Saying Goodbye to Your Best Friend

Confession. My dog died, and I am actually mourning harder and longer than I ever have for any loss before Sorry, great-grandma. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

If you’re a pet owner, you’ll understand what I’m going through. Gibson wasn’t just a dog. I mean, yes, he was a beautiful golden retriever. But he wasn’t just any dog—he was intuitive, playful, and kind. He knew how to comfort the hurting. After a friend separated from his wife, Gibson laid next to him on our living room floor, licking his beard and covering his arm with a warm paw.

Most importantly, Gibson was my dog. Even though we met when he was already 7 (which is like 50 in people years), he allowed me to become his adopted “mom”. I was in New York on a three-month sublease, trying to run away from my life and an ex-boyfriend in Nashville. Gibson’s owner Daniel, was billing 55 hours a week at a law firm, a job that required 12-hour days and plenty of weekend hours. As for Gibson, he was hanging out alone in a 400-square-foot apartment for 15 hours at a time. He needed a dog walker. And the three of us found the perfect relationship.

Every day after work, we walked for miles—through Central Park, downtown to Union Square, and even across the bridge to Brooklyn. We spent hours exploring, pausing for wine, checking out new streets, and then stopping for more wiene. You get the drift.

He was the smartest dog I had ever met. I know that your dog is the smartest dog you’ve ever met, too. But, seriously. On the nightly walk back to Daniel’s apartment, he would stop precisely at the corner of 78th and 1st, and demand his leash. He held it proudly in his mouth and ran ahead of me to the apartment steps—his rare moments of autonomy in a city that wasn’t built for 90-pound golden retrievers.

After a while, Gibson started to show early signs of arthritis, and the 5th floor walk-up where Daniel lived just wasn’t suitable for an old dog anymore. So in 2010, Daniel packed up all of his belongings, and drove Gibson back down to Tennessee to live on a farm. Away from the city, they found a new lease on life, and Gibson and I formed new routine. This time it involved a backyard wedding for me and Daniel, and all three of us living in the same space. We forged new paths through Nashville, stopping for coffee and cupcakes and runs through Bicentennial Park. For the next several months, Gibson spent countless sunny days rolling in the grass and hiking rocky trails. Most nights he dozed on the floor in between the two people he loved most.

We knew that the life expectancy of a purebred golden is only 12 years. But we never thought that would apply to Gibson. This was a dog who survived the streets of New York, epilepsy, spleen cancer, Daniel’s divorce from his first wife, countless moves, a few tornados, and eating 32 ounces of fair-trade, rainforest-certified chocolate (whoops). On his 12th birthday, he was still playing hard, biting our forearms and growling ferociously. But then, out of nowhere, everything changed.

Like lots of purebred dogs, Gibson suffered from epilepsy. For years, we had been able to manage it with medications, but suddenly they stopped working. A few times a week we would wake up to the sound of him convulsing violently, foaming at the mouth, and losing control of his bladder. Then, he started to have trouble standing, too.

We set up a new routine. I started waking up earlier than usual so I could lift him up and assist him on his morning walk to the backyard. He would go to the bathroom and then collapse in exhaustion. I sat on the ground scratching his chest until he was ready to get up again—sometimes in the rain with an umbrella, other times in 5-degree temperatures. This was our hardest routine yet. I carried him and babied him, and stroked his head when he looked at me with sad eyes. Our vet warned us that the end was near. Friends came by with beer and wine, and spent hours lying on the floor with him. My mom gently reminded me that eventually we would have to give up the fight.

I had been prepared and more than willing to lose sleep and money caring for this special dog. But I wasn’t prepared to be the one who made the call to let him go. In his last days, he could not walk or stand, so Daniel lifted his furry, limp body several times a day and carried him outside. He held Gibson up while he went to the bathroom, and then carried him back inside. We both cried through every single bathroom break. After a few weeks of this, we decided that it was time. And so one afternoon in our living room, with Gibson’s head in my lap and Daniel lying on the floor next to him, all three of us let go. Gibson didn’t lift his head or even acknowledge the vet when she arrived to administer the shot. He just slipped softly into his next adventure.

You can’t understand the aftermath of losing a pet unless you’ve gone there yourself. There’s no easy way to cope with the emptiness of your living room, a cold dog bed, and lonely walks through your neighborhood. You share 10 to 15 years with a silent partner who never leaves your side and witnesses all of the changes. Break-ups, new relationships, bad fights, job losses, new homes, new friends, celebrations, mourning, marriage, pregnancy, new hairstyles, those same 5 pounds you keep gaining and losing. They stay by your side (sometimes in your bed, if you’re that kind of animal lover) through everything, and then one day, without a word, they are gone. And nothing can ever be the same.

That’s not to say that things can’t be good again. About a month after losing Gibson, Daniel and I adopted a new puppy from a shelter (part golden retriever, of course). Our new pup is great, but we haven’t quite created the bond and unique communication system that Gibson and I had.

And will we ever get over the loss of our Gibson? Absolutely not. But one of the best things you can do for yourself after any big loss is know when to start over again.

Have you ever said goodbye to a longtime pet? How did you cope with the loss?   

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