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Thoughts on Loss, Grief, and Gotcha Days

Trigger warning: a dog's death is discussed in this post. 

It's Charlie's 6th Gotcha Day! It's hard to believe that it's been 6 years, and at the same time, 2017 feels so long ago. A different era. 

Charlie came into our lives on a Friday afternoon. We had lost our dog Phinneas just a month or so before, and while my partner wouldn't have chosen to get another dog so quickly, I found PetFinder to be a fantastic outlet to distract myself from the grief of losing our best friend. For those of you who don't know me personally (and maybe some of you who do), what I am about to share is very personal and vulnerable, so please be kind.

Phinneas was a Chihuahua-Mini Schnauzer mix who my partner purchased from a six week old litter in an Ikea parking lot in 2008, long before we met. Phinny had a HUGE personality - smart, talkative, and so deeply bonded to his person. For nine years, Phinny went everywhere with Gregg. He was the ultimate shop dog, content to curl up on Gregg's puffy jacket on his work table, and always in the shop kitchen at lunch time, soliciting handouts. Phinny had a seat at our dining table, and he slept next to Gregg's head on the pillow every night. Phinny joined us on our first date, and the three of us spent those first couple of summers together backpacking and road tripping. Phinny was Gregg’s shadow. It was clear from the moment I met Gregg that Phinny was the most important thing in Gregg’s life. They were inseparable. Gregg loved that dog so much. 

A man stands holding a white terrier dog next to an old Isuzu truck.

A boy and his dog (and his truck)

One February evening in 2017, at the end of a long work day, Gregg parked his truck across the street from the apartment that we were living in at the time. He opened the passenger door for Phinny, and Phinny hopped out. Gregg grabbed a couple bags of groceries from the back of the truck, and Phinny, eager to get inside, hopped off the sidewalk and started to cross the street ahead of Gregg (without a leash on). In a moment of cosmically awful timing, a car flew up our residential street from the main artery one street over, blew a stop sign, and struck Phinny. The car never slowed down. Phinny died a few minutes later in Gregg's arms on the way to the vet. 

It was a truly awful night, and the grief in the days, weeks, and months after was raw and bone deep, especially for Gregg. I had never seen him openly weep before. I had never really seen him cry. He was devastated. My heart hurt so deeply for him losing his best friend in such a traumatic way. It happened so quickly. There was no time to process, to say goodbye, to prepare. I can’t say I’ve even fully processed what happened, even years later. But that night was woven into the fabric of who I have become since, as a person and as a dog professional. I’m sure that it heightened my awareness of how things can change in an instant. And I know for a fact that it increased my understanding of how vulnerable our pets are, and how important it is to keep them on leash if we are anywhere even remotely close to a road. We tend to never think that the worst will happen, and unfortunately, sometimes it can, and it does. I hope that I never experience something like that ever again. 

A few weeks after the accident we gathered with a bunch of close friends at the Albany Bulb, Phinny's favorite beach spot. The beach was Phinny's favorite place in the world. He would always find a stick and bring it to you and then bark continuously until you threw it in the water for him. We all shared memories and recollections of Phinny, and at the end, we did a group howl (Phinny always howled when he heard sirens and it was the cutest little sound you've ever heard), and Gregg scattered some of his ashes in the water. It was a fitting tribute, and I think it was especially healing for Gregg to know that so many people in his community were willing to show up and hold space for him and the love he had for his dog. 

A white terrier dog at the beach

Phinny at the beach 

As for myself, when I am lost or adrift, I look for a project. In this case, I decided that it was time for me to adopt my first dog as an adult. I dove deep, searching through hundreds of PetFinder profiles, looking for that perfect pup that could heal our broken hearts and bring some joy into our lives. 

I wish I had saved Charlie's profile pic. Listed as a corgi mix, and available at our local Berkeley Humane Society, "Peanut" had comically large ears and a stoic expression. He was medium sized, estimated to be 7 years old, and available for adoption. He checked all the boxes for me, so I drove down to the Humane Society after my hikes one Friday afternoon to meet him. 

