Around this time last year one of our dogs had to be put down. I wasn't sure what Merry understood beyond "Zoe's gone, she's not coming back." But for some reason he's been asking about her lately, and we had one of the longest conversations we've had. Definitely the first about such a difficult topic.
It was incredible and terrifying, because I was simultaneously going "ahhhh! He's asking questions, this is amazing!" and "ahhhh! How do you explain death to an autistic 5 year old?*" and "why did I even bring up doggie heaven? I don't even know if I believe in doggie heaven, what a great start to his religious education!"
It went something like this:
Merry: We're going to see her again soon gesturing to the stuffed dog we named Baby Zoe years ago
Me: No sweetie, Zoe is in doggie heaven, she can't come back.
[The next day]
Merry: Tell me about the dog places.
Me: Do you mean the vet? The pet wash?
Merry: Tell me more dog places.
Think I see where this is going
Me: Are you asking about doggie heaven?
Merry: Yes. What do dogs do there?
Me: uhhhh, they run and play, eat tasty food and sleep on comfy pillows!
Merry: And we'll go get her soon.
oh no, I'm going to have to use the D word
Me: Love, Zoe died. We can't see her again, we can't bring her back.
ooohhh, I'm so not ready to talk about people heaven, pleeeease don't ask about people heaven and the possible intersection with doggie heaven
Merry: *long pause* Our other dog isn't going to doggie heaven.
Me: No, Millie's healthy, she'll be with us for a long time.
Merry: She's not going to die.
Me: She will some day, all dogs do. But not any time soon.
Merry: She's not going to die!
Me: She's going to stay with us for a long time, you don't have to worry about it. Lets get ready for bed!
*or any 5 year old, really. The only wrinkle autism adds here is that I'll probably get only one shot at this for years and very little feedback on what he's thinking about it.