When a pet's death makes us face our mortality

After Christmas, a brutal cold descended on my part of the Midwest and ushered in our new year.

We returned from our holiday travels to find a light dusting of snow. Most of it had been blown away by the harsh winds of the Plains, but when I awoke in the morning, I discovered that my patio, protected from the gusts, was covered by a smooth, pristine white blanket.

Punctuating the snow was a trail of little bunny footprints. For me, that brought to mind only one thing: Sunny's footprints were missing. She was no longer around to chase rabbits.

Sunny, our golden retriever, was geriatric in dog years, and she'd had a good life. It was still hard to see her declining this past year. She stopped eating and drinking the week before Christmas. The veterinarian confirmed what we knew: It was time for her to go.

For those who have never had to put down a pet, it's probably hard to understand the anguish. For those who have, no explanation is necessary.

Sunny's departure occurred shortly after the crazy media frenzy that erupted when news reports mistakenly quoted Pope Francis as telling a young boy that he would be reunited in heaven with his dog.

It was amazing to see the splash this purported statement made. Even The New York Times incorrectly reported it before somebody actually looked into the transcript of Pope Francis' wonderful statement on creation and discovered that it was beautiful and inspiring, but it certainly contained no assurance that Fido was romping somewhere beyond the Pearly Gates.

Why the interest in the original report? The press always looks for "feel good" stories at the holiday season and this fit the bill. Also, people are incredibly attached to their pets, so the assurance that we might see them again struck a chord.

But it also speaks to our relationship with death. This may sound crazy - it sounds a little crazy to me now - but for a few days after I petted Sunny and cooed to her as she took her last breath, I had something of an existential crisis.

Did Sunny cease to exist? If Sunny suddenly was just ash, just "dust in the wind," as the song says, what did it all say about life and death for me? It forced me to confront my fears about death.

As a Christian, I cling to the resurrection and to Jesus' promises. I know Jesus lives, and that in some fashion, he promises me life. But it's all wrapped up in such mystery. We have no idea what awaits us. So, when the pope is misquoted as saying our dog will be in heaven, we hear a message of certainty and cling to it. Hey, life will be just what it is right now, only without problems.

My youngest daughter, who had campaigned hard to adopt Sunny when she and Sunny were young, wrote about the pope's words, and said, "Sunny is probably chasing rabbits in heaven right now." I laughed. What kind of heaven would that be for the rabbits?

I knew a man who worked with the dying, who would sit at the bedside of those dying alone so that they would have human companionship until the end.

"All I know," he told me through the eyes of faith, "is that they are falling into the arms of a merciful God."

We return to a merciful God who beckons us to enter into the Creator's mystery now, on this earth, through prayer and silence and service.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015