Dec 022013

If you accidentally hurt your dog or cat – or you had to put your pet down – these ways to deal with guilt for causing your pet’s death will help you cope.

feel guilty caused pets death

When Your Pet Dies

When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering and Healing by Alan D. Wolfelt is a guide for pet owners who are struggling with grief when their pet dies. This book will help you understand why your feelings are so overwhelming, and help you cope with the guilt you feel about your pet’s death. The topics discussed include practical suggestions for grieving, ideas for remembering and memorializing one’s pet, understanding the many emotions experienced after the death of a pet, understanding why grief for pets is unique, pet funerals and burial or cremation, celebrating and remembering the life of one’s pet, coping with feelings about euthanasia (and guilt about putting an animal to sleep), helping children understand the death of their pet, and things to keep in mind before getting another pet.

These tips are inspired by a reader who shared his guilty feelings about putting his dog to sleep. Saying good-bye to your beloved dog or cat is heartbreaking - and it’s even worse if you feel guilty about your pet’s death. I hope these tips help. “If there is a heaven, it’s certain our animals are to be there,” says Pam Brown. “Their lives become so interwoven with our own, it would take more than an archangel to detangle them.”

4 Ways to Deal With the Guilt of a Pet’s Death

Some people accidentally cause their dog or cat’s death by accidentally leaving them in harm’s way. The most important thing to remember is that you did NOT purposely cause your pet’s death. Dealing with guilt may be a bit lighter if you know you would’ve acted differently if you had the chance. If your actions led to your pet’s death, you have to keep reminding yourself that you did not deliberately harm your dog or cat. It was an accident, and you would have done things differently if you had know what would happen.

Dealing With Guilt When You Caused Your Pet’s Death

If you’re struggling with grief and guilty feelings because of the circumstances surrounding your dog or cat’s death, read Letting Go of an Animal You Love: 75 Ways to Survive Pet Loss. I interviewed veterinarians, grief counselors, and pet experts for the best ways to survive the death of a beloved dog or cat, and I included stories from real pet owners who coped with guilt and grief in sometimes surprising ways.

Identify “imagined” guilt about the loss of your dog or cat. Not recognizing that your Yorkie, cockapoo, or Siamese cat was ill doesn’t mean that you weren’t paying attention or taking good care of him or her! This is imagined guilt. Animals can’t always communicate their physical health; pet owners can’t see inside their bodies and brains.

Another type of “imagined” guilt is if you’ve accidentally caused your pet’s death by letting him out, keeping him in, or losing track of his whereabouts. If you did not deliberately set out to harm your pet, then you have nothing to feel guilty about. I know this is easier said than done – and it takes effort to forgive yourself.

If you’re dealing with imagined guilt because of your pet’s death, remember that sometimes illness or disease overcomes our dogs, cats, and other beloved pets…and there’s nothing we can do. This loss of control is a very painful — but real — part of life.

I recently wrote How to Forgive Yourself for Not Protecting Your Dog, to help you deal with the guilt you feel. Please take a moment to read it — it’s the comments on this article that inspired me to write it.

Remember that it’s normal to feel guilty when your dog or cat dies. Whether your guilt is real or imagined, know that it is a normal grief reaction. Even the most “innocent” pet owners feel guilt over a pet’s death. For instance, I now cringe when I recall how angry I was at my beloved cat, Zoey, for scratching the basement door (I didn’t realize the door to her litter box was shut tight, and she couldn’t get in). That was over 12 years ago, and I still feel guilty! Healing after you had to put your pet down often requires forgiving yourself.

dealing with guilt pet deathGoodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet is the number one bestselling book on pet loss and grief on Amazon. I love the book because it offers both heartwarming stories and practical guidance on grieving the loss of a pet. It’ll help you deal with guilt when you caused your pet’s death.

Identify “real” guilt about your pet’s death. Real guilt may spring from your feelings that you neglected your dog or cat’s annual vaccinations, daily food intake, exercise habits, and “quality time” with you. If you’re struggling with real guilt, remember that you had reasons for doing what you did. The stress of money, work, kids, marriage, and daily life may have taken precedence over how you treated your pet. Maybe you didn’t make the best choices.

guilt over dog cat death

“Dealing With Guilt When You Caused Your Pet’s Death” image by Laurie

Healing after your pet’s death involves accepting that you wish you would’ve done things differently — and talking this through with your family, friends, or loved ones.

Remember what you did right — because you did a lot right. Your dog or cat loved you beyond all reason – so you must have done something right. How did you love and take care of your pet? Balance your real guilt with the real ways you loved your pet. You took good care of your dog or cat in many ways; don’t wave that away.

Dealing with guilt when you caused your pet’s death isn’t just about grieving; it’s about cherishing the best parts of your life with your dog or cat.

Do you feel like you caused your dog or cat’s death? I encourage you to share your experience below. Talking and writing about it is healthier than ignoring it, and can help you process your grief.

