What The Rainbow Bridge Means To Me

A unique perspective on this age-old euphemism for death.

Photo by Scott Van Hoy on Unsplash

I recently read an article on Medium (which stemmed from a Facebook post) calling into question the propriety of the term, “Rainbow Bridge,” as it pertains to pets who have died.

The article explored this phrase as a reference to ascent into heaven and the possible insensitivity to those who don’t believe in that sort of thing. That struck me as odd on the first read-through.

However, the more I think about the phrase, the more I realize that it does bear obvious religious undertones. So, I became curious about where the phrase originated.

Doing a little digging on Medium, I found another article that describes some of the origin stories for this phrase. Interestingly the original poems cited do, in fact, reference an ascent into heaven across the rainbow bridge. Furthermore, it may be rooted in the Bifrost Bridge from Norse Mythology which connects the human realm to the realm of gods (Asgard). Of course, there are myriad references to the Rainbow Bridge on the internet, and far too many to delve into here.

I’ve been around this phrase for as long as I can remember and have never paid much thought to it. The late 1990s and early 2000s when I began seriously considering veterinary medicine during my elementary and middle school years would likely have been my first exposure to the phrase.

While I certainly cannot tell you the exact moment that I heard the phrase for the first time, the image I’ve associated in my mind with crossing the Rainbow Bridge has nothing to do with heaven, hell, or religion at all. In fact, hearing the term brings only an image of Rainbow Road from Mario Kart N64.

I suppose it’s laughable that such a loaded phrase would bring about such a silly image, but it always brought comfort to me. There was something about our pets driving or walking on Rainbow Road that felt peaceful to my young mind. I can clearly remember an older veterinarian that I worked with mentioning that a pet had crossed the Rainbow Bridge only to conjure an image of that pet navigating Rainbow Road in all its glory.

While the connotations with a transition to heaven are relatively obvious, I never linked them up in my own headspace. I perceived it to be calming because Rainbow Road is long, and it often ended up feeling relatively isolating (especially because I was always so far ahead of my little brother).

Hopefully, he doesn’t read this one…

Rainbows tend to be associated with hope and beauty regardless of your religious beliefs. This is what I always perceived that the bridge referenced. A path away from pain, injury, or illness, but not necessarily towards something perfect or immortal.

“Crossing the Rainbow Bridge,” has become ingrained in our culture surrounding the loss of a pet. For many, this phrase signifies a pet’s transition into heaven or into a pleasant purgatory while they await their human escort. Though for others, I suggest that this phrase may simply represent a peaceful transition to whatever awaits, like a solo run on Rainbow Road at 50cc.

When you deal with death on a (roughly) weekly basis you develop a feel for communicating about it without imposing your own beliefs. I’m sure that my style and bedside manner is not everybody’s favorite, but I feel that I do well overall.

The reality is that people will say things during a euthanasia visit that they don’t remember or don’t mean. Similarly, just like after receiving an initial terminal diagnosis, people frequently don’t remember a thing that I’ve told them during the visit. Emotions are a powerful obstacle to memory.

I will take these final moments to agree with the initial author whom I cited above. I would never intentionally assume somebody’s beliefs about where their pet was headed next, nor would I attempt to push my own beliefs onto a patient or client.

I liked the original author’s reference to the platinum rule — treat others how they wish to be treated. In my role as a facilitator of many goodbyes, I don’t perceive people put much weight into whether I share their beliefs for their pet or not. Rather, I feel that the important thing is that they have a real person there to help send them on their way

Thank you for reading. Feel free to check me out on Medium.com at medium.com/@pawspressplay. Don’t forget to request a topic if you are interested in something specific.

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