It’s Time to Talk About This “Rainbow Bridge” Thing

Does the idea of a Rainbow Bridge for deceased pets comfort you? Two writers offer arguments for and against it. And we want to hear your thoughts, too.

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The idea of the Rainbow Bridge, where deceased pets are reunited with their humans, came from a poem. By: aidras

Part 1: Enough With the Rainbow Bridge: Why It Didn’t Ease My Grief

It has been 8 months since our dog Ajax died in my arms.

My husband and I still talk about Ajax often, and I find myself frequently staring sadly at the large photo of him above our fireplace.

After Ajax’s death, we received an outpouring of support and kind words from friends, family and the veterinary staff. Mostly there were comforting words of what a great life Ajax had and that we’d done all we could.

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The people who responded to Ajax’s death with a reference to the Rainbow Bridge were mostly those who didn’t know Ajax or me. They were acquaintances — people we had met only briefly at the dog park or on the street.

They mentioned the Rainbow Bridge to be kind, but all it did was frustrate me.

The Rainbow Bridge

Based on a poem written in the 1980s by an anonymous author, the Rainbow Bridge is the ethereal place where deceased pets wait for their humans before entering heaven together.

In this limbo, the pets are happy and healthy. The old are young again, and injured animals are made whole.

When humans die, our spirits are transported to this place, and we are reunited with our pets.

Together we cross the Rainbow Bridge into heaven.

Why It Bothers Me

The Rainbow Bridge should have been the best solution to my grief after losing Ajax.

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It was a promise of reunion for me and restored health for him. Truly, at the Rainbow Bridge, Ajax would be in a better place.

But it wasn’t a comfort at all.

Instead, the whole idea seemed to trivialize my dog.

Ajax had a large 2-pound tumor removed in a risky but seemingly successful surgery in January 2014. But within a few months, the cancer metastasized.

For a year, he battled for his life while his eyesight and hearing deteriorated, his muscles wasted away and his confidence was obliterated.

He displayed true strength and courage in his will to live, and when we made the decision to euthanize him, it was an act of mercy.

When we were told afterward that he was finally happy and healthy at the Rainbow Bridge, it felt like Ajax’s struggle to live was a waste. The suggestion of a Rainbow Bridge disparaged his yearlong courageous fight. And it would have been more merciful to euthanize him before his fight even began.

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Losing a pet means dealing with the grief the best way you can. By: Carl Milner

The Comfort It Offers

I would be remiss to not address the comfort that so many bereaved families take away from believing in the Rainbow Bridge.

According to BBC News magazine writer Finlo Rohrer, “It may be argued that [the Rainbow Bridge] fills a gap left by the treatment of animals in some mainstream religions.”

In a society where animals are regularly overlooked in religion or whose importance is marginalized, pet lovers need some way to validate their pet’s significance after their death. The Rainbow Bridge provides that and gives hope of a reunion in the afterlife.

Families grieving this loss aren’t the only ones in need of the comfort and reassurance that a pet heaven can offer.

During my years working for an animal shelter, I had friends who euthanized tens to hundreds of animals every month. They prayed for the dead animals, cried for them and needed (more than anyone) to know that there was a better place waiting for society’s 4-legged castoffs.

For those people, I’m happy that the Rainbow Bridge was created.

How I Cope Without It

In a recent article on Dogster, Chris Hall says, “The Rainbow Bridge concept sounds more like a dismissal of grief than a way of easing it.”

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When Ajax died, I needed to grieve. I was an ugly, weepy mess for days, but I didn’t rely on the promise of his good health and our spiritual reunion to pull myself prematurely from that grief.

Instead, I embraced his departure as permanent and irreversible.

After losing his dog, Roy Hattersley wrote in the Daily Mail, “I do not pretend that my grief was unique. Many families, I know, have been devastated by the death of a dog. I merely state, as a matter of fact, that nothing has ever caused me as much pain as Buster’s death.”

So many people share the same terrible pain of losing a pet. How we cope with it, though, is not always the same.

Others wait for a distant reunion and a life together forever.

We have chosen to keep Ajax with us in our memories and, through them, relive his life for the rest of ours.

