A Valediction Forbidding Mourning but Really About a Dog



The poem with this title is of course John Donne’s, the 16th century British poet whose faith in the redemptive power of Christ made him one of the greatest religious poets of the English language. Donne believed in life everlasting. In turn he could write of death’s abandonment: Our two souls therefore, which are one,/Though I must go, endure not yet/A breach, but an expansion/Like gold to airy thinness beat.

According to Christianity life eternal leaves no one behind. And yet, and yet, oh how the pain of separation haunts us all. How I miss my friends and my parents. And how I miss my guide dogs who have gone to their graves. Would that I could feel all the losses as an expansion–a wider soul and not a breach.

You too, eh?

And walking this morning all disheveled in the fine autumn sun I found I was grieving for the loss of our black Labrador Roscoe who has been gone now for a year and some months. It was his ardor for the spectacle of life, his soul really, that I was grieving over. I’d give anything to hear his hilarious big Lab bark.  And how silly this must sound in a time of terrible losses; in a time of war and poverty. 

Silly man. Silly old grieving dog owner lamenting his poor estate.     

When I worked for Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York I used to lead grieving sessions for blind people whose guide dogs had died.  What did I know? I would ask myself this question over and over again. “How can I console anyone?” “What is the true shape of suffering?” We would sit in a circle, five or six blind people with our boxes of tissues and we’d talk about anything at all. Talking is the first order of business–that is, just get started. Even though your heart is broken, even though the grief is fresh and green, start talking. And talk we did.

Our guide dogs had saved our lives. They had been present for us in our every moment of waking, working, loving, traveling, heck, “being” and now we were alone and bereft of all that heartfelt steadiness of canine companionship. There we were, sitting in a circle among the untrustworthy bipeds. Forget that we all had blindness in common. We’re human and half crazy because of it, unlike our good dogs, oh those good dogs.

I remember one night a woman said: “God only gives us the burdens we can carry.” Some nodded ascent. (Yes, blind people know when other people are nodding.)

Just then I found I couldn’t nod. In fact I couldn’t say a thing.       

Being a poet and all, I remembered lines by Robert Herrick, another 16th century British poet: Bid me to weep, and I will weep/While I have eyes to see:/And, having none, yet I will keep/A heart to weep for thee.

I suppose that was my way of agreeing with the woman. My job is to weep. My job right now is to weep for thee. My job is to weep for the dog I have loved. To weep with all my heart. For the heart and soul are eternal only in love. And God Almighty love is hard. But who would not have love command every part of her life?

Isn’t that what our dogs teach us?

These dogs who transfuse our doubts into joys?

Didn’t we after all learn a thing or two from these dogs?

And so today I am sad, still missing old Roscoe, old Corky, Dear Old Vidal.

But the dogs say, rise and put on your foliage and sing.

That’s what they say. These dogs.



0 thoughts on “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning but Really About a Dog

  1. I, too, have heard that God gives us only burdens we can bear. My rejoinder is that I sometimes wish God didn’t have so much confidence in us.
    I miss Vidal, too. I also miss my precious Uma, dead just about a year. She guided me, in her own joyful way, through cancer, graduate school, and moving from a city I’d lived in 35 years.
    Never mind consoling us when we grieve. All we can do when another grieves is to bear witness. Maybe that’s why it is our job to weep.


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