October 12, 2017. Roughly 2:30 PM. Lafayette, Colorado.
The universe couldn't have gifted us with a more beautiful autumn day; sunny and warm, with a gentle breeze sending vibrant red and orange and yellow leaves swirling onto the streets and sidewalks. The light was bright and even, the shooting conditions were basically perfect, yet the air was heavy with a certain kind of sadness - one I thought I was prepared for. But I wasn't.
On October 12, I wasn't shooting a regular session. No new puppy celebration, no pet birthday shenanigans, no day-hike documentation. On October 12, I was invited to spend time with Stoli, an 8 year old Golden Retriever, and his mom, Kathy, on his last day on this earth.
Sometimes, circumstance isn't kind. Stoli not only struggled with chronic seizures, but had also been battling cancer that caused an aggressive tumor to grow on the side of his throat. He could no longer swallow on his own. Breathing was becoming increasingly hard for him. And his parents were put in the position that no pet parent should ever have to face - what more can be done for Stoli? How much longer should he endure this pain?
So the compassionate decision was made. October 12, 2017 would be the end of Stoli's suffering, and the beginning of a long road to healing for his family, friends, sister Ginger, and all those whose lives he touched.
I knew what I was walking into. And I thought I was ready for it. But can you really prepare? Can you truly arrive at a place of peace knowing that this sweet soul, someone's whole world, still so full of light and love is going to be gone mere hours - not even, actually - after you put on your Professional Photographer Face and demeanor and try to bottle up some last moments of joy for your already grief-stricken client? It felt almost selfish to grieve, even a little bit, during the session. After all. this wasn't even my dog. I had only met him once before. Yet the tears came, quietly, and didn't stop.
I deal in photos because words are too hard to find. There is no language, spoken or written, for this kind of loss. No phrase or syntax to encompass the enormity of this grief and the hold it keeps on you. If you've lost a heart dog, you know.
And as heartbreaking as these sessions are, they're a large part of why I do what I do. Like Stoli's parents, and like many of you, I know that pain of losing your heart dog, and I've come to understand the importance of documenting and celebrating our pets' lives while we can. The photos we keep are some of a limited few artifacts representing their life of love. And they can be an integral part of the healing process - even when it seems like healing is impossible - for years to come.
I feel blessed and privileged that I was invited to be part of Stoli's last hours and share in the love and light he still generously gave. My earnest hope is that the photos I take bring healing, comfort, and joy to Stoli's family and friends as they grieve his loss and seek new sources of light in this dark time.
Rest well, sweet Stoli.
Soul Dog Studios
Colorado & Worldwide