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Understanding Guilt

What is Guilt? created at: 01 12 10

Guilt and its close cousin remorse are perhaps two of the stickiest and most painful emotions we experience. We experience guilt when we believe – rightly or not- that we are at fault or have not acted in our best interests or of those in our care.

Guilt is paradoxically enough, measured in direct relationship to our empathy- our ability to emotionally relate to and feel for those outside of ourselves. In the case of our pets, our guilt and feelings of moral responsibility to them is enormous because their love for us is so unconditional. More so, the choice to bring a pet into our lives is very clearly a choice to look after and care for them. They trust us completely and when we are faced with challenging choices or feel that our actions or oversights led to illness, or death, we are overcome with a sense of having failed in our most essential duty of care towards them.

The decision to euthanase or not, when, how and why is one of the most complex situations we face as pet owners. In the days after euthanasia, no matter how appropriate, how carefully and painstakingly planned the process and our choices are, most people feel guilty. If our pet dies in any way that involves our real or imagined oversight, guilt will be there.

Guilt is our moral compass in overdrive. The mechanism by which we make sure we are acting in the best possible way to our fellow citizens and all with which we share this world. It reminds us that we are human, that we make mistakes, but most of all, that we care enough to feel the implications of those mistakes and to do our best to not repeat them. Prolonged guilt distorts our perspective and floods us with such intense feelings of worthlessness that it keeps us stuck in self-recrimination and discomfort and serves no purpose at all.


Guilt shows us our humanness, our fallibility and asks us to practice two of the most challenging virtues- acceptance of what is and self- forgiveness. Guilt shows us that we can’t control certain things in life- even those we imagine, in the perfect science of hindsight,  that we should have been able to. That we should have shut the gate, put on the lead, let them have that one last day, checked the driveway, the door of the cage, on and on ad infinitum.

Our mind likes to predict the future based on past events. And so, when something happens that causes us pain, the mind wants to find a system by which we can bypass this feeling next time. Only there is no resolution on that track. It’s an endless maze of self-recrimination and pain, retrospectively plotting what could have happened in a perfect world. Only we aren’t perfect and neither is our world. We are human, we err, and we forget, we overlook, we are tired, distracted, and even sometimes irresponsible and when we pay a price for it- with the loss of our much loved pet, we are called upon to examine ourselves closely and to practice acceptance and self forgiveness.

Acceptance and Self-forgiveness

How we respond to the situation in which we feel guilt is to accept our actions and ourselves and to feel our loss, sadness and regret. To be gentle with ourselves. The truth of letting go of guilt lies in the fact that we have to exhibit the care towards ourselves that we believe we did not give to our animals. And that, as simple as it sounds, is extremely challenging for most of us.

Forgiveness can’t change the past, but it can allow you to make a different choice in the present. It will enable you to integrate the painful lessons of the loss and death of your pet into who you are as a person and how you relate to others. It is also crucial if you have other surviving pets to continue to care for or for when you choose to welcome a new pet into your lives.

Guilt tends to tarnish all memories and experiences of your relationship with your pet. It distorts and undermines the truth of the relationship, which is that we all do the best we can as owners and carers of our pets. The real need to release ourselves from the bonds of guilt is not only that is causes us intense discomfort but that it diminishes the relationship we had with our pet and all that they have given us in our lives.

Although it is of little comfort when in full swing, guilt is often the measure of our love. So if you are experiencing guilt, strive for a healthy and balanced view of your entire relationship with your much-loved pet. Not just the one moment of oversight, freak accident, real or imagined irresponsibility. They would not want you to suffer unduly, just as you would not want this for them. Even in their deaths our pets will teach us to be better humans if we love them enough to let them.

See Moving through Guilt for practical steps to successfuly release felings of guilt.