Crisis Of Faith
Lo, I am with you always.
I experience a lot of people going through crisis of faith, especially during the first week after a loss. When we start talking about spiritual matters, many of my clients are noticeably upset. They are often feeling anger, intense guilt, fear, and they're desperate to find hope and assurance that this isn't the absolute end. By far the most common crisis of faith that I experience is the question of our pets and what happens to them in the afterlife. I've talked with Catholics, Muslims, Orthadox Jews, and Atheists about this topic and they all seem to start with the same basic fear that their pets will not be joining them in the afterlife. I often get questions like, "Will I ever see my pet again? Will they go to Heaven? What happens to their soul? Do they have a soul?". A simple Google search will return page after page of people scouring scripture to find answers and much needed assurance that they will see their pets again. Apparently, there is quite the debate about whether animals have souls, and if they do, where those souls go after death.
My clients are often afraid to talk with their spiritual leaders about their fears too, worrying that (1) their grief will be dismissed but more importantly that (2) their overwhelming fears will be confirmed: that they will learn that their pet doesn't have a soul and they will never see or be reunited with them again, in this life or the next. That obviously causes a lot of distress.
When I get asked this, I go right back into the spiritual assessment/screening tools to discover what they believe. My very first question is, "What do you believe happens when they die?" followed by "Do you believe they have souls?". Most people respond that their pets go to Heaven and that they will see them again. To which I reply that I also believe that. I have plenty of literature and quotes from scripture, including the Bible, the Koran, and many other faith traditions that I can then provide if needed for additional assurance.
It's easy to dismiss this question or answer it too quickly. The truth is, it's rather complicated because there isn't an outright declaration that they will go to Heaven. Everything overt in that arena is strictly human-only. We can only interpret and infer their fate based on chosen texts. For this reason, it can be a contentious scholarly topic because many religious leaders will say that they will not go to Heaven; that they do not have souls; that we won't see them again often citing man's superiority over animals and foul. This has actually been a massive debate for a century or more in the Catholic church which has long held the view that animals don't have souls, therefore they do not go to Heaven. However, recent remarks from Pope Francis and the late Pope Paul VI gently suggest otherwise. Pope Paul VI, when comforting a distraught child, said "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures" (6).
If my client is Catholic, this can quickly create a crisis of faith for them. I had one client who left his church because his priest said this. As we were talking, he said something from Will Rogers that I've heard quoted a lot: "If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." Again, it can be easy to dismiss this statement, but this is absolutely a crisis of faith and one that needs to be taken seriously.
There was a story in the book about a father and his dying infant son that I took to heart and have since used to help someone (1, 277). I had another individual who was questioning whether his dog would really go to Heaven. As we were talking, we discussed our (human) souls and whether pets have souls. Since there isn't a clear answer, I asked him what his pet's relationship had been like with God. He sat there in stunned silence for a minute or more (just like in the story) before answering. He had never considered that his pet could have a relationship with God and what that would mean for them in the afterlife. From there, I directed him into the topic of the unconditional love that they always have shown us. "Where do you think all that unconditional love came from all those years you were together?" I asked, this time to a quick "from God" response. At this point it was almost natural to lead him to the answer that he already had yet wanted to be reassured of. None of this would have made as much of an impact if I had just said, "Of course they go to Heaven".