Mary Oliver, Brother Phap Dung, and Small White Dogs (My Dog Is Dying, Part III)


The title of this blog says almost everything.

I will add a few things, though. This time is EXCRUCIATING. So much so that I will not be answering phone calls for the foreseeable future. Answering emails will be touch and go… and forgive me if you comment on this series of blogs and I don’t respond. Although writing this provides a temporary pain-killer of a sort (and since I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs, I am grateful for it), responding to people is very hard.

I know the world is awash in horrors at the moment. (When hasn’t it been?) I know agony and death are all around all of us, all the time. War and plague and the climate catastrophe and poverty and cancer and children with horrible diseases and lonely, frightened elders ….. I know there is something privileged and maybe even selfish about my agony. I know, but please don’t say cruel things if you’re going to comment, please.

I hope those of you who, like me, have had your life saved by a dog and who understand the contract for heartbreak we enter into when we love a dog, might see some of your own journeys here and might know you’re not alone. I am very grateful you are reading this. I will try to continue these blogs until …. 


I should perhaps give this blog a subtitle, “My dog is dying, but not quite yet.” The same could be said of any one of us, of course, at any given moment.

Mary Oliver, who knew a thing or two about life and grief and death and joy, loved a small white dog named Percy. Here is a poem she wrote about him and his wisdom:

Mary Oliver and Percy (photo by Rachel Giese Brown)

I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life” by Mary Oliver

Love, love, love, says Percy.
And hurry as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.

Then, go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
Then, trust.

I can’t get through reading that poem without crying. The breath going out, one last time, in the final line, making way for trust. Trust. It’s too perfect. To agonizing. But I live in that hope of trust.

I, too, love a small white dog, who is named Bailey, and I am his, utterly, completely. I have been since the first day we first laid eyes on each other, back in 2010. Now, my lovely vet, Dr. Kim, tells me his time on earth is coming to an end. It’s hard to believe, on days like this, when his tail is wagging every minute he’s awake and he loves his food and his walk and wants to play… but with the masses on his liver and lungs, I can’t deny it.

My dog is dying.

Someone told me recently, Don’t tarnish the present with the grief of the future. In other words, he’s not dead yet. (Yes, I hear you Monty Python fans.) No, he’s not dead yet, and no one is more keenly aware of that than I, since he is, as Edith Wharton said of her dog, “the heartbeat at my heels.” And of course, I have always known that short of some unforeseen event I would outlive him.

As he has aged — got a bit warty, lost his hearing, limps a bit, got picky about his food — I have tried to practice meditating on death (his, my own, that of My Best Beloved), in the hopes it would help me accept the inevitable. Sort of a spiritual frog-in-cold-to-boiling-water practice.

Or, perhaps I can point to someone who puts it more poetically, such as Brother Phap Dung who now runs Plum Village, the center for mindfulness founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. Br. Dung was asked about Thich Nhat Hanh’s impending death and said this:

Dharma teacher, Brother Phap Dung

My practice is not to wait for the moment when he [Thich Nhat Hanh] takes his last breath. Each day I practice to let him go, by letting him be with me, within me, and with each of my conscious breaths. He is alive in my breath, in my awareness.

Breathing in, I breathe with my teacher within me; breathing out, I see him smiling with me. When we make a step with gentleness, we let him walk with us, and we allow him to continue within our steps. Letting go is also the practice of letting in, letting your teacher be alive in you, and to see that he is more than just a physical body.”

So I sit with that each day. I breathe in Bailey. I breathe out and let him be within me in the eternal place where there is no separation. I have flashes of eternity. They are like faint, impossibly small candle flames way down at the bottom of the bottomless well, or way out there in the cosmos, farther than human senses can perceive, but out there still.

It seems there is no limit to the things a small white dog can teach a person, perhaps how to live, how to grieve, and how to let go.

My dog is dying.

And yet, even so, or perhaps especially now, he remains one of my greatest teachers.


