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October 1, 2017

I have often seen posts on Facebook from friends telling of the death of beloved pets. These notices are often accompanied by a picture of the animal with words expressing the sorrow of the family over the death of their four-legged friend. I understand their sense of loss.

One of our grandchildren asked recently if I had ever had a pet. In fact, my first experience of grief was the death of a pet, a beautiful beagle dog.

When I was nearly seven years old our growing family moved to a larger house. I was the oldest of what would eventually become a family of eight children. Our new home was surrounded by open fields on three sides and deep woods in back. Our house was on a red dirt road with no neighbors in sight. Though Mama had her hands full caring for our family, Dad knew that it was time for me to have a dog.

My birthday was approaching. One Saturday morning Dad and I went the local feed and seed store to buy chicken scratch for our laying hens. As I walked in the door I saw a temporary cage with six beagle pups for sale. The handwritten cardboard sign read, “YOUR CHOICE $5.”

While dad got the sack of cracked corn for the chickens, I squatted down beside the cage. The tricolor puppies became excited, pushing and shoving each other with tails wagging. I put my fingers through the wire cage to pet them. One little beagle started licking my hand.

Dad asked, “Kirk, you want a dog for your birthday?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“You know the dog will belong to you. You’ll have to take care of it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dad paid for the sack of chicken feed, a bag of puppy chow, and the beagle dog. The clerk told me to pick out my dog. I choose the one who had licked my hand. I named her Katie.

Katie was an outside dog because that was the only kind Mama would allow. The beagle’s favorite pastime was chasing other critters, mostly rabbits and squirrels, and occasionally a raccoon or a possum. She was smart enough to give hissing cats and coiled snakes a wide berth.

Katie and I enjoyed hunting together though I never took a shotgun. We would just walk down the dirt road or along a path through the woods until Katie scared up something to chase. But Katie didn’t need me along to go hunting. Many a morning I was awakened by her hound dog howl as she ran a rabbit through a cornfield and into the woods.

Just down the road and around a bend from our place was a dairy farm. The farmer depended on contented cows to give sweet milk. When Katie could not scare up a rabbit for her early morning run, she was always able to find a cow or two to pester.

Early one spring morning, I heard my dog’s baying far off. Then there was a rifle shot, followed by silence. Worried, I quickly dressed and hurried downstairs. Dad already had found Katie, unable to walk or run, dragging her hind legs. She was injured and bleeding. We thought maybe she had been hit by a car. Her eyes looked so sad, like she had been crying. When I saw a tear in Dad’s eye, tears started to run down my cheeks. We got Katie settled in a cardboard box on an old towel.

In the truck, I held the box in my lap as Dad drove. We carried Katie to Dr. Ed Brown, a family friend and veterinarian. Dr. Brown, whose son Tommy was my age, examined Katie and then took my dad aside while I stayed in the room with Katie.

Dr. Brown told Dad that my beagle’s back legs were paralyzed. He said that my dog had been hit alright, but not by a car. She had been shot. Dr. Brown told dad that Katie would have to be euthanized.

When the two men returned to the room where I was with Katie, I saw a tear in Dr. Brown’s eyes. He assured us that Katie was not in pain. His advice was that I take my dog home for a few days so I could pet her and have a little time to say goodbye. She never left the cardboard box. Her beagle eyes were sad; her tail could no longer wag.

A day or two later, Dad said, “Kirk, you know Katie is not going to get well.”

I knew, and I cried. Once I pulled myself together, Dad said, “We need to let Dr. Brown put her to sleep.” I knew that was the right thing to do.

Together my dad and I took Katie in her cardboard box back to the vet. The reality and mystery of death confronted me for the first time. It is something I’ve never forgotten.

When our children were young, we often had pets, several at a time and usually a variety. One Saturday morning, we discovered that one of the fish in the aquarium in our den had died. Together the children and I removed the dearly departed swordtail from the tank, carefully placed him in a matchbox lined with tissue, and ceremoniously took the contrived casket to the flowerbed. We dug a hole, sang “Shall We Gather at the River,” had a prayer, and buried the box.

Back inside, we discovered another fish had gone belly up. This time, there was less ceremony. We wrapped the second swordtail in a tissue, with none of the reverence afforded the first, and deposited him in a shallow grave.

Upon our return to the den, we found yet another dead fish. It seems one of our sons had discovered that pecans would float in the fish tank. No doubt, the pecans shells had been treated with a pesticide, and we were suffering a fish kill in our aquarium.

This third death called for even less ritual. Our seven-year-old reasoned, “Dad, this fish has lived in water all of his life. I think we should bury him at sea.” We flushed the third swordtail down the toilet.

The plain truth, gently and lovingly told, is best when speaking with children about death. Trying to soften the reality with clichés is usually more confusing than clarifying.

A fellow pastor and good friend shared with me an experience from early in his ministry in a rural church.  It seems an eight-year-old boy had a pet beagle, Barney. Each morning Barney followed the boy to the bus stop. Barney met the school bus every afternoon.  The boy and his dog played together each day after school.

One winter morning, after the school bus drove away, the beagle followed his nose into the highway and was killed by a dump truck.  The boy’s mother, concerned about her child’s certain grief, asked the young pastor to be at the farmhouse when her son returned from school.  Inexperienced, but eager to help, the pastor did all of the talking, far too much talking.

The gist of his fifteen-minute explanation was, “Barney was in the road. A dump truck ran over him.” The young minister, compromising and confusing his own beliefs, concluded, “Jesus has taken your dog to heaven.”

The pastor finally paused with, “Son, do you have any questions?”

The boy thought for a moment, sniffled back his tears, and inquired, “Preacher, what does Jesus want with a dead dog?”

The lad asked a great question! Death is indeed a mystery!

As a pastor for more than fifty-three years I know how deeply people grieve for their pets.

Dr. Billy Graham has a syndicated weekly newspaper column in which he answers questions from readers.

One person wrote, “Dr. Graham, our pet dog died recently. Will my dog be in heaven?”

Theologians differ in response to questions about animals and eternity. I have found Dr. Graham’s answer to his reader to be a good one.

Dr. Graham replied, “If having your dog in heaven is what it takes to make you happy, then I believe he will be there.”

With all the wonder and joy that heaven holds, I’m not sure that the presence of our pets will be a part of the glory to be revealed.  But I can say this. When I reach the pearly gates I look forward to a grand reunion with many loved ones. And if I hear a baying hound in the distance, and I am soon greeted by a flop-eared beagle dog, I won’t be a bit surprised.

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