SORTING IT OUT: SPIRITUAL BELIEFS ABOUT DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE
 
When we suffer a major loss such as the death of a cherished pet, it's not unusual to find ourselves confronting and re-thinking our beliefs about God, religion, death and the afterlife. While some of us turn to God as a source of strength at the time of a loved one's serious illness or death, others question the religious faith we grew up with. Some of us may have had no religious upbringing at all, yet still feel abandoned by God or angry with God for letting our pets get sick and die. Not all people respond to loss in the same way, and not all of us share the same cultural, religious or spiritual beliefs about death and the afterlife.

Many of us wonder where our animals "go" when they die, whether our pets have souls, or whether we will reunite with our animals in an afterlife. Much has been written by clergy and others on the subject of animals having souls and whether animals go to heaven. (See, for example, Will I See Fido in Heaven? by Mary Buddemeyer-Porter, Companion Press, P.O. Box 310, Shippensburg, PA 17257, (c) 1995. See also The Legend of Rainbow Bridge by William N. Britton, available from Golden Retrievers in Cyberspace, 861 Somerset Drive, Sunnyvale, CA 94087, (c) 1994).

Many of us haven't even thought through what we believe about our own death, let alone that of our companion animals! It's not easy to confront and resolve our own feelings about such important issues as death, dying, loss and grief. Whether religious faith will be a help or a hindrance in your recovery from grief depends on what you believe and how your beliefs are practiced. Like any other tool, religion can be used in healthy, appropriate ways, or it can be abused in unhealthy, inappropriate ways.

In his wonderful book, Life after Loss, pastoral counselor Bob Diets offers help for dealing with the spiritual dimension of grief (Fisher Books, P.O. Box 38040, Tucson, AZ 85740). He notes that there are limits to what religion can do for us. For example, religion can influence one's fundamental view of life: we can see life as temporary and death as permanent, or we can see it the other way around - death is temporary and life is permanent. Death may interrupt a life that was very special, but it cannot cancel it. Religion can provide the motivation required for grief recovery: it says you're not alone - somebody has done it before. Grief's path isn't a dead-end street; it's a well-marked trail. Religion can be a great antidote for the loneliness that accompanies every major loss, and it can be a source of strength and group support.

What religion cannot do is give us immunity from loss or give us back our lost loved ones - nor can it provide us with a shortcut through grief. Diets notes that some religious beliefs can be harmful:

 

  • Death is God's will and should not be questioned.
  • The pet was so special that God called it to be with Him.
  • There must be a grand plan or purpose (a why) for every death.

These religious beliefs are helpful:

  • This is a mortal, frail, imperfect world, and tragedies occur.
  • There is no satisfactory explanation when loss occurs.
  • The question is not why me, but rather if me, what can I learn from this?

Diets encourages us to move from why questions to how questions:

  • How can I work through this loss and achieve as full a life as possible?
  • How can I use this experience to help someone else?
  • How do I find meaning in life without this animal?
  • How do I start anew?

Copyright by Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC    All rights reserved
 

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