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Animals and the Afterlife

Angel expert Sophy Burnham explores what happens when our beloved pets die.

An artist rendition of rainbow bridge...do pets go to heaven?
Credit: justdd

My friend’s beloved and aged dog died not long ago. My friend was in a state of grief and there I sat helpless to comfort her—for what can assuage the loss of a dog, a cat, a horse, mouse, parrot, or pet snake? Our animal relationships are pregnant with meaning and almost as profound as the loss of a child.

Where do our animals go when they die? I remember when Puck, my Corgi, died. For weeks afterward I could hear the click of his nails on the bare wood floors, as if he were still following me through the house.

I missed him with a physical ache, the way he’d throw himself at the front door each noon to protest the mail that attacked through the brass slot (his ferocity succeeded, for didn’t the invader retreat after Puck’s assault, only to return the next day?). How could such life-force energy just disappear?

The fact that I could hear my dog’s nails on the floor disturbed me. Was it my imagination, forged in the fires of grief? And how was it that after two or three weeks it faded out and stopped?

In Colorado once I was giving a talk on angels, when a woman asked: “Do dogs become angels when they die?” Then she told the following story: She’d had a beautiful Shetland sheepdog in Idaho. It wore a red bandanna around its neck, a hippie dog. When it died, she fell into a depression–inconsolable.

She finally withdrew to a retreat center on the top of a mountain in New Mexico, where she spent her days reading, praying, walking, and recovering from her loss. One day she was hiking in the high mountains when a thunderstorm broke overhead. Lightning flashed. She knew she was in danger.

Some 55 people a year are killed by lightning in the United States and those deaths are most prevalent in the high mountains. The woman had a poor sense of direction, and while hurrying to reach the safety of the retreat, she got lost. She was scared. Suddenly she heard a bark. She looked up.

Through the rain she saw a Shetland sheepdog with a red bandanna around its neck, running back and forth ahead of her. When she took a step toward it, the dog ran down a path. If she hesitated, it came back, barking, inviting her to follow. As it ran down the slope ahead of her, she saw the dog’s plumy tail waving in great circles, like a pinwheel, just as her dog’s used to do. The dog led her to her own cabin at the retreat, turned, and ran away.

Was it her dog? Was it an angel? I have been privileged to know one perfect loving dog, one perfect cat, and now an exceptional horse, each one the full expression of unflinching love.

I think our animals are angels, earth-angels, pointing out for us the steadfast path of love, loyalty, optimism, faith, joy, hope. They teach us everything important about life. And when we grieve their deaths, it is love that we’re expressing in silent song–our grief being a poem proportionate to our love

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