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The Rainbow Bridge can give people hope to reunite with their pets someday. By: h-productions

Part 2: Why the Rainbow Bridge Comforts Me

Editor’s Note: The following is a rebuttal to Allison Gray’s essay above on why the mention of the Rainbow Bridge frustrates her. Below, Melissa Smith defends the idea of the Rainbow Bridge. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

* * *

I lost my German Shepherd, Gypsy, 3 years ago to both medical problems and plain old age. I sat beside her as she died, and to this day I still can’t think of that moment without tearing up.

She was my best friend.

Many of us struggle to come to terms with the loss of a pet. Our pets are so much a part of our hearts that losing them — even, as in Gypsy’s case, when it’s expected — is devastating.

When Gypsy died, a lot of people sent their condolences, and most referred to the Rainbow Bridge when they did so. I found it to be a source of great comfort.

What Is the Rainbow Bridge?

As Allison explained, the Rainbow Bridge refers to a place on the way to heaven where deceased pets go to wait for you. Your pets are free of pain and fear and spend their time running across meadows and hills in the sunshine.

When you die, you rejoin your pet and cross to heaven together.

Why It Comforts Me

I am not overly religious. I tend to adopt a “We’re all going to find out someday” attitude and go through life just trying to be a good person.

I doubt there is a cloud-filled environment we all share after death, strumming harps and polishing halos.

What I do believe in is the endurance of the spirit — or the soul, if you will. The spirit is so strong and so imbued with our energy that it’s difficult to believe it would just blow out like a candle upon death.

I believe the same goes for our pets, and that brings me comfort. In many ways, pets are better than people in their innocence and capacity for forgiveness. They deserve to go on.

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Our pets mean a lot to us, and their deaths can feel like you’ve lost your best friend. By: adavey

When there is a loss, it’s hard for people to know what to say to you.

Some adopt an uncomfortably hard stance: “It’s not like you lost your kid or something.” Actually, it kind of is.

In a heartfelt article in the Washington Post, journalist Joe Yonan says:

“I’m no stranger to death. I was a mess of anger and confusion when my father, suffering the aftermath of a stroke, took his last gasps one day in 1995, his children gathered around his hospital bed. And 3 years later, the death of my sweet, beloved sister Bonny after a withering battle with brain cancer was nothing short of heartbreaking. Yet somehow, and much to my distress, the death of my dog seems even harder.”

Some people simply don’t bring it up out of awkward insecurity. That’s worse than anything else. Not bringing up a loss is — to my mind — invalidating not only the person’s feelings but also the life of that pet and the impact she made on those around her.

Those who console by referring to the Rainbow Bridge are saying, “I understand you are suffering a loss, and I’m trying to help you feel better.”

The Awkwardness

Some people don’t believe in or appreciate references to the Rainbow Bridge, and that’s their prerogative.

They say that referring to the Rainbow Bridge invalidates the life of the pet and is nothing but an empty platitude — that it means we should just suck it up and be glad because this pet has gone on to a better place.

In all fairness, some people do mean it that way because of their own religious beliefs. I would implore those people to remember that loss is not about their own religion but about the feelings of the person to whom they are speaking.

If that person doesn’t believe in the Rainbow Bridge or the great beyond, don’t force it. Simple honesty will do: “I am sorry for your loss and wish I could help.”

Everyone has to struggle through grief in his or her own way.

For me, believing I will see my Gypsy again one day doesn’t invalidate her life — it reveres it.

I appreciated her presence in my life so much that I won’t consider not seeing her again.

Allison Gray

View posts by Allison Gray
Allison Gray gained a wealth of knowledge about animal welfare issues and responsible pet care during her nearly 5 years of work for an animal shelter. She is a writer, photographer, artist, runner and tattooed remedial knitter. Allison also has been researching, testing out and perfecting nutritious pet treat recipes in her kitchen for Petful since spring 2017.

