I know that when pets die, it’s often said that they have crossed “the Rainbow Bridge.” It’s a powerful image, but I don’t know if it’s the right one.
The Rainbow Bridge is a euphemism or a metaphor for passing to another astral plane or a spiritual place – death or an afterlife. Some even believe that the Rainbow Bridge is where they will meet their pets when the pet owner dies. The phrase perhaps originated in a sentimental poem that is often given to pet owners on the death of their pets. Many people find inspiration and comfort in it. Those are good things. I wouldn’t take that away from the people who find solace in it.
I do, however, think that the poem and the metaphor “prettify” death. The death of a beloved pet can be tragic, but it is seldom pretty. I lost my darling Louise, a cat I had for over 20 years, a number of years ago. I held her on my lap. I counted the seconds between each of her last breaths until finally they stopped. I hope I gave her comfort in her last moments, and indeed throughout her whole life. She certainly gave comfort to me.
But, though her death was peaceful, it wasn’t pretty. One minute she was there and the next minute she was gone. I cried for days. Nine years later, I still miss her dearly.
She has appeared to me in dreams and when she did, I took it as a message that she and I had both moved on and it was time for me to find another cat to care for and love. That’s a pretty thought, but it was only a dream, and I don’t know whether I believe that dreams reflect reality or give us a vision of another realm. Mostly I think they are jumbled constructs that our brains make of memories, thoughts, and the firing of synapses in our brains. I know that doesn’t leave much room for deeper meaning, except that the memory of Louise was still deep in my thoughts when I had the dreams.
I know there’s theological disagreement over whether animals have souls. Many people don’t believe they do because animals were not created in the image of God. Other people do believe in animals’ souls because they are a part of Creation.
I strongly believe that animals are self-aware beings with emotions that resemble those of humans, though I know that there are people who disagree with that too. If it means they have a soul as well, I don’t know theologically, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they do.
But do all animals have souls? Sheep and tarantulas and trout and the surly hedgehog that my husband kept as a pet? Will they all go to heaven or meet us at the Rainbow Bridge? Do we imbue our pets with special attributes because we love them so? Are we projecting our feelings onto them or anthropomorphizing traits that we see in ourselves? I surely don’t know the answer to those questions, but they do seem important in some way. I will say that, if we believe that cats and dogs have souls, we should extend that dignity not just to our pets, but to all of them, feral ones included, even though we don’t develop familial bonds with them.
When I think about the death of pets, I also think about the subject of euthanizing them. I’ve seen a post go around the internet that pets shouldn’t die alone, and that it is a form of abandonment not to be with the animal when its last moment comes, that death at the hands of a vet is cold and unemotional. I do know that vets react with compassion to the death of a pet and to the owner as well. But they don’t prefer to have the owner present at the death. They’ll allow it if the person feels strongly about it.
I think the internet post shames people who cannot be present at the death of their pet. It says that there is only one right choice, no matter whether the person feels they are capable of being present at the end. They have their reasons, and I think we should honor them and their grief and pain without judgment.
So, is there a Rainbow Bridge? Do all pets or all animals go to heaven? We each have our beliefs, but whether or not they will be fulfilled is to me an open question. If, after I die, Louise is present for me, along with Django and Jasper and Anjou and Julia and all the other cats I’ve shared my life with, I will consider myself truly blessed. But will they be? I guess I’ll have to wait to find out.