How to Lose Your Best Friend

No one tells you what it’s like to put your dog down, to lay with your best friend as they take their last breath.

No one tells you how it feels to go through the final years by their side, to watch their body weaken against their will. To run across the room and lift them after they fall, only to feel them collapse into your arms in gratitude for your friendship, even now.

No one tells you what it is to witness a soul grip onto life with all its might, to see them tremble and stumble and struggle, yet want nothing more than one more day with you.

No one tells you how to lose your best friend because no one really knows how.

But I just lost my best friend, and I wish more people had told me what little they knew.

Because as hard as it may be to talk about, learning how to lose them is learning how to love them as they did you — unconditionally.

Learning how not to look away from the gut-wrenching times when they need you most;
Learning how to move through the pain of watching your best friend die in front of you;
Learning how to hold them as they die, and let them know it’s ok to go, even if you have no clue how to go on without them.

It’s learning to share how you lost your best friend with others, so they may know that in terrible loss there are moments of inexplicable, indescribable beauty that will change you, and carry you, and echo through you, forever.

We are so obsessed with learning how to win, but true love — unconditional love — means learning how to lose.

This is what I know about how to lose your best friend.

On Virginia’s last day, I woke up and began preparing for what I was about to do.

I could not say it aloud, and I did not know what was to happen exactly, but somehow after two years of not knowing how to lose my best friend, I instinctively knew how to hold her as she died.

The twenty-four hours prior, she laid stretched out on the floor, unable to walk. I rotated between embracing her and rushing to our bedroom to break down where she couldn’t see it. The end of the end was finally here for my best friend, and I knew it right away.

I sunk to the floor by my bed and I sobbed, so afraid of each next step. So afraid of not having her in my life.

This dog was my child, my world.

There is so much no one tells you about losing that big. Like, no one tells you that the end of your best friend’s life will guide you for the rest of yours.

Our eleven years prior were a lesson in resilience that I will take with me forever. She’d survived cancer three times, and five surgeries, and seven seizures, and a stroke. I survived the fear, the not knowing, the hospitals, the constant pharmacy runs. And holding her during the seizures, and sleepless nights with her on the couch, and never letting her see how utterly frightened I was.

And, never letting others see how utterly exhausted I was.

At the end of her life, I was about to break.

My shoulders ached from lifting her. My heart ached each time I looked down at her by my side — her body turned away from me, head resting on her paws, depressed. Lifeless. She could no longer walk further than the length of our apartment. We could no longer take our morning walks through nature, where she came alive.

Where I came alive.

Her end drained me physically, mentally, and emotionally and yet our survival through it filled me with a love I’d never before known. A love derived from sacrifice to love itself. A kind of love that burrows under every part of you and stays put forever, replacing the isolated and intermittent stilts of your understanding with an unmovable, unquestionable foundation born from something much greater than you.

Loss of that magnitude ingrains a kind of love that becomes a compass, a lighthouse, as you sail through the rest of your life, from the world you just lost to the ones yet to be discovered.

No one tells you that in watching your best friend die, parts of you die a little too. And that new parts, surprisingly, come alive.

Every morning after breakfast while Virginia slept, I still went on our walk and there I discovered the transcendence of love. I really didn’t want to go on the walk without her, but somehow I knew I had to. Somehow, I knew she could feel it all through me.

So I walked the trail through the Sequoias, and I stopped at her favorite flower bush, and I wandered under the billowing branches of the willow tree where we used to lay on the grass. I let my hands run across bark and petals and branches, so she could feel them too.

When I returned home, she would awaken from her deep sleep.

And each day, more and more, so would I.

Losing your best friend means learning how to go on the terrible ride with them. How to hold them through the spiral down without spiraling down yourself.

But — no one tells you how to be in the decline, on the downslope, how to stay present for someone as you watch everything that kept you both in tact slip away.

When Virginia’s body started breaking down two years ago, I looked away. I turned my attention toward other things, other people. Subconscious escapes from the fear of the loss. But lucky for me, her decline lasted a long time. Long enough for me to find the bravery to turn back toward her.

To be in the decline and on the downslope with her.

Lucky for me, she let me back in and together we careened down, by each other’s side at each new low point, until we both relaxed into it and found our new normal.