  146 Responses to “Dealing With Guilt When You Caused Your Pet’s Death”

  1. Dear Zephyr’s mom,

    Thank you for being here, and for sharing your tragic story with us. You loved him so much, and you accidentally caused his death. It’s such a difficult thing to reconcile, and make peace with.

    My prayer for you is that you are able to forgive yourself, and that you feel the peace of Zephyr’s forgiveness deep in your soul. May you be confident that not only does Zephyr forgive you, but he wants you to remember him with love, joy, and serenity. I also pray you find the right people and books to help you deal with the guilt you feel about causing your dog’s death.

    Thoughts of suicide are very serious, and I encourage you to talk to a counselor or call a suicide help line. You wouldn’t be helping your dog if you killed yourself. Instead, I pray you are able to take your pain and grief, and somehow use it to inspire or heal other people. Don’t let this tragic accident consume you, or define you.

    I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers.

    Sincerely, in sympathy,

  2. Dear all,
    This afternoon I decided to let the dogs out of the car to run alongside. We do that occasionally because they love it so much. And, it is so fun to see them so happy. In an instant, I thought I hit a rock, but it was my little beloved dog Zephyr. He died instantly. He was the light of my life. He was always at my feet while I read or worked. He traveled the world with me. Kept me sane during hard years doing fieldwork in Africa. He knew if I was sad and would cuddle up with me. A truly great soul. Sometimes, my love was so strong that I felt like he was an extension of myself, my soul dog. And, I killed him! I feel like killing myself. I can’t see straight. My world feels as if its crumbled. I don’t know how anyone lives through such pain. But, it seems some of you have done it or are doing it. I wish you strength and peace. Thank you for sharing your stories so that others don’t feel so alone.

  3. Dear HeartBrokenMom,

    Thank you for sharing your experience here…I am so sad for you and your dogs. I can only imagine how devastated you are. I have two dogs, and they are the center of my life. But even so, I can see how it can happen, to be caught up in the rush of the day and forget that they aren’t right by my side. I understand how it can happen, and I don’t blame you in the least. My heart breaks for you, though, because it is such a difficult thing to forgive yourself for.

    I encourage you to talk to a grief counselor. I think that this is such a traumatizing thing, that the guilt of leaving your dogs in the truck is so devastating that you might need help processing your pain. I encourage you to talk to a counselor about the experience, and ask for help finding ways to forgive yourself. You need to work through this with someone who can help you deal with your feelings of self-recrimination and pain, who can help you find your way to forgiving yourself.

    Will you call a grief counselor, and take time to work through your guilt with her? For your own sake, for your healing?

    My prayer for you is that you find the right counselor to talk to, and that you see yourself with God’s love, compassion, and forgiveness. May you grieve the death of your beloved dogs, and may you see your way clear to releasing yourself from the burden of the black heaviness of guilt. May you find peace, compassion, and faith – and may you get emotionally and spiritually centered so you get past this horrible time. Amen.

    Blessings – please do come back and let me know how you are.


  4. I’m struggling so badly with the recent death of my dogs. I don’t even know if I’m writing this in the right space…my head is a mess.
    I caused my dog’s death. I can’t get over it. I’m trying hard, but the guilt is so overwhelming I can’t breathe. I feel like my husband and son are getting fed up with me, because I just break down.
    I love my dogs so much. I don’t even understand how it could have happened.
    I took them out for their daily run, and when we returned, they were in the back of my truck. I had groceries in the front. I backed into my driveway, grabbed my groceries, brought my groceries in….and that was it. I spoke to my son for a minute who was just leaving, and then I started returning phone calls, emails, went on with my day.
    I just left them. I completely forgot my dogs were in the truck. I don’t understand how I could do something so heartless. I loved them more than anything. They were my whole world. I had this same routine for 6 years. Every day. How could I just forget my babies? How could I be so cruel and cause them so much pain?
    I didn’t even realize until a couple hours later. I was devastated. I found them, I screamed and screamed, I shook them, I begged them to wake up. It was a horrifying nightmare and I just cant get passed it. How could I give them such a good life, everything they needed and beyond, and just forget my babies?
    I can’t stop picturing them in there, the pain and confusion, I feel like I broke their hearts. I feel guilty, I feel lost, and heartbroken. I feel like the moment I catch myself not thinking about them, that I’m awful for it, or if I catch myself laughing at something my husband or son said, I feel like I’m awful for trying to pretend it didn’t happen.
    I honestly don’t know what to do at this point. I’m so sad without them with me. I just don’t understand.
    We had been preparing for one death, because one of our dogs was sick with cancer, but to all of a sudden lose both, and in such a horrible way….I just can’t deal with it and I don’t know what to do:(

    • Dear Heartbroken Mom,
      I am so very sorry for your loss. I also lost my dog almost 3 weeks ago, and every day I miss her terribly. I posted here a few weeks ago, because I couldn’t stop going over and over the illness with which she was struggling, trying to figure out what I could’ve done differently. I have never posted in a forum like this, but I am glad that I did.

