The rainbow bridge has become shorthand for the place pets go after they pass away. We explore the phrase’s origin and when it might—or might not—help grieving pet owners.

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Illustration of dog and cat looking up at a rainbow
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

You've probably heard the term "rainbow bridge" related to the death of a pet. The poem(s) it's based on refer to an afterlife for pets and can offer pet parents a glimpse of reuniting with their departed dogs and cats. Because it recognizes the strong bond between people and their animals, some people use the "rainbow bridge" term and poems as a way to offer condolences to a grieving pet owner. 

It's even inspired a national remembrance day: Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, held each year on Aug. 28.

Experts note, though, that while some people find meaning in the rainbow bridge after their pet dies, other people might not. That's something you'll want to consider as a well-meaning friend trying to help someone who's grieving the loss of their beloved pet.

What Is the Rainbow Bridge?

Here's how The Washington Post puts it: "This bridge is a mythical overpass said to connect heaven and Earth—and, more to the point, a spot where grieving pet owners reunite for good with their departed furry friends."

Many pet owners refer to "going over the rainbow bridge" when they disclose the death of a beloved pet on social media. Losing a pet is losing a family member, and this saying or poem is one place some people find meaning as they grieve.

New York City veterinarian Colin Dwyer told The Post that he and his staff refer to the bridge or even direct grieving owners to the poem itself. It's "an easy way to have something to say," Dwyer told the newspaper. "I don't think it's any better or worse than saying, 'Oh, she's in doggy heaven.'"  

Grieving the Loss of a Pet: How the Rainbow Bridge Plays a Role

"Honestly, it's like, when you are in that situation and have to put a pet down, it's nice to think there may be a happy ending," Cianna Fox, 25, told The Post. "And the poem makes you think of a deeper meaning to their death."

The poem can also offer you a way to help a friend experience their grief. If your friend or loved one mentions that a rainbow bridge poem resonated with them, you can use it as a jumping off point for questions, says Marina L. Reed, co-author of the forthcoming Remember It's OK: Loss of a Pet. 

Talking with your friend about their grief is one of the most important ways you can help. Here's what you can ask as you talk with your friend about the poem: 

  • How is that helpful? 
  • How did it help you? 
  • How did it teach you? 
  • What did it give you? 
  • Did you feel like the poem illustrates what you’re going through?

Who Wrote the Rainbow Bridge Poem?

Good question. According to The Post, at least three men claim to have written a version of the poem. Sometimes, the poems are simply attributed to "unknown." There are several versions of the poem available. We show one of the compositions below. (You can find two more versions here.)

There is a bridge connecting Heaven and Earth.

It is called the Rainbow Bridge because of all its beautiful colors.

Just this side of the Rainbow Bridge there is a land of meadows,

hills and valleys with lush green grass.

When a beloved pet dies, the pet goes to this place.

There is always food and water and warm spring weather.

The old and frail animals are young again.

Those who were sick, hurt or in pain are made whole again.

There is only one thing missing,

they are not with their special person who loved them so much on earth.

So each day they run and play until the day comes

when one suddenly stops playing and looks up!

The nose twitches! The ears are up!

The eyes are staring and this one runs from the group!

You have been seen and when you and your special friend meet,

you take him in your arms and hug him.

He licks and kisses your face again and again—

and you look once more into the eyes of your best friend and trusting pet.

Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together never again to be apart.

When the Rainbow Bridge Might Not Ease Grief

With all good intentions in mind, this poem and sentiment may not be right for everyone. While speaking with Daily Paws, both Reed and her co-author Marian Grace Boyd, who's also a grief counselor, also expressed trepidation about the rainbow bridge poems.  

Reed says the poems can paint a lovely picture, but she wondered whether it validates the emotions a grieving person is feeling. Plus, the poems saying owners will see their pets again can actually make things worse, Reed says. Suicidal thoughts can occur when someone grieves, and the assurance at the end of the poem—that pet owners will cross the bridge to reunite with their pets—can encourage that thinking.

"For some people, they can actually step into a very dark place themselves when they lose a pet, and that poem can actually be not the best support if somebody is in that kind of dark place," she says. 

To Boyd, the rainbow bridge is reflective of the time when it was written: the 1980s, when we didn't think about grief the same way we do now: "We were trying to find ways to feel warm and fuzzy. We were trying to find ways to move away from the depths of sadness and suffering," she says. 

Reed and Boyd both agree that the poems are more suited for later in the grieving process rather than right after a pet dies—when grieving people are mostly in a state of survival.  

"For me, as a grief therapist and a longtime practitioner in grief, [the poem is] kind of trying to get you to that place of meaning and purpose for your loss way before you're actually ready to do that," Boyd says.

Each person grieves in their own way, so the rainbow bridge poem might not help someone who's going through immense loss. Use your best judgement when you think about sending the rainbow bridge poem to a friend or family member. It might be best for them to find the poem on their own.

Ultimately, you know your friends and family best, so you're the best person to decide whether—or when—your grieving loved one will find comfort in one of the poems. If you're not sure, there are plenty of other methods to help them grieve, including two big ways: offering help (cooking a meal; babysitting) and just being there to listen to your friend talk through their feelings.