The ‘Rainbow Bridge’ has comforted millions of pet parents. Who wrote it?
More than a dozen people claimed ownership of the beloved poem, but the real author had no idea what a global sensation it became.
If you’ve lost a pet, you have likely encountered “Rainbow Bridge”—a simple but poignant poem about animal heaven and the promise of reunion with furry loved ones. Copies of the poem are regularly given to bereft clients by veterinary hospitals; references commonly appear in condolence cards and social media messages to grieving pet parents.
For all the millions of lives “Rainbow Bridge” has touched, though, the author of the poem has remained unknown—until now. She is Edna Clyne-Rekhy, an 82-year-old Scottish artist and animal lover. Until recently, she had no idea that the poem she wrote over 60 years ago—to honor her dog, Major—had brought comfort to so many others.
“I’m absolutely stunned,” she says. “I’m still in a state of shock.”
Clyne-Rekhy’s authorship likely would have been lost to history were it not for the tenacious sleuthing of Paul Koudounaris, an art historian, author, and cat owner in Tucson, Arizona. Koudounaris has spent the past decade working on a book about pet cemeteries and frequently encountered references to the “Rainbow Bridge” in his research.
“Early on I started to wonder, who wrote this?” he says. It bothered him that “a text with monumental importance to the world of animal mourning” remained uncredited.
The poem’s popularity, he discovered, was launched in February 1994, when a reader from Grand Rapids, Michigan, sent a copy of “Rainbow Bridge” that they had received from their local humane society to the advice column Dear Abby. “If you print this, you had better warn your readers to get out their hankies,” they wrote.
Abby did print the poem—and confessed to shedding “a tear or two”—but she also pointed out to her 100 million readers that the author’s name was regrettably missing. “If anyone in my reading audience can verify authorship, please let me know.”
No one came forward, but after that, “Rainbow Bridge” seemed to be everywhere. Starting in 1995, Koudounaris found records of 15 separate claims filed under the title “Rainbow Bridge” with the United States Copyright Office. He compiled a list of around 25 names he found with any connection to the poem and, one by one, looked into each and crossed them off as possible authors until he was left with just one: Edna Clyne-Rekhy.
He had found Clyne-Rekhy’s name after seeing reference in an online chat group to an Edna “Clyde” from Scotland who allegedly wrote the poem when her son’s dog died. Some Googling led him to Clyne-Rekhy, whose authorship of a book about her late husband and their dog made him jot her name onto the list—the only woman and the only non-American.
“What initially would have seemed like the most unlikely candidate in the end turned out to be the most intriguing candidate and, of course, the actual author,” Koudounaris says.
When Koudounaris finally reached Clyne-Rekhy in January and asked if she was the author of “Rainbow Bridge,” her first response, she says, was “How on Earth did you find me!?’”
Clyne-Rekhy’s story, which Koudounaris detailed earlier this month, began in 1959. She was 19 years old and grieving the loss of her Labrador Retriever, Major. “He died in my arms, actually,” she recalled in a call with National Geographic. “I dearly loved him.”
The day after Major died, Clyne-Rekhy was still “just crying and crying,” she says, when her mother asked her what was wrong.
“It’s Major,” Clyne-Rekhy replied. “I can’t put away this soreness.”
“Maybe write down how you’re feeling,” her mother suggested.
Clyne-Rekhy followed her mother’s advice. Sitting in the family’s lounge at their home near Inverness, she wrote a first line on a white sheet of paper: “Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.” From there, she says, the words poured out of her, filling the front and back.
The text went like this:
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, your pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water, and sunshine, and friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who have been ill and old are restored to health and strength, those who were hurt are made better and strong again, like we remember them before they go to heaven. They are happy and content except for one small thing—they each miss someone very special to them who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are shining, his body shakes. Suddenly he begins to run from the herd, rushing over the grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cuddle in a happy hug never to be apart again. You and your pet are in tears. Your hands again cuddle his head and you look again into his trusting eyes, so long gone from life, but never absent from your heart, and then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together.
“It just came through my head, it was like I was talking to my dog—I was talking to Major,” she says. “I just felt all of this and I had to write it.”
Clyne-Rekhy still has the original hand-written draft of the poem. When she showed it to Koudounaris, he says he immediately knew it was real. “The rest of her story confirmed it for me later, but I can’t fully explain the power of those sheets.”
Though she never published the poem herself, Clyne-Rekhy eventually did show it to a handful of friends. “They were all crying,” she says. They asked her if they could take copies home, so she hand-typed duplicates for them—but did not include her name.
Koudounaris suspects that it must have been passed person to person until it lost its connection to its original author—and eventually took on a life of its own. He also noticed discrepancies in the poem’s language that made him suspect it was much older than people assumed.
Some versions he read, for example, talked about animals “who are maimed and made whole again,” while others referenced animals being “returned to vigor.” These slight differences “let me know something important: That this has been traveling around for a while,” Koudounaris says.
Clyne-Rekhy spent years in India and later moved to an olive farm in Spain—a path that may help to explain why she was not aware of the poem’s growing popularity in the U.S., Britain, and beyond, Koudounaris says.
“Can you imagine?” she says. “Every vet in Britain has it!”
Koudounaris credits the enduring popularity and potency of “Rainbow Bridge” for many Western readers to the theological need it fills. Those who were raised Christian, he points out, were often told by parents or priests that animals lack souls and therefore will not join them in Heaven.
“‘Rainbow Bridge’ provides the missing piece for people who have had to live with this anxiety that their animal is not good enough to deserve an afterlife,” Koudounaris says. “It gives us a reason to hope.”
Kitty Block, CEO and president of the Humane Society, agrees that “Rainbow Bridge” has bestowed the world with “a vision that has brought comfort to millions grieving the loss of a pet.”
“Its enduring popularity shows how relationships to pets matter to so many people across all walks of life,” she says. “The intimacy of those connections can help us recognize our fundamental duty to care for animals, those who are part of our families and those in the wider world.”
As for Clyne-Rekhy, she says she already has concrete plans to be reunited with Major and her subsequent pets, whose ashes she has kept.
“We’re going to be scattered in the North Sea,” she says. “We’ll be food for the seals.