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20 Comments

  1. rll
    December 7, 2015

    Ripley was an amazing shepherd/collie mutt that we found as a stray. He had more personality than most people I know. We put him through chemo (he felt good and acted just like a puppy again), but after another two years, we had to let him go. That day we locked the door, took the phone off the hook, closed the curtains and ate chocolate cake with chocolate icing for supper. We have photos of him all over the house. I don’t tell many people about that because they’d think I’m crazy to spend all that $$$, but i’d sell everything I own to have him back. As for the Rainbow Bridge, I’m atheist and don’t believe in Heaven, but if it helps someone else ease their pain I’m all for it.

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      December 7, 2015

      We are so sorry to hear about your loss of Ripley but it sounds like you grieved for him perfectly — in the way that was right for you. If it helps, we don’t think you’re crazy at all, we’d do it for our own pets too!

      Reply
    2. Allison Gray
      December 8, 2015

      I empathize with what you went through. There are certain gestures we make that help to ease our own suffering which others wouldn’t understand. But then, no one shares the same bond that we do with our own pets.
      When Ajax’s tumor was first discovered, one vet said it was impossible to remove (it was in a very tricky location). Another vet said he would try the expensive surgery, but that euthanasia was an equally viable alternative. We had a considerable amount of money saved for a month-long trip to South America. We used all of that money, to the last penny, removing that tumor and giving Ajax another 15 months. That’s something that many people wouldn’t have understood. But it was the obvious choice for us.
      You and I are on the same page with the Rainbow Bridge. I would never want to take away the comfort of its existence from my friends and family who have relied on it to move on from a dark place after the loss of their pets. But I personally choose not to believe in it.

      Reply
    3. rll
      December 9, 2015

      Keeping his ashes was another thing I didn’t do. A lot of people ask where he is. I don’t need his remains to feel close to him.

      Reply
      1. BaronM1
        December 17, 2015

        I did keep my Petie’s ashs after I had him cremated. Not as a way to feel close to him, but because as an atheist, it’s the only way we’ll be together again once I have died as well – I have instructions that our ashes are to be combined. He lives on in my memories and in the memory of everyone who knew him.

        I agree that the whole rainbow bridge idea is not only not comforting, but is insulting, for pretty much the same reasons you stated. If people really believed in the rainbow bridge and how wonderful it is, why wouldn’t they just euthanize every animal as soon as it showed signs of distress? I know most people who talk of it simply don’t know what to say and think that it might offer some comfort. To me, a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is more palatable if someone doesn’t know what to say, or even saying “I don’t know what to say,” especially when you don’t know the person well enough to know what to say. At least most people have the sense to not say what an alleged friend said to me, he said “I’m sorry for you, but I’m not sorry for him, he was a mean s.o.b.” Talk about inappropriate, that was my feline son he was speaking of! No, we’re not friends anymore, not just because of that, although that certainly made me think twice about his true nature.

        Reply
        1. Jim Chilton
          July 31, 2017

          I have to disagree with you about putting an animal down because of the rainbow bridge. That is like saying that people who believe in God want to kill everyone right away so they can go to heaven. It’s not that anyone wants send them over the bridge right away, although I hate technology that keeps people a live and suffering when they would have died naturally a long time ago. But to know that you will see not just your pets but loved ones can be comforting if you really Believe.
          I KNOW the Rainbow Bridge is real and I can prove it!
          I have always loved the poem of the Rainbow Bridge! As an animal lover I do suffer the loss when one of my close 4 legged friends pass away. But, for me, I have a hard time believing in anything that has no logical or scientific proof and that is why this I wanted to write this. For anyone who has loved their pets and is looking forward to the day when you will see them again…. THIS IS FOR YOU!
          The 5 reasons why you can believe:
          1. Thousands of years ago 40 different people over a time span 1500 years wrote a book so historically accurate that Archeologist still use to it today to locate ancient cities that had been lost and forgotten.
          2. In that book were, also, over 300 prophecies. All have all come true except for the ones about the future. It even said that Jesus Christ would be killed by crucifixion 250 years before crucifixion was a capital punishment and they were right!
          3. The book also said that Jesus would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, 250 years before there was a Jesus.
          4. Jesus said that He would prove he was God by dying and coming back to life.
          5. The Bible in Isaiah 11:6-9 talk about life in heaven and mentions “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”
          So when we look at this logically, we have a book (The Bible) written by the inspiration of God through 40 people over 1500 years, a book that has never failed on a prophecy, the God who loved us so much that He sent his own son to die by crucifixion so that Jesus could pay for our sins, and that same God who lets us know that there will be animals in heaven. I do not think we need to question if that same loving God would keep us from what we loved so much on earth, when He Himself is Love.
          I KNOW I will see my animals again and I just can’t wait!
          Do you know if you are going to heaven? Our animals were not made in the Image of God but we are. In the Bible it says “ For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” Romans 6:23.

