Saturday, February 23, 2008

To the Lighthouse by Rainbow Bridge

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge...

So begins the Rainbow Bridge story, which my sister reminded me of with a casual remark about Rainbow Bridge, the day my 16-year-old cat, Sinbad, had to be set free from her suffering. After nearly 17 years in which Sinbad had been a constant presence in my life, I was devastated by the loss. My sister's comment had reminded me that I'd read a story about Rainbow Bridge years earlier, on a mailing list. So the next morning I searched for the story online, wondering if I'd be able to find it at all...and finding it on countless sites.

One of them was a large pet loss site, where I also checked out the message board. I just read messages at first and then, 5 years ago today -- 10 days after I'd lost Sinbad -- I registered and posted my first message there.

I'd never been in a support group before, but I really needed the support. I was discovering, as so many people who lose beloved pets discover, that all too many of the people I knew outside that support group simply didn't understand how much it could hurt to lose a pet. All of us encounter people who'll say, "Get over it -- it was just a pet." Grieving is difficult enough without having to deal with people who belittle the pain you feel. Fortunately, at the many pet loss sites on the Net, people do understand. And with that understanding, that freedom to talk about my feelings, I started to heal.

A couple of months later I became a moderator on that board, and I was a moderator there until leaving in July of 2006. I loved helping people cope with losses and begin to heal. It was a way to honor Sinbad (as my SinbadsMom name did), and a way to repay the community for the help I'd received. During those three years I spent thousands of hours helping out on the board, and posted several thousand messages. I left due to a disagreement with the site owner over his plans for the board. I had not stopped caring about the people there, but it was time to move on.

I'd had no plans to create my own grief support site, but within hours I started hearing from almost everyone who knew that I'd left that I should set up another board.

So our first message board, The Lighthouse, was set up and opened a few weeks later. A few months later we had a Lighthouse website, which was just a single page at first. More pages, including memorial pages, were added later.

And then in June of last year we opened our second board, Lighthouse Beacon, which unlike the original board -- which can't be read until you register -- can be read by anyone.

A year and a half after its launch, our larger board has hundreds of members who've posted over 65,000 messages.

With the new site, I was able to expand upon some ideas I'd originally had while moderating the other board. Instead of single topics for sharing photos of our Bridgekids (our pets at Rainbow Bridge) and Earthkids (the pets still with us), or sharing our funniest and happiest memories (so important on a grief support board), or sharing stories about signs and visits from our Bridgekids, we have forums on these subjects, encouraging lots of topics about them. In fact, there are two forums in the section about signs and visits (which I'd learned are often called ADCs or after death communications), one for discussing ADCs in general and the other for posting personal stories.

I'd realized while moderating the other board that many people who saw themselves as "oldtimers" there -- and that sometimes meant people who'd been there only a few months -- often felt that even when they needed support, they shouldn't ask for it when newcomers needed help. I always encouraged them to ask for support anyway, but they often felt that wouldn't be appropriate. So at the Lighthouse we have a forum for ongoing support (which we all need) in addition to the forum for newcomers and those suffering new losses.

Posts about Bridgedays (the days our pets crossed over), birthdays, and other special days are important, and we have a forum just for those posts.

We have separate forums for pet care, always an important subject on pet loss boards, and for the rescuers on the board. So many people who love pets -- even if they haven't formally dedicated much of their time, energy and money to rescuing pets and other animals -- often find themselves rescuing animals who need their help.

We have a prayer request forum so those requests don't become scattered through other messages and pushed back, out of sight.

We have forums for talking about our Earthkids, the pets still with us, and for posting artwork and memorials for our Bridgekids. We encourage people to use their creativity, since it can help so much in healing.

And we have one section for discussing the environment that we and the animals we love have to survive in, and that we humans have to protect as much as possible.

There are forums for lighter messages, too. We believe humor has a place in healing and should never be discouraged.

The Lighthouse is a community -- warm, welcoming, and spontaneous. We believe very strongly in keeping lines of communication open between our members, and they also know I want to hear from them, and that I'll listen to them. I know they'll think of things that haven't occurred to me, and I need and value their input.

The Lighthouse is for them, after all.

Ours is not a commercial site. I don't sell anything, and I don't request donations or accept them when they're offered. I've been putting my time and energy into the Lighthouse for the same reasons I put so much time into helping out as an unpaid moderator on that other board for three years.

Because I want to help people.

Because I want the help I give them to be a continuing, living memorial to my Bridgekids.

And because I found, as so many of us have found, that it helps me heal if I can help others.

It's inevitable that we lose loved ones. All of us will, if we live long enough. There's no way to avoid that. But the feelings of devastation and despair that so often follow major losses can be avoided. A grief support group can offer a safety net.

And the members of that grief support group can, through the help they offer others, find more strength than they'd realized they had, and a greater capacity to love.

I see that happening every day in grief support communities -- constant examples of how good people can be, how compassionate they can be. It's an ongoing revelation of the best of human nature (though so many of us will tell you that our pets are better at unconditional love, and we've learned from them). It's been a neverending source of inspiration and comfort for me, for the last five years. And I cherish it.

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that 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 our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals 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. Their bright eyes are intent. Their eager body quivers. Suddenly they begin to run from the group, flying over the green grass, their legs carrying them faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together.

(Author unknown)