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Viewing Forms of Regret

Posted: April 18, 2011, 5 p.m., EDT

Alice Villalobos, DVM, DPNAP

It is amazing to work in a profession that allows us to help people and pets every day.

A number of clients have expressed an emerging type of wistful regret about their pets recently. I believe it’s because the recession has deepened for so many people, but there may be more to it.

Money-Related Regret?

Marisol Ramirez truly loves her 14-year-old shepherd-chow mix, Murda, who is being successfully treated for splenic lymphoma. Murda presented with two significant co-morbid conditions, severe osteoarthritis and degenerative myelopathy with mild posterior ataxia, but remains in an extended stable remission.

On a recent recheck, Marisol said Murda indicates that she wants to go outside, but once out, immediately wants to come back in. We explained this most likely stems from a common condition in geriatric dogs. Murda was probably exhibiting signs of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which might respond to medication and/or a diet change to Hill’s b/d.

This odd behavior has frustrated Marisol and she feels guilty about reacting sternly on a few occasions.  She also feels compelled to stay at home with Murda so she can watch her closely. When I asked her why she feels so strongly about being at home instead of going to her office she said, “I’m afraid that Murda might die when I’m not around.”

Murda’s care has become a big responsibility for Marisol, who has developed a range of emotions surrounding her dog’s maintenance. She has self-doubt. She wonders if she can continue financing Murda’s care. She has already made sacrifices to pay for the treatments to get Murda into remission. She wonders if she can continue with the financial commitment because her photography business has been in decline. She feels regret and guilt sometimes, thinking about how she is waiting for Murda to die. But Murda keeps on living, enjoying short walks, and has a good appetite. Marisol said that when Murda dies, “I’ll probably have a breakdown.” 

These seemingly contrary feelings of attachment and detachment and anticipatory grief are confusing. She said it’s making her depressed and she doesn’t know what to do about the feelings. She really wants Murda to live.

I repeated the dilemma  so she could hear it from another person. On one hand, she knows Murda’s treatments are successful. On the other hand, with success comes the added burden of watching Murda’s age-related decline. I asked if it was about the cost of care. She feels money is a factor contributing to her angst. But is it just the money? Not entirely.

I explained to Marisol that contrary feelings like these are generally deep seated and come from previous feelings of love and loss. By answering a few questions, Marisol recalled that as a teenager she had contrary feelings when her mother was ill with cancer.

Murda’s pending loss was stimulating her previous teenage feelings of protecting herself from losing her mother to cancer. Marsiol also recalled that she was not home when Murda’s mother died and that she felt a haunting regret about that.

Once Marisol recognized the situation, she felt a lot better and hugged me. When Marisol left the exam room with Murda, she was smiling.

A Deeper Well of Regret

Another client shared his sense of regret in a letter.

Photo courtesy of Marisol Ramirez.
Pepper is gone. … It was a terrible decision to make—one that I am still regretting. I loved the article you sent me about relief being a natural part of grief (Veterinary Practice News, November 2007), but I think something needs to be said about regret. … Although I have been told by many that it was the right thing to do, my mind keeps going over and over the decision, hoping that it was the right time. Yep—regret is the killer emotion. I do feel relief. … Grief—sure. That’s only natural, but regret—that’s the hardest one for me right now.

Pepper was No. 6 in a long line of German shepherds for us, but somehow her passing has been much more painful than any of the others’. … There’s a huge hole where Pepper used to be. … It’s really quiet here. We’re just not used to it. A very strange thing happened when Pepper died; our birds were calling Pepper’s name. They knew without being near. Amazing.

All these things—her cancer diagnosis and treatment decisions, Her beginning stability with a glimmer of hope that she would be OK, for a while. And then, her declining interest in food … And her unbelievable determination to retain her dignity and grace, however heroic on her part, was extremely painful for us. We know in our hearts that there was probably nothing else we, or anyone else, for any amount of money, could have done for her that we weren’t already doing. Knowing all these things hasn’t eased our pain over her passing.

I want to convey to you and everyone on your staff just how important your positive support has been for us. We only had a small idea of what was to come—you knew, and helped give us the strength and guts to go the distance. We were not sure where or when it was all going to end, but one thing was for sure. Pepper was driving the bus and we were all just passengers.