  1. Laila Watkins on April 24, 2022 at 12:39 pm

    Dear Lauren, how beautiful a post, thank you for sharing this. I love the combination of insights on life, living, and death from Mary Oliver and Brother Pham Dung. And what a great photo of Bailey.
    warm regards, Laila

  2. Beverly Trader Austin on May 6, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    I love this, along with my memories of a gifted student.

  3. Anne R Mountain on May 8, 2022 at 4:30 pm

    I love you and Bailey. I do not know what to say. Your writing blasted me with that “Lauren says feel it and look deeper” that only you bring out in me. I love all 3 of you and the life you share.

  4. Anne Moore on September 30, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    Oh, dear Lauren, how perfect your post. I too had a little white dog, named Willa, and she too, was the heartbeat at my heels. She died just 7 weeks ago and the grief came close to killing me – I do not know how I made it through each day, but there were daily thunderstorms of wailing and weeping. I too read Mary Oliver – her book “Dog Songs” – and what a comfort. I especially loved another poem to Percy “For I Will Consider MY Dog Percy” because Willa also ” came to me impaired and therefore certain of short life, yet thoroughly rejoiced in each day” “For when (s)he sickened (s)he rallied as many times as (s)he could”, with great spirit. There were many grievings long before the time she died, but not one of those advance mournings made a difference when it came to the final one. I still had to crawl through the sludge at the bottom of the ocean of darkness. So my heart is with you, although by now your heart has probably lifted some, as mine is beginning to do. Still. I am going to send your post to another person who has just lost one little white dog this week, and is going to lose the other little white dog very soon. I know it will help her. Thank you.

    • Lauren on September 30, 2022 at 1:11 pm

      Anne, I am heartbroken for you. Dear Willa. I’m so sorry. Thunderstorms… yes. My heart has not lifted, but also has not yet crashed into the deepest depths because, against all odds, Baily is still with us. It’s a mystery how he survives and seems to be, yet, himself.

      I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me. You are someone who has loved a wee creature as deeply as I have and survived their passing. This gives me hope. Perhaps I will survive the loss. I came across this poem, which also lights the path:

      To Speak by Denise Levertov

      To speak of sorrow
      works upon it
                      moves it from its
      crouched place barring
      the way to and from the soul’s hall—
      out in the light it
      shows clear, whether
      shrunken or known as
      a giant wrath—
      at least, where before

      its great shadow joined
      the walls and roof and seemed
      to uphold the hall like a beam.

  5. Anne Moore on October 5, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    Lauren, thank you, that poem is beautiful and right. I am glad you are being blessed with more precious hours with this dear (and utterly adorable) friend of your heart and soul. What astonished me – I didn’t expect and I didn’t imagine it – was that I felt Willa all around me, with me, in spirit,for 6 weeks after she died – she didn’t leave. I woke up the next morning and felt the atmosphere and exclaimed to my husband, “She’s not gone!” because the house was full of her strong presence, and even now 8 weeks on I feel her around, though with a lighter touch. I don’t have an explanation and I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but It’s now beginning to feel like something ongoing, though I am still wrestling outwardly with the wound of separation, lonely and longing, sometimes desperately, for her tangible, physical presence. But then I am OK, and joy is returning, and then I am not OK, and then I am, and so it goes…..Nothing to do but be there right smack and vulnerable, and dying too, in the middle of it. I think we are afraid of it because we feel we will die too – and for myself I found it worked to just say yes, to surrender to die also, inside…and I still feel like I am dying from it, and at the same time it feels like green sprouts are growing up from that dark, dense soil. I’m so sorry you must also go through this most excruciating loss. You will survive, and later I am pretty sure you will thrive. Much love to you, Anne

    • Lauren on October 6, 2022 at 12:35 pm

      Much love to you, Anne. That surrender, I suspect, is everything. I take hope in your experience, and thank you so much for sharing it.

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