As an author of books in the pet loss genre, I often receive e-mail where I am asked "Do you think that I did the right thing by putting my best friend down?" The question is always qualified by a very heart-wrenching and moving story about the rapidly declining health of the family pet, which resulted in making the "big decision".
Almost without exception, the inquirer expresses a deep sense of guilt from having made that choice, which, in all probability, is the real reason for their writing to me…to help them with that guilt. Essentially, I am being asked to approve of a decision made during a period of great duress without much background information. It is a task that I do not relish, but one that I cannot and will not avoid.
Making such a decision is one of the most difficult things a person who loves animals will ever have to do. Our pets are perpetual children to us: children, because they depend upon us for all of their needs (food, shelter, medical attention, etc.); and, perpetual, because they never grow up and leave the nest.
They do not marry. They do not go to college. They remain utterly dependent upon us throughout their lives. When our children leave home, we still love them and provide help when they ask for it, but generally they have their own lives to live and we no longer make decisions for them. But for our furry children, the decision-making responsibilities permanently fall to us.
Is it any wonder then, that when we have had to prematurely hasten their passing, we blame ourselves or feel guilt? After all, they depended upon us and somehow we let them down. Somehow we should have had control and been able to prevent their illness or injury.
The truth is, however, we have no control over such things. We cannot know when illness will strike. We cannot know when an animal will dig a hole under the fence and run into the street. We can take all the necessary safety precautions, feed them the best food, get them regular check-ups, but we cannot foresee the future. Accordingly, from a reality standpoint, there is no basis for feeling guilty when unexpected circumstances force us to decide to help our best friend pass on.
From a perceptional standpoint, when someone is so broken that they feel compelled to seek my help, pouring out their most intimate emotions to a complete stranger, this suggests to me that they could never have failed their best friend by making a poor decision. It just is not in them to have not been vigilant and caring. It is my perception that they could have done nothing to deserve the guilt they torture themselves with.
It has been my experience rather, that such people possess great love and devotion for their pets. Invariably, they will have done anything within their power to extend the life of their best friend if it were at all possible to do so.
Indeed, I can attest that some who have contacted me have spent literally tens of thousands of dollars on surgery and other healthcare efforts, traveled great distances to meet with specialists, or sat up night after night all night long trying to provide comfort and care. There can be little doubt but that people who love their pets, people like you and me, will exhaust every possibility to help their animals.
Sadly, despite all of our selfless effort and expense, success sometimes is not realized and our best friend continues to deteriorate, often in great pain. We are forced to make that dreaded big decision, whether or not to let our best friend go.
It is after that decision has been made and our best friend is gone, that guilt comes, accompanied by its infamous associate, doubt. Together they rob us of our confidence and turn our precious memories into a source of pain. We beat ourselves up in our hearts and minds and are plagued by the haunting questions:
• "Did I do the right thing"?
• "Should I have waited longer"?
• "Why am I feeling all this guilt"?
• "What if I had done this or that"?
Again, these questions are hard to answer. If you were to ask for my help in validating your decision, I could not presumptuously determine that putting your best friend down was the right thing to do. Neither could I suggest that it was the wrong thing to do. I just cannot know.
Similarly, I do not know if the decision was made too soon, too late or whether it should have been made at all. At best, my thoughts in those areas would be nothing more than a subjective guess, based upon very limited information and my own values and level of sensitivity. It would be unfair to hold everyone to my own personal standard and to respond to them based upon that alone.
Instead, I would encourage you to remember how things were at that moment in time when you bore the responsibility of making that big decision for your family pet. Only you can know if it was the right and timely thing to do. My advice to you is to simply “trust the moment”. By that I mean, that you should not second-guess now, the decision that you made then. Second-guessing will only lead to a feeling of insecurity, which will eventually manifest itself as guilt.
It is imperative to trust that at that moment, when you were forced to make that undesirable, big decision, you did so from a position of love. You didn't want to do it. It horrified you to have to decide. Nevertheless, you stepped up and assumed your responsibility. You selflessly decided, at that moment, that your best friend was suffering, that there was nothing you or anyone else could do about it, except make that decision.
Now, long after the fact, divorced from the emotion and pressure of that moment, you are allowing yourself to dissect every thought and circumstance. Now, with the luxury of time, you are starting to re-think the facts and question yourself, playing the "what if" game.
Today, it isn't as clear as it was then. You really don't know if you did the right thing. Take heart, it is human nature to doubt. We are imperfect and fickle creatures. But that does not make it right to pull a load of guilt upon ourselves, and that does not change the reality of the moment when you had to make that big decision.
Don't let your feelings of grief give birth to guilt. Remember the moment. Remember that at that moment you wanted nothing more than to help the one you so dearly loved. You would have done anything, paid any amount, performed any feat to prolong their life, but it was just not to be
The doctor’s prognosis was grim. There would be much suffering and pain. The recommendation was to bring them relief, to help them pass on. Under extreme duress and emotional strain, through tears of love, you weighed all the facts, reached down deep inside yourself, put aside your own selfish desire to have your pet hang on, and did what you thought best for them at that moment.
At that moment, your love made the selfless decision that rationale and logic now question. There was no selfishness then, but rather a somber consideration of the facts, and a decision to do something that you really did not want to do. But you did it, because someone needed for you to be strong for them.
You put self aside and found strength you did not know that you had. Don't let go of that moment. Hold on to it. Trust it. Trust that you were right and that you did what was needed. Trust that your love ruled over your selfishness and know that where your love prevailed, there is no room for guilt or doubt. Grief and sadness are important validations of your love, but do not cheat that process with doubt and guilt. It has no place.