With Much Love,
Rick Hart

This touching email was all about regret for Rick. However, I wanted him to know about one of the powers associated with pet loss, how pet loss can evoke deeper feelings from the past, making us feel so low and depressed that it might drive some bereft people into maladaptive grief. Below is my email response to Rick and his family.
Dear Rick,

Your feelings of regret are soooo natural and brutal to experience. So think about turning that regret into gratitude for the wonderful days that Pepper gave to you during her Pawspice. Your cups were running over with joy at her amazing good days. ... I think her passing might also have rekindled all your losses and the summation of all your grief for those who have gone to the rainbow bridge before her.

 I call this “tears of the ages.” You might call it regret, but it is RE-something. REliving the losses of all those loved ones who have passed on.

Pet loss opens that well and we fall into it with all our tears and sadness.

 REmember the good days and REcall the joy and love and cherish that!

 We will miss seeing you and Pepper at the clinic. Stop by and we will give you a big hug in honor of Pepper.

Dr. Alice

Dr. Villalobos is a past president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. Her column appears every other month.


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Reader Comments
To all that read my posts that follow - I posted them in the opposite order I wanted to. I had to break them up into two posts, because as one, they exceeded the maximum number of characters. Please read the post that begins with "Thank You
Dr. Alice..." first and the post that begins with "Everyone crosses through..." second.

My apologies,

Rick Hart
Rick, West Hills, CA
Posted: 6/28/2011 7:00:29 PM
Everyone crosses through this door differently. 6 months later, we are finally moving past what happened, but not a day goes by that we don't think about what a great dog Pepper was, and all who came before her, each in their own way. It's funny (and great) to see the influences she had on Leo. Pepper loved to eat ice cubes. Leo didn't at first, but finally found out that they were fun to eat. Now, Leo is teaching Tami about ice cubes, and she's loving them. None of our earlier dogs were interested in ice cubes at all. From Pepper to Leo to Tami.

Leo now sleeps where Pepper did, and Tami sleeps where Leo did. Our next generation starts.

Why? Because we love them!

Thank You So Much,
Rick Hart
Rick, West Hills, CA
Posted: 6/28/2011 6:54:29 PM
Thank you, Dr. Alice, for sharing my letter about Pepper with your readers. And thank you so much for being there when it all came to an end. As you know, Pepper's loss was very painful to us. I think there is a lot of truth in what you call "Tears of the Ages." For several months following Pepper's death, I couldn't look at a picture or speak about any of our past dogs, especially Pepper, without breaking down to some extent. Even now, nearly 6 months later, I have trouble. Pepper's passing did very much bring up how much all of our dogs have meant to us and how much we miss each one. Remembering all the good times, can be painful to.

Some say that time heals all. I'm not so sure. We all eventually come to grips with the grief, pain and regret and if we're lucky, finally feel relief, but are we healed? No. We still have, what we call, "Pepper Moments" and "Oscar Moments" (Pepper's brother) and "Margie Moments" (Pepper's Aunt)... and on and on for 5 generations back. We've been through this before. It never gets easier. It always seems somehow, unfair. "Tears of the Ages" may make it a little harder each time, but every loss caries it's own weight. I guess that's why the bond with our pets is so strong - because we don't have them in our lives very long - and somehow from the very beginning, we know that. And yet, we continue to bring animals into our lives because the good times we have and the happiness they bring, far out weigh the sad endings.

OK - Now what? Do we go on as a single dog family, or do we take the plunge - again? Granted, we had just lost Pepper, and as I said in my earlier letter, there was a huge hole where Pepper used to be, but it just didn't feel right to bring a new dog into our lives so soon after Pepper's passing. As it turns out, the single dog family is just not for us - and Leo didn't like it very much either, so a couple of months ago, we welcomed a new little girl into our home - Tami. A rescue from the Westside German Shepherd Rescue.

A new dog never replaces an old - they are all so unique. The new ones only continue the "Ages" and start their own chapter. One that we know will bring us years of fun and great memories. So now it's Leo and Tami's time - and we start again.

Why? Because they love us. **Continued in the next post**
Rick, West Hills, CA
Posted: 6/28/2011 6:52:37 PM
I love this article. How I wish there had been something like this available when My KC was a whole other realm of stuff I'd never been through before.

Thank you.

cathie carroll
Cathie, Fort Worth, TX
Posted: 5/19/2011 12:01:36 PM
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