Do All Dogs Go To Heaven?
(Audrey and Lilly in a backyard squeeze, 2009)
I adopted sweet Lilly from the pound when she was just a puppy and I was just a junior in high school. My dad always jokingly called her the Lilly5000, because she suffered through bouts of almost everything a dog could possibly have - including the Parvo virus and later, diabetes. Of course, none of those treatments were cheap, hence the 5000.
Lilly went through lots of life changes with me - high school, off to college with me where she lived in my apartment, back home, through my first marriage, the birth of my daughter, divorce, and finally my move out to California with my daughter to join my fiance' and his son. By this time, Lilly was 13 years old and her health was declining. The vet told me that she likely wouldn't survive a move of that caliber due to the high stress levels involved with getting adjusted to a new environment. So, I made the decision to give Lilly a kiss on the head and leave her in the loving care of my parents in Louisiana.
She passed away a month later. I never saw her again.
From the moment my daughter Audrey was born, she loved Lilly. She used to sit in her swing and just stare at her as she wandered around the house. When Audrey learned to crawl, she would crawl over and rest her head on Lilly's stomach - like she was a big stuffed animal. She learned to run by chasing behind Lilly in the yard. She even had a special part in Lilly's care as a diabetic - after I had given Lilly her insulin injection, Audrey would rub the spot where the needle had just punctured the skin to help to make her feel better.
She loved that dog.
So did I.
When my mom called, one month into our move to Southern California, to tell me that Lilly had passed away I was devastated. I sat outside of my fiance's office in Hollywood, bawling my eyes out, oblivious to the steady stream of people walking in and out of the building. My almost immediate reaction was - what would I tell Audrey? I knew she would be crushed and heartbroken, which made my heartache even worse. The thought of my daughter dealing with so much hurt for the first time in her short little life was heart wrenching.
So I put it off.
Two weeks later Audrey innocently asked my mom if we could Skype with her so that she could say hi to Lilly. My mom faltered, and said "maybe later". I knew it was time to tell her. So I did. She had an even stronger reaction than I ever expected. She wanted to know when Lilly was coming back from heaven. With a heavy heart I told her that she never would, that she was with God now.
She started crying, and for the next two hours she didn't stop. I held my sweet little 4 year old girl with the big heart and let her cry. Sometimes I cried too.
She had questions I wasn't prepared for --
Won't Lilly be lonely in heaven? She doesn't know anyone there.
What about Cosmo (my mom's dog)? Lilly was her best friend. What will she do now?
Who will feed Lilly in heaven and make sure she gets her medicine?
Why is her body still here if she is in heaven? Won't she need it to run?
Why did she have to die?
Will I go to heaven one day?
Of course, I told her she would go to heaven one day, and ever since then the questions haven't stopped. How many birthdays will I have? What will you do when your birthdays stop, mommy? Why do I have to go to heaven? I don't want to go to heaven.
I'm heartbroken over all of these questions, and, to be honest, feel completely unequipped to deal with her grief. I don't know how to help her understand, to help comfort her, to have it make sense in her 4 year old world. Death is difficult enough for me at 29, so I know at 4 it is even more confusing and painful. I never believed in pretending that death didn't exist, but I didn't expect for it to become so very real for her at such an early age, either.
It's been a month and the questions are still coming, stronger than ever.
How have you helped your children to deal with death? Do you have any advice or thoughts for me? I'd love it if you shared them in the comments.