After Losing My Dog, Neighbors on Nextdoor Loaned Me Their Own Pups to Grieve

We recently lost our beloved golden retriever, Layla. Her departure left an enormous hole in the house and in our hearts at a time when we needed her never-ending joyfulness, compassion, and affection more than ever. Losing a pet might seem like a small tragedy compared to the ongoing pandemic, but it devastated us nonetheless.

Layla

Because of COVID restrictions, our family has been mourning alone at home. As I floundered around in my grief, desperately missing the intimate physical, emotional, and spiritual relationship with this innately loving creature, an idea came to me. On some levels, it was a little strange, but I decided to step outside my comfort zone.

I put an ad up on Nextdoor Sorich Park, our neighborhood online bulletin board in Marin County, California, with the headline “Grieving Family Needs Canine Healing.” Attaching a picture of Layla, I said I’d love to take a neighbor’s dog for a walk or just play in the yard, assuring readers that I’ve been practicing strict safety measures.

I also mentioned that I would be particularly interested in meeting other golden retrievers; I like almost all dogs, but once you’ve had a golden, you gain lifetime membership to a club where you naturally gravitate to fellow devotees.

Within minutes of posting, the likes, emojis, and comments started rolling in—a stream that soon turned into a flood. There were expressions of sympathy, stories of people’s own losses, and recommendations for local golden retriever adoptions.

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Many included photos of their own pets; two sent beautiful poems; and one included a link to an online pet grief support group. I even got a message from the San Rafael Police Department to visit with their official comfort dog. Best summons I’ve ever received.

Over the following week, I received 420 responses, including 140 comments. I was simply overwhelmed by this outpouring of empathy. Messages from 25 previously unknown neighbors welcomed me to come meet their pups, 15 of them golden retrievers. How could complete strangers be so generous during a health crisis, when we’re so focused on our own well-being?

As the offers kept rolling in, I realized I’d struck a rich vein of humanity at a time when we genuinely need more personal connection. While all of us want to feel loved, I believe we have an equally primal need to give love, and dogs bless us with abundant opportunities to express our devotion.

I work from home, so I saw Layla all day, every day, and I rarely passed her without stopping to rub her soft head, neck, back, or belly, feeling a gentle jolt of loving energy move up my arm and into my heart and brain. Over our 12 years together, I can honestly say that I relished every single stroke.

People always talk about the tenderness, lack of judgment, and unconditional love they receive from their dogs, but I also know that Layla continually called forth these same qualities in me. I think the reason people responded so viscerally to my ad was that it enabled them to share their best friends and best selves.

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Two weeks after my post ran, I began arranging play times. It was almost like Tinder, where I kept swiping right for my next candidate. I’m now up to six dates, ages 10 weeks to 11 years. It turns out there’s a sweet little golden right down the block who became an instant friend.

And talk about magic — after a few minutes of sitting together with the police dog, Blue, he suddenly put his front legs on my shoulders to give me a hug. I would have started crying if I weren’t smiling so hard underneath my mask. Somehow, he just knew.

Paul with Blue the police service dog

Under the Bay Area’s stay-at-home orders, we’re only supposed to go out for groceries, prescriptions, and outdoor exercise. The get-togethers with my new furry buddies fit all these criteria: food for my soul, strong medicine for my grief, and fresh air for me and my canine companion.

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Although my heart still aches, I’m also filled with gratitude — both for my cherished friendship with Layla, and the unexpected kindness of so many strangers. And the bonus lesson from this wondrous experience: They were right next door all this time.

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