Our family cat Selena lived with us for 14 years – since before even our youngest child was born! But, over the past few months, we’d noticed that Selena was slowing down. She wasn’t eating as much, and she just wasn’t herself. Before long, we knew that it would be time for our family to say goodbye to her, and we had to make the tough decision to put her down. If your family has a pet, sooner or later you too may have to go through the loss of a pet. How can you help your family walk through that loss?
For most kids, explaining the process of putting a pet down in age appropriate language will help your kids process their grief. Explaining that your beloved pet is sick, and hurting, and that you don’t want her to feel pain any longer and explaining that the doctor will give her a special medicine that will help her stop suffering is an honest way of explaining to kids that putting their pet will mean that she is free from pain.
Older kids and teens may be curious about the actual process--what happens in the vet’s office and how their pet reacted. Answering these questions will help them understand the loss of their pet. Moreover, explaining this process (rather than telling them that they are being sent to a farm, or some other such false story) helps kids become acquainted with the reality of death. As difficult a topic as this is, having conversations about death and dying will prepare them to understand the loss that is inevitable in our fallen world. Honest discussions on the topic of death opens the door to talk about the far-reaching effects of sin’s curse in our world–and God’s plan to redeem all things.
In Matthew 6:26, Jesus encourages us to “Look at the birds of the air…your heavenly father feeds them.” In this context, his point is that God takes care of us more than he takes care of the smallest of creatures, but in explaining this, Jesus shows how God cares for the smallest creatures like birds (and dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and other furry friends) which is sure to include our pets! The God of the world–who created every blade of grass and every galaxy, also created and sustains our pets. God pays attention when our beloved pets die because he created them. Knowing that God cares for our precious pets can be a source of comfort for us.
Knowing God’s care for his creatures, including the ones we call our pets, can help us work through our feelings of loss. It’s helpful to remember that every person grieves differently, and helping our kids grieve requires us to be sensitive to the different ways that a child or teenager might process their feelings of loss. Some children joke to hide their feelings. Others may minimize or ignore their feelings, talking right away about getting a replacement pet. Still others may take on the role of a caretaker, tending to the needs of others, while ignoring their own feelings. It’s usually best to let kids grieve at their own pace, without correcting their way of handling things.
However, at the same time it’s also important to help them name their feelings by digging below the surface of what they are showing. Talking about your own feelings of sadness can set a good example for them to follow. Remembering stories about your pet, often the good and funny ones, can help name the bond and loss that your family is experiencing. Recalling also some of the more challenging stories can help you remember with honesty and hold in tension the ups and downs.
Inevitably, this question will come up: “Will we see our cat again? Will the family dog be in heaven?” While the bible doesn’t say specifically that pets will be in heaven, there is reason to think that our family pets will be part of heaven. The power of the resurrection does not just apply to our souls; heaven will not be a place where saved souls gather in the clouds to play harps! No, the resurrection was the beginning of a new creation, a new heavens and a new earth that will be fully realized when Jesus returns, and God reunites heaven and earth together again. Jesus even says,
“Behold, I am making all things new again!” (Revelation 21:5, emphasis mine).
While sin has invaded our world, leading to decay and death, the resurrection reverses this, so that the power of resurrection will be applied to all of this world. One day, the entire cosmos will be cleansed from every last vestige of sin, which means that this world will continue into the next, only in a way that is purified from sin! That means that there is good reason to conclude that our pets, which are part of this natural and created world, will be a part of the world that is to come. While it is always best to “whisper where scripture whispers, and shout where it shouts,” expressing your reasons for why you think your pets may be in heaven will help them see the big picture of God’s redemptive plan.
It’s true that acknowledging death is hard, and the loss of a pet is no different. Your family will miss the way that your golden retriever wagged his tail every time he saw you, or the way that your black and white cat would wait each morning by your door, expecting to be fed. The loss of a pet is a difficult reality to face. But, death and loss in the Christian faith are meant to point us to the eternal joy that we have because of the resurrection! As you and your family face the loss of your dear pet, seek God’s comfort–no creature is too small to escape his care–and take the opportunity to focus on the hope of the new heavens and the new earth that await us when Jesus returns.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra