Thursday, May 19, 2011

Too Selfish to Euthanize?

     The second most common thing I hear when people talk about end of life and euthanasia is that we must be vigilant against acting out of selfish reasons when making decisions about euthanasia.  You have heard it, "Really, Sarah, you are just keeping this poor animal alive because you can't bear to let go.  Stop being so selfish." 

     It is almost always heard in two situations:

          1. where someone is pressuring you to euthanize your animal at a time when it doesn't feel right to you; or

          2. as a way to make yourself feel better or justify your decision to euthanize your animal to someone else when you have guilt or regret about the decision you made.

     If this phrase is directed at you as advice when you are trying to make a decision about euthanasia, run.  Seriously, this is a red flag that the person doesn't get it.  It's a way of undermining your confidence and your ability to make a good decision for your animal at a time when you need to be listening to your gut and trusting yourself.  It's an attempt to guilt you into making the decision the person wants you to make rather than allowing you to come to a decision that resonates with you for your animal.

     I'm not saying the person is ill intentioned, mean, or unkind.  He or she may think they are giving you the advice you need, the reasons you need to make a very hard decision. Sometimes without even realizing it, he or she may be justifying their own past decisions.  He or she may be right that now is the time to euthanize.  But - whether intentionally or unwittingly - the person is throwing guilt and self-doubt at you just when what you need confidence and clarity.  It's not worth getting into a discussion or debate with this person; he or she has already made up their mind about what is right and is trying to bring you around to this way of thinking.  Seek advice from someone who listens to your thoughts, feelings and ideas.  Someone who is open to the many options available to you and your animal.  Someone who gives you the time and space to explore your own thoughts and feelings.

     If you find yourself saying this after you have euthanized your animal, recognize that it may be coming up because you feel some guilt or regret about your decision.  It doesn't mean the decision was wrong, only that you still aren't sure whether it was right. Be kind to yourself.  Let the guilt go.  Forgive yourself if you have regret.  You made the best decision you could at the time with the information and resources available to you.  Guilt and regret eat you up and lead you to make poor decisions in the future and perhaps even guide others in a way that is not helpful.  You didn't euthanize your animal out of selfishness OR selflessness.  You euthanized your animal because you felt it was the right thing to do.  You made a very difficult decision in a very complicated and emotionally charged situation. 

     If you find that you have guilt and regret, what you need is healing, not justification.  Justification doesn't heal - it simply covers and the irritation persists.  Acknowledge the feelings, find a way to express them, find someone - whether it is a friend or counselor - to discuss them, let it out and let it go.  Try writing about your feelings and your experiences or writing a letter to your deceased animal.  Or try painting, sculpting or creating something that represents your animal or your feelings.  You don't have to be an artist (although we all are in our own way), let it be abstract so you don't have to worry about getting it "right".  Or try a physical way of release.  Hike to the peak of a mountain or in a cave or walk along the seashore.  Scream that the top of your lungs to give expression to your feelings - words or even just sounds.  Punch a pillow or punching bag or take a kick boxing class.  Cry.  Cry until the tears are gone.

     The concept of selfishness in this circumstance is both a red herring and a red flag.  It can make your journey harder and distract you from the very important work you need to do both in decision making and healing.  Be vigilant.  Not against your own self-interest but towards this indicator that something more is going on.


  1. Nice to hear. I have counseled a number of friends and I have always shared that I feel, whatever your decision is, it is the right one because you have done it out of love. Even when the decision to euthanize comes at a travel time or some other reason and it seems 'convenient', you have loved that pet every day of its life with you and now are making a decision based on love, not convenience. If you didn't love the pet, you wouldn't be calling me and weighing the decision. I have had the privilege and burden of euthanizing a number of pets and most recently of seeing it through to the my arms....both very painful and both very peaceful in the end. Each circumstance was the right thing to do at the time and I know they are all whole again.

  2. Really great post (and overall advice!)

  3. I agree, Julie. The fact that it is hard shows how much you care and want to do the right thing by your animal given the situation at hand. All situations are not perfect, our lives aren't simple, our knowledge not absolute. We do the best we can with love in our hearts and are so very often too hard on ourselves.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts with us. It sounds like you are a wonderful friend and animal lover.

    Best wishes,
    FOunder and Team Leader
    New England Pet Hospice, Inc.

  4. Thank you, Tammy. I am a big fan of yours and appreciate your support.

    - Heather

  5. This is a lovely post, and Julie also had a lovely message. I have had to euthanize pets in the past, and now am making the decision to let another very old girl go. I am feeling guilty and conflicted, but it was very helpful to remember that the reason I feel that way is because it's a complicated thing and I have loved her for so long. And even when you're quite sure it's the right time, it still aches when you look in that adorable face and know that it won't be for much longer. Thanks for the wisdom. I will carry those words with me as I make the decision and move forward with healing.

  6. Ajehly,

    Thank you for your kind words. I am sorry you are struggling with end of life issues and decisions. I wish you peace and your companion a comfortable passing. You may also find our Post about Surviving the decision to euthanize helpful

    Best wishes,
    Founder and Team Leader