Being in it and not leaving, even when it hurt, turned out to be the hardest and most important thing I did for her, and for myself.

That we aren’t taught how to lose those we love may be one of the great shortfalls of our modern lives. Progress and gains take up all the air in the room, but eventually, you lose.

And the biggest truth no one tells you about loss is that you gain more from losing than you do from winning.

You see, no one tells you that in watching your best friend fight for life, you can at last understand how to live without fighting.

It’s normal to turn away from death, but when your best friend is dying and you have to stay with it — by death’s side — and keep it company alongside your friend, this is what you actually see:

That it is simultaneously extreme amounts of joy and sorrow, life and death, love and pain. The one brings forward the other in a way you probably have never felt before but, I promise, will be one of the great gifts of your life. In Virginia’s final weeks, each time I looked at her I felt the heights of love and loss equally, and instantly I knew — I knew — that what I was seeing was life in full clarity.

I was seeing how to live. And it was counter to so much we’re taught — that good and bad belong in separate file folders. That we should focus on the good file, and push the bad one to the back of the cabinet.

The most crippling part of that logic isn’t just that it sets you up for a lifelong fight — it’s that it keeps you from the very thing you‘re looking for.

Learning to not turn away from your best friend as they are dying teaches you that only when you can at once and in equal amounts hold love and pain, joy and sorrow, loss and gain, can you ever come close to understanding life itself.

It is a kind of knowledge that ages you in a good way, that brings you closer to the sobering truth we all fear — but should not.

That our fear of death is actually a fear that “good” and “bad” coexist, that our control over that filing cabinet is not as real as we’d prefer to believe.

Our fear of death keeps us from feeling what life actually is. It obscures the truth:

We should not fear death at all. We should fear not living.

What no one really tells you is that holding someone as they die may be the closest you’ll ever feel to being at peace with the loss.

In the final minutes of Virginia’s life, I laid with her on her cushion in our garden and held her in my arms, and thanked her for everything she had brought to my life. The sound of ocean waves played on a speaker nearby, and when the doctor gave her the first needle, a sedative to calm her nerves, I closed my eyes and breathed with her.

Waves in, waves out.

She didn’t want to go, but I knew my very last challenge in our friendship was to help her move from this world to the next. I’d thought about this moment hundreds of times, never knowing how I would get through it.

But in the end, it was the ocean that brought us there.

The happiest times of our lives were by the ocean. All those sunny days on the sand when we ran from shore to sea, her big smile and galloping legs, chasing balls or sticks or anything, really — all she wanted was to run into the vast ocean.

Waves in, waves out, together we breathed and returned to that ocean shore.

As the doctor gave her the final needle, I pulled her even closer to me and knew she could hear what I was thinking. So I reminded her what we both saw the day she was by my side when I almost died.

Remember the clouds and the sun and the rain. Remember the leaves, how they danced in the wind. Remember being there with me, knowing everything will be okay, knowing we are the clouds, the sun, the rain, the wind.

I love you, Virginia.
I love you, Virginia.

I love you.

Waves in, waves out. And then, peacefully, just one last wave in.

I kissed her face and three doves appeared above us, in the sunny, blue sky.

The sound of the ocean waves continued, but she was no longer on the shore.

She was in the waves now, where she always longed to be.

No one tells you about the power of waves after you lose someone you love.

At first, the waves crash over you in large barrels, disorienting any sense of direction or vision you once held. They pull you down into their under-toe and submerge you in the sadness, the pain, the loss. Then, just as quickly as they pummeled you down, they bring you up to the surface.

There you can see the sun and feel its warmth, and begin to see a new horizon ahead, before the barrel overtakes you again.

Grief happens in waves. But in time you learn how to swim in waves and in time, their strength lessens.

If you just stay in the waves a bit longer, you soon find yourself bobbing in their calm, floating in their gentle embrace.

You begin to feel your best friend there, with you in the waves, carrying you on the tides toward your future.

Most of all, no one tells you how magical life and death — from its very beginning to its very end — really is.

We speak of death in somber tones and restrained cliches, but the end of life is every bit as mysterious and energetic and awe-inspiring as the beginning of it.

