tuna

Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, a 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.

136 Comments on Dealing with Feelings of Guilt After Euthanasia

  1. My 17 year old cat suddenly stopped eating and deteriorated over a couple of weeks she had blood tests and a vitamin and antibiotic injected which didn’t help, I was adamant that I wanted to let her die naturally of old age at home in the warmth of her bed but then I was scared her death wouldn’t be natural so decided to get her euthanased. I couldn’t fault the experience even though I felt absolutely horrible for taking her out of her bed to take her to the vet, she was sedated then euthanased and it was all peaceful but I am feeling guilty that for some reason I was not facing her when she went so she didn’t see my face just my sons I was stroking and talking to her but can’t get this out of my mind, why didn’t I think of that

  2. I lost my 13yr old girl this Sunday gone, to a tumour, and I just feel so empty, impossibly sad and wracked with guilt.

    I’ve been desperately searching for answers if anyone here PLEASE has any?

    I’d hoped her death would be quick and painless (we opted for at home euthensia to ease her stress) but it was far from the peaceful experience I’d hoped, and I’ve been beating myself up every day since and feeling so guilty.

    The vet seemed in a bit of a rush. She was running behind schedule and we definitely got the impression she wanted it over and done with.

    It felt as though not enough time was given for the anesthetic to set in looking back.

    My girl screamed as she put the needle in, trying to get away, and the awful guilt of holding her down against my chest to force her to die eats me up inside.

    She began heaving violently then vommitted all down my shoulder (I didn’t care about that) I just panicked and asked the vet what’s happening, but she seemed to not reassure us or give much of a response.

    Then, she slowly went limp and I adjusted her to lay comfortably in my lap for the actual euthenasia shot.

    Her eye was very slightly open but unmoving at this point. She was breathing softly. I knew this was normal.

    BUT, as the vet administered the shot, her eye opened wide and she stared at me, dead in my eyes, like she was terrified but couldn’t move or do anything about it.

    Me and the family stroked her repeatedly again, talking to her softly through our tears and managed to gently brush her eye half closed again.

    THEN, the vet administered the last of the dose and her eye opened AGAIN. Like she was terrified and fully aware of what was going on.

    Her tail also puffed up. All full and bristly (she was short haired). And I know for definite that she only did that when she was scared. She also wet herself a little.

    This is the point I had a panic attack and couldn’t catch my breath. Again the vet didn’t really help but said something I couldn’t comprehend over my panic.

    I felt so disgusting doing this to her and getting the sense and signs she was scared and fully aware she was being killed.

    Can someone please provide me some answers/explanation as to why her tail puffed up for the last dose?

    And why her eye would widen each time a shot was given and stared at me as if in shock and pain (even though she was given anesthetic first??)

    Thank you in advance

    • I’m so very sorry you had such a traumatic experience losing your precious girl, Jade. I reached out to Dr. Debbie Boos, owner of A Tender Passing, a veterinary feline-only house call practice in the Washington DC area. I sincerely hope that what she told me will help ease your pain at least a little. This is what she told me:

      “When Ingrid (King) asked me to read and possibly comment on a post concerning a not-so-peaceful home euthanasia, I was not expecting the range and wave of emotions that I would experience.
      The piece by Sarah Chauncey was beautifully written. The comments that followed left me deeply saddened for all who experienced the loss of their own beloved kitties.

      Having performed many home euthanasias, I find each experience to be unique, but always as humbling as my first. As I was not there, I cannot pretend to know what happened during this very unfortunate situation where all seemed to go wrong.

      That the owner felt the procedure was rushed is very sad. Unfortunately, some kitties do not accept sedation as well as we would like. Although few in number, some do not accept it at all and we have to adapt quickly. We as veterinarians choose a combination of sedative and analgesic drugs that we are most comfortable with and are most predictable in their affects. At times I need to counsel owners if I feel I might need to alter my routine due to the kitty’s current condition. Sometimes my patients are so close to death that the sedation alone is all that is needed to help them cross the bridge.

      These drugs can affect the nervous system causing reactions that manifest externally such as tremors, twitching, change in pupil size or even puffy tail. Most kitties will not close their eyes while sedated or even after death. These involuntary reactions can be unavoidable and do not necessarily mean the kitty is experiencing any pain. Of course, we never want any of this to occur as it can be so unsettling for the owner. My heart goes out to anyone who has experienced anything but a smooth transition.

      I always say a little prayer before I enter a home, that all will go smoothly and that my clients and their fur babies will have a peaceful good-bye. As difficult as it is to let go, that day always comes. I never thought I could possibly be the one to euthanize my own beloved Simba, but when the time came, I knew it could be no one else. In his own home, his favorite spot with his favorite human boy present, he left us in no more pain. Tears flow as I write this but all of his memories remain precious.

