No matter how gently our veterinarian broke the news to me, nothing could prepare me for the shock I felt at having to put our beloved golden retriever, Jack, to sleep. When I walked out of his office, empty blue leash dangling from my hand, I couldn’t believe he was gone.
Beside me, my eight-year-old, Daniel, wiped the tears from his own face. He’d bravely insisted on being with his buddy at the end. I was grateful his baby brother, Colin, was too young to understand what was going on.
My husband, Ted, Daniel and I walked back to the car, where a family friend waited with four-year-old Anna. “Let’s go home,” Ted said quietly. He started up the car.
“But we forgot Jack,” Anna said. “Isn’t he coming home with us?”
Ted and I looked sadly at each other. We thought we’d explained all this to Anna. It looked like she hadn’t understood after all. “Jack isn’t coming home with us, honey,” Ted said. “Remember? The vet said he was very sick.”
“The vet couldn’t make Jack better, Anna,” Daniel said.
“Do you understand, sweetie?” I said. “Jack died.”
Anna nodded slowly. Ted backed out the car. Then, from the car seat, came Anna’s voice again. “But where is he?” she said, starting to cry. “When is he coming home?”
Daniel tried to comfort his sister. I looked helplessly at Ted. Her older brother could comprehend what was happening. Her baby brother wasn’t aware of anything at all. Poor Anna was stuck in the middle.
That night, when I tucked her into bed, I tried to cheer her up with happy stories of Jack. “When we brought you home from the hospital right after you were born, Jack came running to the door wagging his tail. He couldn’t wait to meet you!”
Anna looked longingly at the door to her bedroom. Usually when I tucked Anna into bed Jack would come padding in right behind me. Anna never went to sleep without getting a big, sloppy good-night kiss from Jack. “He’s never coming home?” she said. “Ever?”
“Jack was very old,” I said. “He didn’t feel well. Now he’s not sick anymore. He’s in heaven with God and the angels. And he’s very happy there. I promise.”
Was any of this making sense to her? We’d talked about heaven, but this was Anna’s first experience with death. She hadn’t known anyone else who’d died and gone to heaven.
She knew she had family who lived far away. We didn’t see them in person, but they loved Anna and knew she loved them in return. That gave me an idea.
“Why don’t we write a letter to Jack tomorrow?” I said. “You can tell him how much you love him.”
Anna smiled. She loved writing letters. I knew she couldn’t expect a return letter like she got when she wrote to her aunts and uncles, but maybe just talking to Jack would be a comfort.
Early next morning Anna got out her crayons and we sat down together at the dining room table. Anna selected just the right shade of yellow and drew a circle for a head, followed by a circle body and four circle legs. Then she added Jack’s long, feathery tail.
“Jack loved to play house,” she said as she drew. “And dress up.”
“He could never keep those sunglasses on, could he?” I said, remembering good old Jack sitting patiently in his dress while Anna arranged jewelry around his neck.
Anna selected another crayon to make a stick figure with long hair next to Jack. Then she added a bright yellow sun. When the portrait was finished she dictated a letter.
“Jack is sick. So now he is in heaven,” she said. “I love you and miss you.” She signed her name herself in lopsided letters. “Now we need to send this to Jack.”
I placed the letter in an envelope and wrote the address in block letters: TO JACK IN HEAVEN. Anna licked the envelope and together we put it in the mailbox.
Our mail carrier looked a little confused when she picked the letter up a couple hours later. But I went outside to quickly explain the situation. “No problem,” she said, and slipped the letter in her bag.
Once the letter was gone, I could only hope I’d done the right thing. Anna’s questions seemed to have stopped, but I wondered if she could really understand that Jack was in a truly happy place. And because of that, we could be happy for him.
“She’ll understand it in her own time,” said Ted one day after yet another discussion.
Just before lunch, there was a knock on the door. It was someone from the post office. He held up a box wrapped in brown paper. “Are you Miss Anna Baker?” he asked, looking down.
Anna nodded shyly.
“I have a special delivery for you.”
The box was addressed to Anna. The return address read: JACK IN HEAVEN. Anna ran with her box to the kitchen. “I manage the post office and saw your letter,” the man explained. “We lost our family dog recently. I have a daughter too.”
Back in the kitchen with Anna, I helped her unwrap the package. She pulled out a book about a puppy and a stuffed dog that looked a lot like Jack. She squeezed the dog to her chest. “There’s a letter too!” she said. “Read it, Mommy!”
“Dear Anna,” I read. “I have arrived safely in heaven.”
Anna’s eyes got wide. “Does he like it there?”
I continued. “It is really nice here. The other dogs and I play ball and swim all day. There are many squirrels to chase here and all the mail carriers have bones in their bags for us.” Anna giggled.
“My bed here isn’t as comfy as yours, but I want you to know that God takes good care of me here.” I looked down at Anna, who nodded slowly. She understands that, I thought. Jack went on to say how happy he was to receive Anna’s letter.
“I miss my family. I miss you,” he finished up. “God sends his blessings and wants you to know that he loves you. We will both be watching over you. Love, Jack.” I folded up the letter and handed it to Anna. She danced around the kitchen.
That night I tucked Anna into bed with her new stuffed dog beside her. “Jack is in heaven,” she said. “Jack is happy there. And that makes me happy too.”
Anna would be fine, I knew. Thanks to a letter that truly did come from heaven. By way of a post office angel with a loving heart.
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