When someone’s beloved dog dies, one of the most common ways of acknowledging the loss is to say that their pet has “crossed the Rainbow Bridge.” In some circles, it’s more than common: It’s the default way of expressing respect and compassion for the death of a pet.
There’s a deficit of compassion in the world, and I’m always happy to see people reach out in an attempt to ease the grief of others. So it’s with a mix of caution and courtesy that I’m going to be plainly honest about this: I don’t like the Rainbow Bridge concept, and wish that we had better ways of talking about grief and death. At the very least, I wish that the default way of offering sympathy didn’t assume that the person being comforted believes in an afterlife.
It’s been quite a few years since I had to deal with the grief of losing a pet. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same when it comes to losing other loved ones. My partner and I are still reeling — financially and emotionally — from the loss of her mother a few months ago. Her father died a few years ago. The last seven years have been a long string of disease, trauma, and death. For some, that grinding weight might be made lighter by reassurances of heaven or a Rainbow Bridge, but for me, it’s not.
I always feel a little ashamed of how uncomfortable the Rainbow Bridge makes me feel, as if I’m admitting a cold-heartedness at the center of my being, or trying to destroy other people’s happiness. I’m not. When others are in grief or distress, I want them to use whatever they have to to get through the day. What I’m asking is that you simply listen when I say that it doesn’t do the same thing for me, and realize that there are others just like me.
I first started thinking about this piece several months ago, when Wil Wheaton wrote a moving blog post about the death of his dog Riley. The post was one of the most heartbreaking and honest remembrances of a dog I’ve read, but what caught my eye was a little note at the bottom:
A small request: If you choose to comment, please don’t post that Rainbow Bridge thing. I know you mean well, but it has always made me uncomfortable.
I felt a huge relief knowing that I wasn’t the only one with that response to the Rainbow Bridge. I can’t speak for the reason for Wil Wheaton’s discomfort, but my own operates on several levels.
For one, as an atheist, I don’t believe in any kind of heaven or afterlife. I don’t even think that I want one. I have yet to find any religion that’s come up with an afterlife where I would want to spend eternity. For me, everything that matters is right here on this Earth, in this life. That thought is what drives me to make sure that human beings and animals alike get the food, medicine, and love that they need for happiness. You could say that my entire ethical framework derives from that single belief: We only get one chance, so we better get it right.
The second thing overlaps with the first in a way: The Rainbow Bridge concept sounds more like a dismissal of grief than a way of easing it. Whether dog or human, death does not mean that someone is “in a better place.” The better place for anyone who I love is right here, in this life, next to me. After that, they’re gone, and I have only my memories of them, and that’s heartbreaking. Telling me about how they’ve gone to a better place and that I shouldn’t grieve, that they’re actually happier than when they were here lounging on the couch or playing in the yard — I refuse to accept that.
The third thing is kind of an aesthetic judgement and also goes back to the first point: Like I said, no religion or philosophy has yet come up with an afterlife that I would want to spend time in, and the Rainbow Bridge is no different. The original text, which was written anonymously sometime in the ’80s or ’90s starts out:
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to 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.
To the social reformer in me, the universal health care and feeding aspects of Rainbow Bridge sound great. To the writer, it sounds cloying and trivial, devoid of the complexity that makes life interesting. It sounds like a greeting-card writer’s idea of happiness, and it isn’t big enough or intricate enough to hold the things that I love most.
I have loved dogs, cats, and people, and when I lose them, simplistic platitudes only sharpen the pain instead of making it feel better.
I hope that pet lovers start looking for alternative ways to express their sympathies. I think that everyone should mourn in their own way, and that includes those who enjoy the Rainbow Bridge. But before bringing out that particular imagery, have the courtesy to be sure that the person you’re talking to will actually find it a comfort instead of an intrusion.
What’s your take on the Rainbow Bridge idea? Tell me in the comments.
Read more on the death of pets: