April 9, 2007
If you’re a pet owner, you may know this poem. It’s one of those things a veterinarian or a well-meaning friend will give you after your pet dies. It’s maudlin and pandering. And every time I read it, I cry.
“The Rainbow Bridge” story goes like this: Your pet dies and is transported to a place “just this side of heaven.” It’s a wonderful place, where your pet is healthy and happy and always has food and water and other animal friends to play with. The only thing missing: You. Your pet misses you.
Then, one day, your pet senses something different in the air. He perks up and breaks away from the joyfully playing animals.
“You have been spotted,” as one version goes, “and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
“Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together.”
I first learned of this poem in July 2005, when my cat Boudin – a 7-year-old ball of love if there ever was one – died from heart disease and the vet sent me a sympathy card. (I had four cats at the time and was definitely on the way to crazy cat lady status.) I couldn’t even read it without choking up, which meant I had to share it with everyone I knew so they’d be sad, too. A few months later, my cat Schuster – for 13 years, the grouchiest, fattest tabby one would ever meet – passed away and another kind person sent me the poem. I shook an angry fist at the air, “Damn you, Rainbow Bridge! You get me every time!”
But what was it about the poem that did that? Did it have the same impact on other people? Who had written it? Why did they seem to torment me? I decided to do some research.
“Anonymous” is usually the credited author. The poem first appeared on the Internet in 1993, according to one online resource, but people say it has existed in some form or another for years. “Rainbow Bridge” merchandise is available on multiple Web sites, so you get a T-shirt or a sign with its cheery words.
I put this information – and my own personal take on the poem – into a newspaper article that was published in January, 2007 (strangely, just before the death of beloved racehorse Barbaro, a move readers later thanked us for). People across the country responded. Some talked about losing their own pets, like the Philadelphia woman who wrote about having to put her dog to sleep, noting, “My Rottie was a good and loving girl right to the end. I hope we meet someday at the Bridge where we can cross together.”
Others showed me I wasn’t alone in finding the poem powerful:
“Oh, good Lord, I’m sitting here with mascara running down my face. I’ve read this poem a thousand times, and it never fails to have this effect on me. And forget reading it aloud – I lose all control,” a woman in Missouri wrote, while a man from Massachusetts asked if someone would “pass the Kleenex!” “I keep a file called Gifts of Tears that I use when I know that I need to cry but can’t overcome my masculine training to let the tears flow,” he said. “And Rainbow Bridge … [is] going straight into that file. I can already tell that it will work every time.”
Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist with the ASPCA, said one reason some people find the poem emotionally evocative, even if it’s not great literature, is that it puts into words “what we want so badly.”
“The major religions in the US officially do not permit animals in heaven” because they believe animals have no soul. “If you go to your priest or rabbi, they’ll say you won’t see your animal in heaven,” LaFarge said. “I think ‘The Rainbow Bridge’ expresses a yearning that can’t be confirmed any other way.”
The bond between humans and their pets has gone “from backyard to bedroom,” LaFarge said. Pets get clothing now and birthday cards and canned food that cost more than you spend on baby food. There are bakeries devoted to pets’ needs and hotels that cater to them. They are often considered part of the family, but unlike other family members, “we have very unambivalent relationships with our pets. You can be sure your pet looks forward to seeing you. With our husbands, wives and other family members, you aren’t too sure.”
LaFarge oversees a national pet loss hotline that gets hundreds of calls each year.
“The sentence I get the most is, ‘I’m so embarrassed because I didn’t cry this hard when my father died.’ Or, ‘I didn’t cry this hard when my husband left me.’ We have no rational way of accounting for this attachment. Friends will say, ‘It’s just a cat,’ but they wouldn’t say ‘It’s just your husband or your mother,’ ” LaFarge said. “People who have lost a pet have this marginalized grief not appreciated by the society as a whole, and secondly, they’re quite mystified by it.”
Sandra Breckenridge, a pet grief counselor and consultant for the Idaho Veterinary Medical Foundation, agrees that one reason “The Rainbow Bridge” is so powerful is that it answers the question of pets in the afterlife. “It gives people hope that they may see their pets again. I think that particular point is what makes people gravitate towards [the poem] in a yearning way.”
Breckenridge teaches college courses on grieving and said her students were blown away by how much impact the death of a pet can have on a person. The average length of time someone grieves for a lost pet is 10 months, she said. Things can be even more intense if the pet lived in your home. “You walk into the house and they’re not there anymore. That’s a huge adjustment,” she said.
“The Rainbow Bridge” doesn’t get to Breckenridge as much as it used to, but that’s because she’s more secure in her beliefs of what happens to us after death. Many people who suffer near-death experiences talk of seeing or being greeted by animals who have died before them.
I don’t know what I believe, but I know what I want to believe, no matter how unlikely. After Schuster, my second cat died, people told me, “Oh, now he and Boudin are together again. They’re probably playing.” And I said, “Did you guys know Schuster? No way he’s playing with Boudin. He’s probably smacking him on the head and stealing his food.” And then I thought how great it would be to see them both again.
The Rainbow Bridge
Just this side of heaven is a place called the Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to the Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together