      There isn’t anything that anyone can say, really, that makes the pain of the loss go away. When it comes down to it, what is REAL in the situation is the sadness of your loss and the emptiness in your heart. Guilt is one of those really challenging emotions that rears its ugly head anytime something tragic happens — even if feelings of guilt are completely unwarranted in the situation.

      One of my good friends reminded me that we are never really “cured’ of our heartache. Instead, we start to heal. Healing is almost impossible when guilt is overwhelming. It is so clear that you would do anything — ANYTHING — you could to change the events of that afternoon. As impossible as it may seem to you, you need to forgive yourself and realize that what happened was completely an accident. We all make mistakes. Sometimes, they don’t matter and sometimes they do. Either way, though, you have to come to realize that INTENT does matter and the love you had and gave to your dogs is NOT lessened by the fact that a terrible accident occurred.

      Like you, I have children and each time I started to feel happy about anything in the last few weeks (whether it be because they said something funny or were happy about something), I felt like I was betraying my dog by finding joy. But then I thought about her, and the love and joy she found in everything….and what I realized is that the best thing I could do to remember her, and to make her “spirit” live on, is to try to live my life like she lived hers. She was full of life and joy and love – - and rather than rip myself apart with guilt — I decided to be thankful that I had the opportunity to love and know her.

      My 5-year old son has been a great teacher throughout this. He cried and cried about her death. Yet, he finds ways to remember her and when he does — he does not cry. Instead, he smiles. For example, he said the clouds reminded him of her (she was a white standard poodle, so that makes sense). Then he said that a shadow that came through the car window looked like she did when she “smiled” while going with us in the car to just about anywhere. Today, he asked a clown to make him a balloon of a poodle….which he brought to me and said, “Here. Mom, this will remind you of Tilly — doesn’t that make you feel better?”

      So, when I think of her now, I try not to fixate on how or why she died, but instead I think about how she lived. With your dogs, it is clear that you loved them very much and I am sure that you and the two of them had many beautiful, fun times together. You need to start thinking more about those — even if it makes you cry a little harder at the start. You won’t ever erase the trauma of the accident from your mind, but you can try to fill your heart with memories of the many, many good times that they had WITH YOU.

      Laurie, the moderator of this site, recommended that I read a book called “Stitches” by Anne Lamott and I’ve found it to be very comforting. I’ve also spent some time reading “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron and, even though I’ve read it before, it has really helped me embrace both suffering and compassion as being a part of loving and living.

      Peace to you.

  5. Dear SadMom,

    Thank you for being here, and sharing how Tilly’s life with us. She will be remembered, and her spirit is moving through the internet! She was an awesome dog, and you’ll probably miss her for the rest of your days. Dogs are like that – they get into our very souls, and we’re never the same without them.

    I’m reading Anne Lamott’s book called Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. If you haven’t read Lamott’s nonfiction books, I encourage you to! Her latest one – Stitches – is about living through tragedy and pain, and trying to move forward through loss. One thing she says, which I really believe, is that we never fully recover from loss. We will always be broken and sad, and that’s normal because we lost something we loved so much!

    Maybe the pain we feel – the guilt we’re experiencing at the loss of our pets – will never fully go away. We learn to live with it, but our sadness is part of who we are. We can’t expect to love so deeply, and recover fully when our beloved is taken away from us.

    I encourage you to read Anne Lamott’s book, and I pray it’ll be the light you need to get you through the worst of the grief.


    • Laurie,
      Thanks for your note. You captured how I feel perfectly. I want to transform the pain of her loss into the love that is at the root of the loss. I don’t want to “learn to live with” the pain or the loss, but — on the other hand, like you said, I don’t want to have my heart mend completely, because I still want a piece of it to be with her. I guess being human requires us to feel both.

      I love Anne Lamott (I read some of her earlier stuff in college and grad school), but not this one. In fact, I didn’t know about it. Even the name sounds like what I want to do re:the loss of Tilly — find meaning, and rediscover hope. I just miss her so much and want to figure out how to make something beautiful from and of that. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the recommendation. Also, thanks for your words. They gave me comfort. It makes me sad to think that others who post on this blog are feeling the same emptiness, but I’m also comforted that so many of you and us had dogs to love.

      They really are the best, aren’t they?

      Thanks and peace,
      Tilly’s mom

      • Laurie,
        It’s been a few weeks since your replied to my posting about my dog, Tilly. I did take your advice and am reading “Stitches.” I actually started with the Anne Lamott book it followed, “Help. Thanks. Wow” and have taken away a lot from both.

        Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my girl with all my heart. But, as I wrote to another one of the people who posted in your forum, my 5-year old son has reminded me that thinking often of her is the best way I can appreciate just what a huge joy she was in our lives. I’m trying to live like she did — with joy and love in every moment. Doing that has allowed my heart to ache and swell with love at the same time. Maybe that sounds corny, but it is really how I feel. I so wish she could be here with us right now and the sadness isn’t getting any better. But, gratitude, appreciation, compassion and love are keeping that sadness company and that’s ok by me.

        Thanks again for your help. I think you do a wonderful job helping all of us who have gone through the heartbreak of losing our dogs.

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