I still remember when the shelter volunteer brought him out from the side door of the building so that I could walk him around the block. His ears were truly huge, and his body was oddly proportioned - big head, muscly shoulders, long spine, short legs, and an angelic face, with fine features and soulful brown eyes. He had a velvety soft fawn coat, lighter around his face, belly, and legs. The first adjective that came to mind was “unbothered.” He didn't seem shut down, fearful, or jumpy and frantic. He seemed utterly unfazed by the whole situation. We took a non eventful walk around the block, stopping on a stoop for a few minutes to watch the world go by. He let me pet him and scratch him around those huge ears, and when I did he tilted his head at a crazy angle, closed his eyes, and pulled his lips back in an ecstatic grimace. I knew before we got back that he was going to come home with me. 

a reddish dog with large ears stands on a picnic table

Charlie and those unforgettable ears 

I don’t know much about Charlie’s back story. I know that he was transfered to Berkeley Humane from the City of Stockton Municipal Shelter, and that he had been “confiscated.” I actually reached out to the shelter to see if I could find out more. They replied, "This dog was abandoned and was never claimed by their previous owner." It used to drive me crazy wondering what Charlie’s life had looked like before. I don’t think he was mistreated or abused. He hadn’t been neutered prior to arriving at the shelter, so we joke that there may be a lot of Charlie lookalikes in Stockton. I don’t think about it so much anymore. He had a life before us, but he’s been in our life for so long now that it doesn’t seem to matter. 

Charlie fit into our lives seamlessly from the beginning, and I thank my lucky stars every day for that. Charlie bonded quickly with Gregg, and much to my chagrin, identified Gregg as his favorite person pretty much right away. He got along wonderfully with my parent’s dog selective Jack Russell mix, Claire, one of the few dogs that I’ve seen him consistently solicit play from. Charlie and Claire love to jaw wrestle and chase each other around the house, and watching them together brings me so much joy. During our early years with Charlie I did a lot of boarding for my dog walking clients, and he was never bothered about sharing space with them. 

two reddish dogs lay on a bed, one is sleeping and one is trying to play.


When Max, our human child, came along in 2019, Charlie didn’t break character. He would just follow us around the house with his giant ears and soulful expression, curling up next to us while Max was nursing or taking a nap in my arms. Although he has a stoic exterior and a loud, deep bark, Charlie is a huge softie. He loves nothing more than ear scratches, belly rubs, and close proximity to his people. In the evenings he curls up in between us like a baby fox, and in the morning we’re greeted with face kisses. When Gregg and Max do legos on weekend mornings, Charlie trots over, plops himself down on the legos, and rolls over for belly rubs. Charlie is obsessed with Max’s stuffies and will now bring them to us and drop them at our feet, eagerly awaiting a treat. 

A red dog naps in a sandbox while a toddler plays nearby

Charlie, unbothered and sleeping in the sandbox

Quite possibly Charlie’s favorite thing, though, is his morning sniff walk. He gets to choose it all - where to go, for how long, what to sniff. We used to hike in the mornings, but I honestly think he prefers our neighborhood walks. He always seems so clear on where he wants to go. I love watching him strut along in front of me on his sturdy little legs, stopping suddenly to investigate a smell, or pausing out of the blue to turn back to me and check in for a treat. It’s one of my favorite parts of the day. It forces me to slow down and focus on something other than myself and my stresses for a while. It’s also deeply satisfying to know that I’m giving him a chance to meet this basic, universal need for autonomy and choice. 

a reddish dog in a fuschia harness sniffs some grass on a walkCharlie deep in sniff mode on a walk

Charlie has been with our family through a lot over the last six years. Three moves, job changes, starting businesses, life changes, a human child, a pandemic. I know it hasn’t all been easy for him, and I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. We are by no means perfect dog guardians, and Charlie has plenty of behaviors that I’m not crazy about. Sometimes I don’t have much left to give to Charlie at the end of the day, and I fall short at giving him what he needs to truly thrive. But that’s the thing about dogs - they don’t hold anything against us. They wake up each morning ready and hopeful for a few simple things - food, walks, snuggles, and some play and enrichment. They ask for so little, and there are more days than I’d like to admit where he gets the bare minimum. But I hope that I can look back and believe that for the most part I did right by him, that I helped him to feel safe and comfortable during his time with us. 

Our best guess is that Charlie is around 11 now (we think the shelter may have overestimated his age by a couple of years). More pure white is creeping into his face, and he has some stiffness in his back and knees that we’re doing our best to manage. Sometimes when I come home he keeps on sleeping and doesn’t hear me. I’m hoping we have several more years together. I hope that our son remembers Charlie, his first dog, for the rest of his life. I hope that we’ll know when it’s time to say goodbye, and we'll have time to process if, even though it’ll be too soon. I hope I’ll always remember the feel of his velvety neck, his loose folds of skin, his sturdy little legs, and those soulful brown eyes. I hope he’ll somehow sense how much I loved him, and that he made me a better person, just just being himself. 

So glad we gotcha, buddy. 

a reddish dog sleeps on a couch