          Reply
        2. VICTOR
          January 19, 2018

          What BS! Just because you believe in heaven for your dog or yourself doesn’t mean you want him or yourself to die today.

          Reply
          1. Melissa Smith
            January 20, 2018

            I don’t think he meant it like that, Victor, I think he was just trying to explain why he feels the way he does about the rainbow bridge.

            Reply
            1. BaronM1
              September 15, 2018

              Thanks, Melissa, you’re right, Victor COMPLETELY misread what I said.

            2. Melissa Smith
              September 17, 2018

              It’s a difficult subject – we all love our pets so much that even talking about it can be hard. Misinterpretations happen, especially online – especially when it’s a tough subject!

          2. BaronM1
            September 15, 2018

            Victor, first off, we are ALL entitled to our feelings, nobody’s feelings are BS. Secondly, I do NOT believe in heaven, or did you miss the part where I said I’m an atheist, or maybe you have no idea what an atheist is. An atheist is someone who does not believe in any deity, so therefore doesn’t believe in heaven/hell, except perhaps calling the extremely bad/good times we go through on Earth as heaven/hell. I also did not say people who DO believe in a god or the rainbow bridge would want to kill every animal they come across, but merely mused that they might be willing to end the suffering of an animal earlier if they thought the animal was going to go to “someplace better” and the animal was in pain/distress. That doesn’t mean that they DO, just that they MIGHT have more motivation to ease an animals suffering earlier. And really, why wouldn’t someone want to ease an animals suffering earlier if they think the animal is going to a “better place” unless they’re keeping the animal alive for their own benefit of delaying not having their pet there with them? There IS no right or wrong, Victor, each of us has the responsibility of doing what we feel is best for your little loved ones, and that is a very subjective thing. Calling someones opinion BS is quite intolerant of you, as well as being very close-minded. I hope you are better to those around you in real life, because otherwise I dare say you don’t have too many friends.

            Reply
  2. mibtp
    December 17, 2015

    I too lost my beloved, Amore’. She was the only thing that pulled me through the loss of my closest sister (whom I gave care to until the end). I did find a woman online who creates stuffed animals that look like your pet with a pouch to store the ashes. I have that now, but it still did not take away the piercing pain. Do do have another dog now and find myself wondering when the other foot is going to drop with him, and if I can make it through again. Losing a dog is like losing a child. Period.

    Reply
    1. Allison Gray
      December 18, 2015

      I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. The pain never truly goes away. Though I’m glad to hear that you have another dog and I hope that you’re able to spend many years in his company.
      I’ve seen an online manufacturer that creates stuffed animals that look like pets. I wonder if it’s the same company. It may not take away the pain of your loss, but it is nice to know that you have a memento to remind you of what a wonderful companion she was for you.
      Thank you for sharing your story.

      Reply
  3. BB2013
    April 17, 2016

    First not all pets that pass are dogs; I have dogs, cats, and pet mice. My most beloved was my cat. While this is the first time I ever heard of this poem, I never felt it trivialized my kitty’s struggle with cancer. The truth is all of us are only remembered by those we leave behind that love us., and when we die, then we truly become forgotten. Our own existence as well as our beloved pets are forgotten by the earth and time- that is the cruelty of our world; that is what makes us all trivial, and not a singular poem. The world doesn’t give a flying dang about my kitty, but I do. I don’t care if the world sees me and my kitty as trivial; what counts is how I see it in the here and now; not what others think now nor what will definitely be forgotten later..

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      April 18, 2016

      BB2013 That’s a great point that it’s hard to lose any pet, regardless of species. I am so sorry for your loss!

