I tucked our little boy, Nathan, into bed and went back to the kitchen to button things up for the night. Five minutes later I heard the sobs. I went back upstairs, pulled him into my lap, and asked, “Is it about Andie?” He gasped “yes!” and curled into a puddle on my chest.

We’d had to euthanize our thirteen-year-old golden retriever, Andie, a few days earlier. Andie was purchased as a puppy for our oldest daughter, Jackie, a year and a half after her little sister, Lauren, was killed. Andie had originally been chosen as a Paws With A Cause puppy, trained to assist people with disabilities. But the breeder thought that we needed this pup to help heal the hole in our lives, and she made sure we got this perfect little female.

I think about that incredible act of kindness, what a gentle gesture that was, and how this sweet dog truly changed our lives, and I am full of overwhelming gratitude, as I was when we first brought her home.

Truly, Andie was a perfect dog. I can’t write about her exasperating puppyhood (except for the one time when, left in the car with Jackie’s favorite stuffed animal, a Peter Rabbit Jackie had loved since birth, Andie casually ate its head. In her defense, that bunny really did smell like cookies.) I can’t tell funny stories about an obnoxious animal that we loved anyway. She was the symbol of our hearts as they began to heal, of our acceptance that life goes on even when our world had stopped existing as we knew it, of embracing that new life. And she was Jackie’s companion as she began navigating her adolescence with parents who were trying their hardest to be present for her and who humanly failed on a frequent basis.

There’s a widely quoted poem that begins, “Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.” It addresses our pets’ immortality, because surely the animals who share our lives have their own place in heaven. But the more I think of it, the more I think Rainbow Bridge is also a metaphor for the healing and love that pets bring to our lives. Andie kept us tethered here, physically and emotionally, as we cared for her over the years, and as we struggled to make sense of life after Lauren’s death. Andie’s physical presence and unconditional love was the powerful force for our family that helped build the bridge from overwhelming grief to health and healing.

Two and a half years after Andie joined our family, we were blessed with our third child, Nathan. It’s difficult to describe the myriad fears of having a child after another child dies, but for us, Andie’s companionship was powerfully reassuring; she provided a tangible contribution that helped dissipate our fear of bringing another child into the world. I truly think she was an angel dog.

Andie was attentive and smart and loving and obedient. When we lived in California for a brief time, she figured out that it was easier to snatch lemons from the tree in the backyard than to wait for me to find her a tennis ball to fetch. (She had the whitest teeth that summer.) She opened doors and gates and learned to count. And she was gentle with us, even when we failed to interact with her on her intelligence level. We are a dog-focused family, but careers and children’s needs take up a lot of time, and Andie spent much of her life napping. Still, another good portion of that life was spent in the pond on our property, swimming to fetch tennis balls. I couldn’t keep weight on her in the summer months–she spent the days with the kids in the pond, making sure they were safe from stray balls tossed into the water.

In the last few days of her life, when movement was so difficult, she would still play a simple game of fetch, although we had to toss the ball directly into her mouth, a foot away. Then she’d drop it at our feet and wait for the next throw, tail wagging, seemingly accepting of her devastating physical limitations.

As pets age, and we know that their short lives must end before ours, there can be such a fear of the grief we know will come. Jackie shared with me that her biggest fear was that losing Andie would somehow mean losing Lauren again; that the rainbow bridge would come crashing down around our ears. Andie was, after all, more than just the best dog ever, she was the representation of our healing.

But as Andie took less and less joy in her days, we all knew it was time to let her walk across that bridge, pain free. It was her turn; she’d already done so much for us.

What we found since her death is that even though she’s not physically here, the bridge holds strong. The healing remains. She left us whole.

As Nathan cried in my arms last night, he asked, “Couldn’t we have kept Andie alive for one more day?!”

Oh, my sweetheart, yes. I wish we could have had one more day. And one more after that. And another and another and another after that. But she was so ill, and she was too good a dog to make her endure that for us. Although she would have, readily, tail wagging with patience and acceptance, eagerly waiting for the tennis ball.

But it was her turn.

I think she’ll be there, waiting for us on the other side of Rainbow Bridge, tail wagging, tennis ball ready. Until then, we will miss her every day.

Stotlar is founder of the Kite Network peer grief support group. thekitenetwork.org.