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Guilt and Grief After Pet Loss

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Today I’m not posting a recipe. Rather this is going to be about guilt and grief after pet loss. And if you follow my blog, you know the animals I have: chickens, ducks, cats, a guinea hen, and a dog. Also, I usually only post about issues and animals I’m familiar with. Or about issues I’ve witnessed personally. That being said, we lost Mabel, our dwarf lop eared rabbit on Monday.

I was absolutely not prepared for the amount of tears that I had initially, and that I still have. I thought I’d seen enough chickens die, since being a chicken owner, to have Mabel’s loss affect me so much. But inside animals are very different than outside animals. And they tug on our heart-strings much stronger. However, don’t get me wrong, we’ve had favorite birds that have passed. Davis recently did. I was almost tempted to cry, but again, I’ve seen too many chickens die. They either make it or they don’t. So we learned to get over it.

Our History with Mabel

Hannah bought Mabel as a Christmas present (last year) for Sarah, our 10 year old. But we didn’t actually receive Mabel until February of this year (2021). When we brought him home, he was very shy at first. He was acutely aware of his status as prey. Although not long after, maybe a week later, he was letting us approach him, without running off.

Soon Mabel was doing binkies. Binkies are special hops bunnies will do when they’re especially happy. And he used to do them all the time, in addition to exploring the house. Then we got him a friend named Ricky. We thought about breeding them, but quickly rejected this idea. This was before we knew Mabel was a boy bunny.

gray dwarf lop eared rabbit
Mabel humping Ricky.

Mabel was very aggressive toward Ricky; he would mount him continuously everyday, which is why we scheduled to have him fixed as soon as we did. Hence we discovered he was really a boy and not the girl we’d grown to love. Although we still loved him, even though we kept his name ‘Mabel’. We couldn’t change his name, because he knew it by then.

Well, post surgery, Mabel and Ricky started fighting. It was no longer just Mabel being dominant. Ricky started standing up for himself. Which sounded great at first, but then they both became miserable. I won’t post about all the details right now, but I promise I will later. So we instantly found a new home for Ricky, aware that Mabel was likely to be out of sorts for a while.

calico kitten sleeping with a gray dwarf lop eared rabbit
Poppy sleeping on Mabel.

Well, enter Itty Bitty Kitty or Poppy. She’s the kitten one of our neighbor’s brought to us after finding her in the middle of the road. She was about 5-6 weeks old, not old enough to be on her own. Given that, we took her in and cared for her. Which was like caring for a baby. So, she was growing up around Mabel. And she would get in his cage with him and take naps in there. Also, as she’d get bigger, she’d chase him. Or they’d chase each other.

Faint Changes in Mabel

This is about the time I started noticing small changes in Mabel. He didn’t seem depressed, like he just lost his bonded partner. For which I was very thankful. And I owe that to Poppy. I think she kept him busy. So both her presence and Mabel being able to freely explore the house, like he did before Ricky arrived, kept him distracted from Ricky’s absence. However he didn’t approach us like he used to. Also, he no longer did binkies.

Australian Shepherd
Sophie

And then Sophie arrived. Sophie is an Aussie or Australian Shepherd. I have not yet written anything about her. Not for lack of content, because there’s plenty. But because I have so many other things in line. And probably not enough time. So Sophie came into our lives. My husband and daughters have been trying, nearly endlessly since Moses died, to get another dog. We’ve been scammed at least once. So beware of buying dogs on Facebook especially. That’s where we got scammed out of $300.

Well, a different neighbor helped someone they knew give up their dog. They’re an older couple, while Sophie is 7 months old. And they kindly ‘offered’ Sophie to us. We joke all the time now that they were scared she might eat them. Because she constantly chews on . . . furniture, clothes, shoes, people.

gray dwarf lop eared in shoe box under a bed
Mabel hiding under my bed.

Anyway, moving on. Mabel wasn’t depressed when Ricky left. But as Poppy got bigger, he’d stay under my bed. I’d reason he’s a nocturnal animal. Besides I could always lure him out with a piece of fruit or a Fig Newton. Then when Sophie came to live with us, I attempted to get my family to slowly introduce the members of our animal family. They only listened so much. After all, slowly can be interpreted differently to different people.

Well, Mabel hung out only in the living room as long as Sophie was in the house, I began noticing. I was definitely getting worried about my bunny. I would watch him, paying attention to his posture. Was he relaxed or stressed? But then he would go into another room, and my anxiety would be for nothing. At least it seemed that way.

gray dwarf lop eared rabbit lying on a floor
He’s lying in a relaxed position.

These little behavior changes in Mabel continued. Soon he was just eating, pooping, and sleeping. Sometimes I wondered if he was depressed by both Poppy and Sophie. I could point to both of their arrivals to when he started changing. But I consoled myself with the fact that he continued eating. As long as he was eating, I figured, everything must be fine.

So then I wondered if it had to do with getting him fixed. Most sites only list benefits to the changes brought about by sterilization. However I did come across one site where members had their rabbits fixed. And some members experienced similar issues, where their bunnies’ personalities changed from before they got sterilized. But maybe I was just grasping at straws.

The Day Mabel Died

I went to work Monday. And everything was as it always was before I left. I checked on Mabel, petted him, and talked to him. However when I went on lunch break, I checked my emails. And that’s when I knew Paul took an animal to the vet. Because I got a digital receipt. Therefore, I called him and asked about it.

