In some ways, society does not allow us to grieve our pets publicly—at least not as publicly as we do humans. There are no church services, no obituaries in the paper, no professionally made tombstone in a government-funded graveyard.
But pets are part of the family, and losing them is never easy. That’s why, over the years, many pet owners have found solace in a website called Rainbow Bridge.
Founded by Ginny Brancato in 1997, Rainbow Bridge takes its name from a poem written sometime between 1980 and 1992 by an unknown author. This poem tells the story of a mythological afterlife for pets, where they wait to be reunited with their owners in death.
On Rainbow Bridge, you can create a memorial for your pet, complete with a guestbook for people to express their sympathies. There is also a Pet Loss and Grief Support Center, which provides a series of hotlines, chat rooms, and forums for grieving pet parents to interact and share their stories.
The day before Christmas Eve, I lost my cat, Caramel, who had been in my life since I was eleven. He’d had health problems on and off for several months, and every time he got sick I worried that he wouldn’t get better.
I was staying with my parents for the holiday, and when I arrived to find Caramel resting on a chair in the guest room, I was alarmed at how skinny and shrunken he was. He got up and started to walk over to his food bowl, but halfway there he got tired and laid down. I had never seen him so weak and lethargic. My dad reassured me he was taking him to the vet in the morning. Hopefully they could do something for him.
That night I brought his cat bed into my room and put it next to the heating vent. He always liked sleeping next to the heating vents in winter. I placed Caramel in his bed and covered him with a blanket, and I might have sat there with him all night if my parents hadn’t insisted I go to bed. I fell asleep fearing that my baby might not last the night.
The next morning he wasn’t in his bed. While I was still half-asleep, I heard my phone go off. It was a text from my dad: “Call me as soon as you wake up.” That was when I knew Caramel wouldn’t be coming home.
My dad picked me up and took me to the vet’s office, where Caramel was lying catatonically in his kennel behind the front desk. The vet was on his lunch break and wouldn’t get back for a half hour, so I remained in the waiting room with Caramel, just keeping him company. Though he wasn’t very responsive to my presence, I hoped he knew I was there and that I loved him.
At first I thought I wanted to be in the room when Caramel got the injection; but when the time came, I realized it was too intense for me. I told him I loved him one last time before leaving the room. Though some owners find closure in being there when their pets are put to sleep, there is no shame in not being able to handle it. It’s never easy watching someone you love die.
Rainbow Bridge was a great comfort to me for the remainder of the holiday season. After reading the poems and personal stories of fellow pet owners, I went ahead and made a memorial page for Caramel. Although the well wishes and e-cards I received came mostly from strangers, they let me know I wasn’t alone.
It’s okay to grieve the loss of a pet, and it’s okay to seek help. If you can’t find support or closure on your own, look online. There’s always a chance of finding like-minded people if you know where to look.
– Särah Nour