29 December

The Rainbow Bridge: Why I’m Not Crossing

by Jon Katz
The Rainbow Bridge

The Rainbow Bridge is one of the most popular and heartwarming ideas and stories in the animal world. Hundreds of people e-mailing me about Rose have mentioned the “Bridge” or said they were sure that Rose and I would meet there again in the afterlife. This was intended as comfort for me and I appreciate it. So I got curious about the tale, and I have been researching it over the last two weeks, wondering why I was so uncomfortable with the whole idea.

The story is quite evocative. I see why it is comforting. It is one of our deepest fantasies – that we never be separated from the animals we love – writ large. The original author is unclear, and some versions of the story – the idea of people and loyal animals meeting in the afterlife – date back thousands of years. In it’s current form, the Rainbow Bridge story appeared in the early 1960’s and has mushroomed into poems, books, songs, paintings and prose offering support and comfort to bereaved humans all over the world. I respect any story that does that.

The Rainbow Bridge story tells of a green meadow located “this side of heaven.” The Rainbow Bridge is both the  name of the meadow and an adjoining bridge connecting it to heaven. According to the story, when a beloved pet dies it goes to the meadow,  its body cured of any illnesses, frailties and/or injuries. The pet runs and plays with other pets, missing only the love and companionship of its owner, who remains on Earth, still alive. When the human companion dies, on their way to Heaven, they cross the meadow. While doing so, the pet (along with all of the other pets the human owned on Earth) sees its owner and runs to greet him or her. Reunited, the pets and the humans cross the Rainbow Bridge together into Heaven, never again to be parted.

As always, I need to say that grieving is personal, and I am happy when people take comfort from any story, mine or somebody else’s. I write only about myself and my feelings. I don’t know what other people ought to do, read or feel. If the Rainbow Bridge works for them, good for them and the story.

This story does not bring comfort to me, nor is it especially comprehensible. It seems to pander to what we would all wish to happen, rather than what realistically might happen, or even should happen. The story seems selfish to me, another way people presume that animals exist for no other reason than to make us feel good.  There is no consideration of what is best for the animal, no effort to understand what an animal might want or need or would make them happy. As the pet is bound to us and dependent on us in life, this bondage would be extended for all eternity. As they work for us all their material lives, so should they serve us for all time.

In all of our self-centeredness and anthropomorphisizing, it’s easy to forget that our pets have little choice but to live with us. They can’t leave or choose to do better. I shudder to think of Rose spending years sitting waiting for me by a bridge and then be further sentenced to staying with me for all time. And the whole menagerie of my life as well. I think she would rather be chasing sheep somewhere for all eternity, and that is what I would wish for her. And when I think of meeting Julius, Stanley, Clementine, Pearl, Sam, King, Orson, Rose, Lenore, Frieda, the steers and cow, the goats and sheep, the chickens and cats in that meadow, to never again be parted, it is not comfort that I feel, but panic.

Do we meet the people we have loved on the bridge, too?. Or just the pets? And what of the pets who have multiple owners? Are they all destined to spend all time with all of the people, and all of their pets? And do we ever do anything besides run around with our former animals? And who is doing clean-up?

I know well the grief many of us feel when the animals we love die. I have been immersed in that for some years researching my book, and am experiencing it now with the loss of Rose. But the Rainbow Bridge is not something I want or need. It seems to me narcissistic and on the far edge of sappy and when it comes to animals, the story is all about us, and not very carefully considered at that. Why do we always assume that the boundaries of animal existence is what we need and what we want? And is that really what we want? To be romping in a garden with our dogs and cats for all eternity? Is that all we want, for them or for us?

People should take comfort wherever they can find it. But it doesn’t work for me. I am very grateful for all of the messages, including those about the Rainbow Bridge. But I’m not crossing that bridge.  It is not a place I want to go, and if Rose could speak, I think she’d run the other way, to the big sheep meadow in the sky.

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