I figured it would either be Poppy or Mabel, so I asked which of the 2 it was. He stalled, so I asked again. He told me it was Mabel. I asked him what happened to Mabel. And again, he stalled. Then I knew it had to be bad. I repeated my question. When someone starts out with an apology, there’s trouble. And that’s when he told me Mabel died.

young calico cat on the floor
Poppy

He proceeded to tell me that Mabel had sepsis. Mabel apparently got an infection from Poppy playing with his ears. However bunnies don’t let you know anything is wrong in the same way that other animals do. They’re silent sufferers. And he was the first rabbit I ever had, so I didn’t know what to look for with everything else going on. I didn’t know if the changes in his personality were due to him losing his genitalia, his friend Ricky, or Poppy and Sophie living with us.

Paul blames himself, I blame myself. We both feel like terrible parents. And I know truly, deep inside, that no one learns anything unless they make mistakes and fail. But I loved Mabel, and I hate that he suffered while I wasn’t even aware of it. Until it was too late.

After grieving for a couple of days, I looked up info on sepsis and rabbits. And I learned that it happens very quickly, 1 to 2 weeks from onset of infection. So it isn’t likely the behavior changes, that he had for the 2 months Sophie’s been with us, were from infection. Because he would’ve been dead way before now. However I’m still sad. And I still feel guilty.

Dealing with Guilt and Grief

I know these are normal feelings. They’re natural, expected emotions for grief. Whether you’re grieving for a human loved-one, who passed away, or a fur baby, grief isn’t just limited to humans. Therefore, if you have pets, at some point you’ll face this too: the loss of a loving pet.

Why do we carry guilt after someone close to us dies? It’s easy to understand grief; we’re sad, and grieving is a normal process. However guilt doesn’t make sense, but we still do it. And we can justify our guilt. At least to ourselves. Granted, there are people out there who shouldn’t have animals, because they don’t care for them. Either through neglect or abuse. Although I’m not thinking about those people, who’ve lost a pet, when I think of guilt and pets.

couple with guilt and grief after pet loss
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I’m referring to regular pet lovers who have lost a pet through no fault of their own. Yet they blame themselves, because hindsight is 20/20. We should have known …. Fill in the dots. If we could all go back in time, none of us would have lost anyone we loved.

Even if your pet died from an accident, you still blame yourself. One of my favorite dogs, Roxy, was hit by a car and died several years ago. I felt guilty, because something inside of me that morning told me to put her in my bedroom. Then at lunch I got a call that repairmen came to our place, and when they opened the door, Roxy ran out. But instead of trying to call her to them, they chased her. And we lived close to a busy intersection; she died instantly.

symbols of justice and law on table of judge
Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

So naturally, I was guilty, because I didn’t listen to that inner prompting, telling me to lock her up. I didn’t know what was going to happen. And it wasn’t a strong feeling. But after she died, I could justify my feelings of guilt by how she died. And by the simple fact that she died that day. It was obviously my fault.

You can feel guilty and sad if your pet passed away from a long illness. And you can feel guilty about any of the myriad of things that come into your head about how you could have, should have, would have, etc, etc, etc. I have experienced those same thoughts and ideas with all of my pets that have died, including Davis, the chicken I didn’t cry over.

How to Survive Guilt and Grief After Pet Loss

One of the most common suggestions for surviving guilt and grief is to write a letter to your pet that passed away. It sounds extremely easy. And in the letter just explain your feelings: the sadness and guilt you carry. Furthermore, you can even write down why you have the guilt. Then when you’re done, you can burn it, releasing it all. Sure, you’ll still think of them. And you might still cry. But you won’t be shouldering the burden of guilt. Also, it doesn’t matter whether you believe your deceased fur baby can ‘hear’ you. All that matters is expressing your emotions instead of locking them up inside of you.

person writing a letter on table
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Most people who have lost pets don’t judge others who have lost their own furry friends. When we lose a loved one, we become our own judge and jury. I suppose that’s why we’re guilty in our own eyes. Even if there was nothing we could have done differently. Because there’s this need to explain the whys: Why did you die? Why couldn’t I say ‘goodbye’ one last time? Why wasn’t I home? Maybe he would still be here...

Also, there are pet loss support groups. Most of them are probably online now due to Covid. Though after reading a couple of entries, I’m not sure I’d be able to talk coherently in an in-person group anyway; the stories I read had me in blubbering tears. Of course, our rabbit did just pass away, so that’s fresh. But also, when you love animals, another person’s grief is contagious.

support group
Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

The most important thing you can do for yourself when you lose a pet, though, is to forgive yourself. I am in no way agreeing with you that you are guilty, because I can’t say that. I, too, am suffering the same thing; have gone through the same issue with each pet that has died throughout the past, at least, 27 years. But no one else except me is blaming me for Mabel’s death. And nobody else but you is blaming you for your pet’s death as well. Which is why we need to forgive ourselves for what we perceive are our failures–how we failed our loved ones.

Healing from guilt over death will not be instantaneous, because healing takes time. Like all wounds. However it will happen. I can say that just writing this blog has helped immensely. For instance, I have been able to write today without crying at all. Even thinking about Mabel, looking at pictures, and talking about him are all bittersweet now, rather than painful. And compared to Monday, when I heard the news, it’s like night and day.

So to sum up, when we lose loved ones, we tend to blame ourselves. But we can get locked in a cycle of guilt and grief after pet loss. That is unless we do some things. Like writing our pet a letter and/or joining a support group. And lastly, forgiving ourselves.

Monday, after Paul told me that Mabel passed, initially I thought I didn’t want another bunny. However I was hurting, and I felt terrible. But I no longer feel like I don’t want another rabbit. Having Mabel was fun, he was a great bunny. And it was a great experience, up until he died. So I don’t want to never have that again. Although we will wait until Poppy and Sophie are older.

Thank you for stopping by. Please feel free to ask questions or leave a comment.

By KS

I breed pure Black Ameraucana chickens and Easter Eggers that are Black Ameraucana mixed with either Cuckoo Maran or Barred Rock. And I donate eggs to people or organizations in need.

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