Author Emily Henry reflects on the loss that inspired her to write romance novels, where happy endings are guaranteed.
Illustration by Pete Reynolds for TIME

I was 26 years old when I wrote my first romantic comedy novel, and my childhood dog had just died. The day she passed, I’d driven up to my parents’ house, where she lay out in her favorite spot in the backyard. I sat beside her, slowly petting her. By then she was mostly deaf and blind, but even weeks earlier she was still managing to catch birds and drop them at our feet, horrifying little presents no one asked for or appreciated.

My mom had called earlier that day. Ceili had fallen down, and she couldn’t get back up. She was 16 years old then, with milky eyes and frizzy fur, and had been having seizures for years. We were braced for it, but that didn’t make it easier.

A vet was scheduled to come later that day, once my dad and brothers had a chance to say goodbye to her. In the end, it was just my mom and me, sitting in the sunshine on either side of her, petting her, murmuring things she couldn’t hear. As she took slow, deep breaths on a blanket in the grass, I told her I loved her again and again. Then I bent down to kiss her, and as I sat up, I already knew, she had drifted away from me in that moment, after 16 years. A lifetime for a dog, if that dog was very lucky.

We’d had Ceili since she was eight weeks old, and I was 10 (years, not weeks). She could fit in one hand then. First, she was a baby I looked after. Then she was a peer I ran through the backyard with. Then she became an old lady, who’d slowly waddle over to greet me when I came home from school for long weekends, her nub of a tail ticking like a metronome: I’m happy but I’m used to my happiness.

I held onto my mom while we both cried. I’m glad she’s no longer in pain, she told me, but I don’t think anyone will ever love me like she did. Important to note: my parents have been happily and lovingly married since 1975. But I knew what she meant, because no one would. Every love is a little bit different, and a love so complete, so unquestioning, so steady and forgiving is a rare love indeed. It’s the kind that leaves a hole, a bruise you want to press on, a piece of shrapnel you never want to pull out.

I cried on and off for months about that little dog. Not just because I knew I’d always miss her, but also because, for the first time in my life, I understood how inextricably linked love and loss are. Every time you let love in, you’re accepting a future grief.

And I wanted so badly to hide from that grief. I avoided books, movies, shows that reminded me of its inescapability, and when I started to write again, I moved into an entirely different genre than I’d ever written in before. I wanted to be lost in joy. I wanted to feel safe. I wanted the guarantee of a happy ending, so I wrote the one kind of story where that’s a prerequisite. I dove headfirst into romance.

But the truth is, I took my grief and fear with me. My happy, light rom-com became the story of a woman who’d lost her faith in happy endings, who was so fixated on the loss that love no longer seemed to gleam so bright. And I used that book as I’ve always used my writing, as a kind of interrogation of the world, and of myself.

How do you go on when the people you love betray you? When you lose the most important person in your life? What do you do when your fundamental beliefs about life are shaken?

I didn’t know then what I know now. I didn’t understand the true power, or even the purpose, of that familiar phrase: happily ever after. I wanted it to be a pile of sand I could bury my head under and instead it was a shovel. With the promise of some semblance of a happy ending for my main characters, I could dig deeper and deeper into their pain. I could explore their grief and their loss and all the ways the world had let them down, and most of all their fear: that maybe, in the end, it’s not worth it. That the pain of loving might outweigh the bliss of it.

Read More: How to Write a Romance Novel

And as I watched these two figments of my imagination—these two warring sides of my own mind—battle it out, fall together and break apart, and fight their way back to each other, it felt like I’d dug so deep I came out on the other side of my own grief. I tasted fresh air, saw the prickly light of a new sunrise.

When I wrote the last paragraph of that book, I wept. Because I knew, again, at last, that it was true.

“It was just another good day. A perfect day. A happy-for-now so vast and deep that I knew, or rather believed, I didn’t have to worry about tomorrow.”

That’s what we mean when we say happily ever after. Not that there is no more pain. Not that life will cease to ebb and flow, give and take. But that the joy is worth the pain.

That, in the end, the love weighs more than the loss.

Henry is a best-selling novelist and a member of the 2023 TIME100 Next list.

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