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, or 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 afterwards 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 invasion retreat before his assault, only to return 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?
They say that only humans have self-reflective consciousness, and therefore (according to Church tradition) only people have souls and enter Afterlife. Nonetheless, a mummified cat from around 9500 BCE attests to the human longing for a pet to reach the next Life. The ancients entombed along with pets — food, maidens, soldiers, oxen and furniture for the next life. Right up to the Sixth Century ACE the rapacious Viking marauders took with them on their final journey a favorite dog or horse (not to mention the human sacrifice of the serving girl): all killed and burned up with him on the flaming funeral ship.
But these traditions speak more to the efforts of the dying to hold onto the world and to those creatures that they loved than to the souls of animals.
Here are our main concerns: Will we meet them in the Afterlife? Do they reincarnate as the Hindu/Buddhist traditions assert into “higher” life-forms? Furthermore, what is the soul, that quality which G. B. Shaw called the “life-force?”
I once asked my guru, “Where does the soul reside in us?” He answered that the soul is, like water in a sponge, permeating every cell; for the soul or spirit, he said, is oneself. I’ve come to believe that the soul is another word for love. And love transcends the very boundaries of death.
But where does it go when we die?
Once I was giving a talk on angels in Colorado, when a woman asked: “Do dogs become angels when they die?” Then she told the following story:
She’d had a beautiful Shetland Sheep Dog in Idaho. It wore a red bandana round 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 U.S. 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 Sheep dog with a red bandana 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?
“That’s all an angel is,” wrote Meister Eckhart in the 13th century, “an idea of God.” And what is God—this word we throw around so casually and that so many reject and ridicule rebelliously? What is “god” but a word for this wild, mysterious, invisible, ineffable, unknowable and unfathomable energy of Love?
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 psalmody—our grief being a poem proportionate to our love.