A child’s first death

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A young girl came to me after worship one Sunday, began to speak, then suddenly ran back to her parents. A few minutes later she approached me again, took a deep breath and whispered the question that lay heavy upon her heart, “My dog died. Will he go to heaven?”

We talked for a while, she and I. As I listened to her, I saw a child experiencing her first death. She loved her dog. She had many memories to share of fun things they did together, the number of times she snuck food off her plate to a willing mouth hovering beneath the table, the joy of meeting again after school each day. The loss of her friend, her confidante and her playmate was a wound she felt deep in her own soul. She found comfort in believing that her dog was now in a wonderful place, free of pain, and one day they would be together again. Some people call that wonderful place heaven.

She went to school, and shared the news of her loss with her friends. What happened next is not entirely clear to me, other than seeing the shock, the betrayal and the grief in her eyes as she struggled to share the next part of her story. It seems that her friends laughed at her. “Dogs don’t go to heaven,” they told her. The young girl was devastated.

Do dogs have souls? Do dogs go to heaven? Just what is a soul anyway?

The word soul is used in a number of ways in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In Hebrew the word nephesh transliterates into English as “life principle”, usually understood as soul. It’s first used in Genesis 1 — nephesh hayyah, literally “life breathers”, which becomes “living creatures” in most Bible translations. The breath of life is breathed into all living creatures by ruach, the Spirit of God. The Greek word for soul, “psyche”, comes from the verb “to blow” breath, the vital, life-giving breath shared by humans and other animals. As long as we have breath, we are alive.

Augustine, a first century theologian, described the soul as “a special substance, endowed with reason, adapted to rule the body,” giving rise to the separation of soul and body, and the understanding that only human bodies have souls. And I wonder: What if we are not humans with a soul; but souls with a human body?

Other children have come to me with their questions about death, and wondering whether their pets will find a new home in heaven. I have led funeral services for hamsters, cats, dogs and rabbits as we journey and struggle together with the questions and feelings that mourning brings. Whether you believe in heaven for our beloved animal companions or not, the grief we feel at their passing is a profound experience many of us share.

Animals, too, are aware of death. They have a sense of their own mortality, and grieve at the loss of companions. Animals possess language, creativity and playfulness. Animals possess a sense of right and wrong; they are capable of fidelity, altruism and even self-sacrifice. Animals breathe the breath of life. They are not things. They are not objects. Neither are they human. They mourn. They love. They dance. They suffer. People too mourn, love, dance and suffer.

The breath of life. The gift of creation. The blessedness of all living things. The relationship between humans and animals is sacred trust. All living creatures have been given our life on earth by the One who creates and gives life. When our life on Earth is over, then what? Do dogs go to heaven? What do you believe?

Rev. Paula Ashby is the pastor of Creston’s Trinity United Church.