Denial and guilt are two of the most commonly felt emotions when a pet is entering end of life or has passed away. Denial is the first stage of grief identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. It is our mind’s way of taking time to absorb and get used to the impending loss. We reflexively say “No” when we hear bad news from someone. A pet parent’s denial starts when we first learn our pet has a terminal illness or has unexpectedly passed. We say things like “I can’t believe he is gone.” Denial is a coping mechanism.
Denial can become a problem if we let it get in the way of treating our pets and making good decisions about their end-of-life care. We need to accept the reality of their illness to move forward in their treatment and care decisions. Denial can be dangerous when we refuse to see what is before our very eyes- that our pet is in pain or is painfully thin, weak, or debilitated. Often people in denial will take a single tail wag or purr as a sign that their pet is just fine, even when it is obvious to everyone else that he is not.
Denial is also tied to guilt. Often people will feel guilty and blame themselves for their pet’s illness or passing. They ask “what if” questions- what if I had taken Spot to the vet sooner- what if I had tried surgery- what if I had come home sooner- the possibilities are endless.
Some guilt is good since it pushes us to engage in ethical and moral behavior and allows us to learn from our past mistakes. Guilt becomes harmful when we repeatedly review our actions and what we would have, could have, or should have done for our pet. Everyone experiences some degree of guilt over the loss of a pet. Working with a grief counselor or pet loss support group can help you work through your guilt. Talking to others about your loss and their loss can help you put your guilt in perspective. When we let go of the guilt we feel over the loss, we can remember our pets for the joy they gave us.