Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

The full experience of heaven, pets included, is beyond us

Published: April 22, 2023

By Judy Hoelzeman
St. Edward Church, Little Rock

My sister called me in a halting voice one morning in October last year to tell me her dog had died. I was shocked; her dog had not been sick. I drove to her house and found her sitting on her couch in tears, the dog beside her. I cried with her; I had come to love Charlie as much as she did.

Charlie had wandered up to their house one ugly rainy day. She sent pictures to us siblings that day. We thought the dog was as ugly as the rainy day, and dirty, too. But Katie and her husband disagreed, and Charlie became a part of the family.

Only a year later, Katie’s husband died, and Katie and Charlie were alone.

While we can rely on the Church to guide us, it's also true that while on earth, the full experience of what heaven will be like is beyond us.

For 10 years, my husband and I had a cat — a stray who was afraid of most everyone and would not ride in a car. Not very creatively, we called her Alley Cat. When she got sick in February, we somehow got her into a car to see a vet, only to find that she would need to be put to sleep that very day.

In both situations, people were especially nice to us, with notes and calls and visits. People even sent flower bouquets. You’d think my sister and I had lost members of our families, people we hoped to meet in heaven one day.

Hmm, our animals were loved almost as much as human beings are. Could it be that they will be waiting for us when we get to heaven? It’s a question often debated.

In the 19th century, Pope Pius IX was the first pope to officially declare that animals did not have immortal souls, and could not enter heaven. 

Some theologians have theorized that, since Scripture speaks of all of creation groaning for the revelation of God’s final kingdom (Romans 8:19-22), it would make sense that human beings in heaven would experience the joy of animals, even if not the particular pets they had on earth. Even some recent popes have made comments along this line. 

Perhaps, though, it's not useful arguing about it. I'm reminded of my nephew when he was very young. If he didn't like the answer I gave him to a question, he would say, 'But Judy, you can't know.' While we can rely on the Church to guide us, it's also true that while on earth, the full experience of what heaven will be like is beyond us.

A better question is how to help those who are grieving the loss of pets. People who lose beloved pets are grieving, and no matter what the loss, grieving is real and can be very difficult.

The Gospel of Mark promises that our sorrow will be consoled: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (5:4) We believe that God knows our grief and suffering and wants to give us relief from it, and so we can be sure that the pain we experience at the loss of our pets will be healed in the way that he knows best..

If you are experiencing the loss of a pet, don’t be afraid to tell people what you are going through. Tell them your memories, the good, and the hard parts. Talk about your pet’s personality, oddities, anything. Show your favorite photos. You’ll be surprised at how many have lost a pet themselves. They understand and are happy to listen.

Before our cat died, we took time to say goodbye to her. I was sad but grateful that she was free of pain. When we get another pet, I hope I remember to thank God throughout the pet’s life, and not wait until we have to say goodbye.

As far as seeing cats and dogs in heaven, I'll just say, “Let's wait and see."

Understanding Our Church