One chilly morning not long after she died, we drove to the docks in Sausalito while I held the tin with Virginia’s remains in my lap. The weeks prior, it sat on the fireplace mantle and each time I passed it, I averted my eyes.

That her body was now just sand, and I was to leave her somewhere far away, felt like losing my best friend all over again.

Seeing this beautiful life whittle down to the mundane, my best friend now in a tin can, robbed me of the magic I’d believed in all this time. It rubbed my nose in the insult of loss, pulverizing her whole life into dust, as if she never existed.

As if nothing more existed.

The night prior, I woke up at two in the morning to my heart unsettled and the sky electrified. Lightening of a kind we’d never seen struck down across Northern California and a deep thunder roared through the hills and valleys. I lay in bed and watched my window pane shrouded in darkness and then — suddenly — illuminated.

There’s this moment between lightening and thunder, when the sky is lit up by a giant bolt of energy and it should be terrifying, but it’s oddly quiet and wondrous and somehow, comforting. And then, BOOM!…an enormous thunder that shakes the comfort and mocks the wonder and inspires us to pull the covers over our head.

There in my bedroom window on the night I struggled to accept my final goodbye to my best friend, I knew she was showing me life in its full clarity, again. Darkness and lightness, terror and beauty, calm and fear, destruction and creation.

Don’t pull the covers over your head, she whispered.

I had been so afraid of that tin sitting on the mantle…

But the next morning as I held the tin in my arms and looked out the car window at the storm clouds retreating in the sky, I thought about the first time I held her, on the car ride home when she was just nine weeks old. I thought about all the times I held her over these last eleven years.

I pulled the tin closer to me now, my forearms wrapped around it, and suddenly, I felt something strange and powerful.

I felt my love for her, in its full array.

She was there, in my arms.

We walked out to the dock and I looked up. The skies had quieted and the clouds stood guard as if ready for Virginia’s funeral — still dark and solemn, but parting in cracks and crevices to let the sun rays beam down onto the water, like a spotlight calling her to some other existence.

We sailed into the rippling blue tides of the San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping at a small cove near an island.

Again I did not know what was to happen exactly, but somehow after two years of not knowing how to lose my best friend, I instinctively knew how to return her home.

I knelt at the bow of the boat as we tilted the tin toward the water.

Just then, a gentle wind blew, carrying her ashes into a cloud right next to me, her body dancing through the air. Suspended between time and space, joyously floating from one place to another, that same silence between the lightening and thunder. A memory we all have of a moment we can’t seem to remember.

“Wow”, I heard myself whisper, my mouth opening in awe.

Her ashes made their way to the water’s surface and we began sailing away.

We turned back to look at our girl one last time, and she left us with one last message…

A ring had formed around her, where the tide stayed calm there, and only there. The tide had grown stronger and waves rippled wildly all around the circle, but the center remained completely still, entirely at peace.

She was at home now.

Losing your best friend doesn’t make sense. It opens a door you would have never opened on your own, to a place where love and pain coexist at volumes beyond our understanding. We will never fully grasp it, but in the midst of loss, the best we can do is get as close as possible to its contradictions and listen for the message that lies between.

I‘m still learning how to lose my best friend. But one thing I assure you is abundantly true is this:

There is great meaning to the end of life. Loss is always speaking to us if we are brave enough to listen.

Etched into my memory is the day we took Virginia to the Ocean after her second cancer surgery. She had been in painful recovery for months, and as we neared the beach she smelled the salty air and couldn’t contain herself. We pulled into the parking lot, and as soon as the car door opened she bounded out onto the shore, triumphantly galloping across the white sand, toward the Ocean waves, toward her home.

Ram Das’ words are the truest I know about life and death and friendship: “We’re all just walking each other home.”

Somehow after two years of not knowing how to lose my best friend, I finally understood how to walk her home.

And for that, she will forever be at my side now, walking me home too.

I read this poem at Virginia’s funeral as her ashes danced through the air. I hope it inspires you to be brave in the face of loss, and to sail forward, from this to that.

blessing the boats (at St. Mary’s)
Lucille Clifton — 1936–2010

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Photo credit (header): Benjamin Von Wong

I write about serious tech stuff for work. But here, I tell true tales from my wacky, wonderful life. (read more: www.christenobrien.com)

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