      Reply
  4. Bob
    March 12, 2017

    I could go on for days about this… and pets the last bastion of real second class prejudice in our society. But keeping to the Rainbow Bridge… it makes me morbidly sad to read or think about. I don’t want to think of him there alone waiting for me at the bridge for years… and what about all those pets whose owners can’t come to them? They went to hell, not heaven… the owners that is? What about those lonely soul doggies and kitties alone forever?

    OK, I was trained as a minister of the gospel in a pentecostal denomination. I personally believe animals DO go to heaven. After all, Revelation by the Apostle John details Jesus… appearing in heaven… mounted on a horse, with an army behind him… all mounted on horses. The horses are in heaven… not on earth… and this is real… if we are to believe in Christianity and the Bible. So, at the very least… there are horses in heaven…. and a truckload of them. The God who created love and is love… how could he possibly love dogs any LESS than we do? Is it possible, that he who thinks of all humans as evil by nature, being pure love, could love dogs and cats LESS than we evil humans do? (I don’t think so.) Matter of fact… I wonder how many dogs he actually PULLS out of the earth… because of their ill health and bad owners or situations. That is… he left his son in the tomb till day three… and pulled him up. God has a thing about the vulnerable, the weak, the innocent, the loving. Dogs are all of these things. I believe anyone thinking that dogs DON’T go on are supremely arrogant in believing only human beings are worth saving. Besides, Martin Luther thought his dog would make it to the resurrection. So there!

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      March 13, 2017

      I hear ya, Bob! Awhile back, Alison and I put our heads together to talk about both aspects of the Rainbow Bridge. We each did an article based on our viewpoints. I think for some, it’s very comforting and for others, it’s adding salt to a wound. I believe that the most important thing we can do for a pet parent who’s lost their pet is just show compassion, whichever they believe.

      Reply
  5. Jimmy Chilton
    July 31, 2017

    I KNOW the Rainbow Bridge is real and I can prove it!
    I have always loved the poem of the Rainbow Bridge! As an animal lover I do suffer the loss when one of my close 4 legged friends pass away. But, for me, I have a hard time believing in anything that has no logical or scientific proof and that is why this I wanted to write this. For anyone who has loved their pets and is looking forward to the day when you will see them again…. THIS IS FOR YOU!
    The 5 reasons why you can believe:
    1. Thousands of years ago 40 different people over a time span 1500 years wrote a book so historically accurate that Archeologist still use to it today to locate ancient cities that had been lost and forgotten.
    2. In that book were, also, over 300 prophecies. All have all come true except for the ones about the future. It even said that Jesus Christ would be killed by crucifixion 250 years before crucifixion was a capital punishment and they were right!
    3. The book also said that Jesus would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, 250 years before there was a Jesus.
    4. Jesus said that He would prove he was God by dying and coming back to life.
    5. The Bible in Isaiah 11:6-9 talk about life in heaven and mentions “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”
    So when we look at this logically, we have a book (The Bible) written by the inspiration of God through 40 people over 1500 years, a book that has never failed on a prophecy, the God who loved us so much that He sent his own son to die by crucifixion so that Jesus could pay for our sins, and that same God who lets us know that there will be animals in heaven. I do not think we need to question if that same loving God would keep us from what we loved so much on earth, when He Himself is Love.
    I KNOW I will see my animals again and I just can’t wait!
    Do you know if you are going to heaven? Our animals were not made in the Image of God but we are. In the Bible it says “ For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” Romans 6:23.

    Reply
  6. VICTOR
    January 19, 2018

    What a Grinch! I have lost two GSD’s. One I had to put to sleep and one died suddenly. Every time I read the Rainbow Bridge poem I cry and wait for the day I will be reunited with Murray and Axl. The GSD I have now (Geno) is my main reason to keep going.

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      January 20, 2018

      Hi Victor!

      Allison and I took on the challenge some time back of writing two articles simultaneously – one for the idea of the rainbow bridge, and one against. I think it’s important to have both perspectives because people believe all different manner of things and we try to allow every viewpoint a voice.

      Reply

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