On a dreary winter day this past March, I experienced one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my entire life: the euthanasia of my dog, Hailey Mae. In a small back room at our vet’s office, I ran my fingers through her curly brown fur and watched as she slowly closed her eyes and drew her last breath. To say it was painful would be an understatement, and after it happened, I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to move on. Like I often do whenever I’m heartbroken, I stuffed myself silly with comfort food, listened to sad love songs, and watched old cartoon movies, including (somewhat regrettably) All Dogs Go to Heaven, but nothing seemed to work. That is, until I found Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, a beautiful collection of poetry and short prose that that helped me properly grieve and started to heal after the death of my beloved pet.
If you have ever lost a pet, than you know how incredibly excruciating the experience can be. It feels like losing a part of your family, a part of yourself even, and researched has confirmed that the death of a dog and the emotional, mental, and physical distress that follows is comparable to the death of a human loved one. Yet, there is no easy way to grieve your dog's death, and our culture is yet to develop a suitable, widely accepted way to mourn your loss, especially when those around you keep saying things like “it’s just a dog.”
Like so many other people who have said goodbye to a pet, I had no idea how to grieve, let alone to heal, after saying goodbye to Hailey. That is, until I stumbled upon Mary Oliver's Dog Songs in the poetry section of my local bookstore. I have always counted on books to help me through tough times, whether it be a rough breakup or a difficult life choice, so I shouldn’t have been that surprised to find my solace waiting for me on the shelf. It only took a few pages of the tender and stirring collection to help me realize that I wasn’t the only one who struggled after having loved and lost a furry friend. What’s more, it helped teach me that I was allowed to feel sad about Hailey’s death for as long as I needed, and that, someday, I would eventually heal.
Like all of Oliver's work, Dog Songs, which is comprised of touching poems and wisdom-laden. short prose celebrating the connection between people and their canine friends, is endlessly quotable. There are silly lines about daily life with dogs all pet owners will relate to, words about the kind of love and affection only dogs can give, and keen observations about the way our four-legged friends change the way we see the world. There are also heartfelt ruminations on living with a dog, what our furry friends add to our lives, and what they can teach us about love, life, and ourselves.
In one of my favorite poems from the collection, "Little Dog's Rhapsody in the Night," Oliver meditates on a dog's desire for human affection, and on the simple but pure joy giving we humans get by giving them our love:
“He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
'Tell me you love me,’ he says.
'Tell me again.’
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell."
If you’ve ever had the honor of owning a dog, you know this incredibly feeling, this stirring in your soul that happens every time your four-legged companion looks up at you and smiles.
In another one of my favorites, the heart-achingly accurate poem "The Sweetness of Dogs," Oliver expounds on this idea when she talks about the way in which humans are their dogs’ entire world. During an interaction with her own animal one beautiful evening, Oliver is "thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s /perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich / it is to love the world," while her dog, Percy, as she says, “leans against me and gazes up / into my face. As though I were just as wonderful / as the perfect moon."
And while there are plenty of pieces about love and joy and hope, there are also poignant poems and pieces of prose about the inevitable heartbreak and grief that comes with having, and losing, a dog. Of course, those were the ones I picked up the collection for, but I had no idea at the time just how much they would help me feel, and help me heal, my broken heart.
In a short piece of prose included in the collection, Oliver addresses what I was feeling, what I still feel now: Sorrow over the loss of my own dog, whose life, like all dogs, is tragically short. "Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also," Oliver writes, to me and to anyone who has ever lost and loved a loyal canine companion. "It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give."
But it is in her concluding essay that Oliver reaches into my very dog-loving soul to communicate exactly how Hailey made me feel: Like a better person, one with a bigger heart and a kinder soul.
“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased,” she writes. “It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?"
The answer to Oliver's last question is simple, at least for this canine-lover: A world without dogs is one without the possibility of pure love, true affection, and unwavering loyalty. I know that I am so, so lucky to have known, to have loved, and to have been loved by Hailey. Because of her, my world was a better place, and my heart will forever be a little bit bigger because of what she taught me. It’s something Oliver knows, too.