      I am so very sorry for any of you whose experience with home euthanasia was distressing. Maybe the procedure could have, should have, been less traumatic. I just know from my heart, that I (nor any of my colleagues) would ever want a client to regret this experience and pray mine never have.

      Please try to hold tight to the happy, wonderful memories of the furry gift that was given to you. And remember, as hard as it was, you were there.”

  3. My best friend and cat companion Leo was euthanized on december 30th so its been a rough start to the new year. He came into my life nearly 10 years ago from the streets after I had already been caring for another street cat Miko (who passed last year after 9 years). Leo really helped me to heal from Miko’s sudden death, but at the time I knew Leo was diagnosed with cancer and his condition would only get worse in a matter of months. He seemingly went from a m being good to horrible in a matter of days, and I knew when he stopped eating or drinking and was drooling at the mouth constantly, I had to take him in to the vet.

    The vet ran scans and tests and immediately told me that he would not be able to leave the hospital and would not improve. They told me he is suffering greatly and suggested euthanizing him. I, like many used to say I would never euthanize my pets, but after losing Miko so suddenly and not being able to be there in her final moments, I knew I didnt want to let Leo suffer. I chose to believe the doctors and stayed with him for his final moments too. I got to bury him in my garden, and now I visit him morning and night. I will try not to feel guilty about my choice to euthanize him, because he is in a better place now. I had a dream of him laying out in our garden, in the sun where he used to love to be before he got sick. Our pets know our love and pain, and we need to let the guilt go. I hope this helps whoever reads this as it really helped me to write it.

    • I said goodbye to my cat caramel after 15 years yesterday. Similar to you, she was diagnosed with mouth cancer on Tuesday. They said prognosis was bad but gave her a steroid injection and we agreed to check in on thurs. she seemed a bit better so the vet said I’d bought her more time though not much. Then Friday morning I woke up and she was drooling blood heavily from her mouth. It was heartbreaking. The earliest the vet could see me was noon so I spent those few hours trying to calm her and brush her. I took her in and as I expected they agreed only way was to euthanise her there and then. She died peacefully whilst I stroked her. It’s so sad and I really feel your pain. They become part of the family and seeing them suffer is. Hard. I has another car who has grown up with her all that time and he too is very confused. . He is looking for her I think. It all happened so fast sending you strength ❤️

  4. I lost my 13-yo boy last week, about a year after having lost my 14-yo girl very unexpectedly. I didn’t realise last year how much Robert helped me to get over the grief of his sister’s death (she had a tumour in her throat). So this situation is double hard in some ways (we have no other pets and I never had any other pets in my adult life). Robert had several health issues over the years, it started with him coming to me as a few months old foster cat with what we called then “cat plague” (some kind of virus that took down kittens mainly). They wanted to put him down but I treated him and he pulled through. I couldn’t give him away after that. Later in life he had allergies (I think mainly food related so in the end he was eating special allergy foods) and recurring pancreatitis flares. Somehow he always pulled through ( we had a fantastic vet and clinic) and the past months was very healthy and I was so grateful EVERY DAY for having a healthy cat at last. Last week when I took him in because he lost appetite, several different doctors took ultrasound of a 5cm something in his belly. No one had seen anything like that before so the option we had was to perform a surgery and take a look. He had one day at home with us before the day of the surgery. Our planned surgery was cancelled the last minute that morning (I flipped out…) so we had to find a hospital to perform it preferrably that day because he had been without food and I just wanted answers and not let him linger possibly in pain and discomfort (although he acted quite normal, he just didn’t want to eat and was quite slow). We found a hospital, surgeon took him in and later that day performed the surgery. She found a cyst caused likely by malfunctioning of pancreas and after she had removed it and tried to fix the connection ways between pancreas and guts, she said there was a complication and pancreas wasn’t emptying properly. She said he would have likely been in pain and not healthy even if woken up again. So we made the decision to let him go.

    I can’t get over the feeling of guilt. Not because of the decision – I am believer in dignified death over poor life quality. I feel horrible guilt of the fact that he had to spend these few last hours of his life among strangers in a hospital and I could not have been there. (I would have but obviously it wasn’t possible.) When his sister died, she died in my hands. It was somehow easier to take. Now, although I was ready to let him go mentally, all I can see in my head are those last hours of his life being scared and alone. I am trying to rationalise but my brain is blocking sensible thought. Instead of thinking of what big love we had for each other for all those years I am lingering on this now. It’s heartbreaking.

    I am grateful for this space for letting me write this out of myself. If anyone sees this, thank you for reading.

    • I’m so sorry, Riv. It sounds to me like you did everything you could under the circumstances and every decision you made was made out of love and to keep him from being in pain. That doesn’t make it any easier that you couldn’t be there with him at the end. My heart goes out to you. Be gentle with yourself as you mourn you boy. I hope in time, memories of your years together will allow the thoughts of his final moments to soften and blur.

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