The Best Goodbye

Berit enjoyed her last morning in her beloved Lake Calhoun for her Joy Session.  It was a grey day which was apparently very "Berit" weather.  Photos by Sarah Ernhart, Sarah Beth Photography.
Berit enjoyed her last morning in her beloved Lake Calhoun for her Joy Session.  It was a grey day which was apparently very "Berit" weather.  Photos by Sarah Ernhart, Sarah Beth Photography.

A Joy Session with sweet Charlotte. Photo by Sarah Ernhart, Sarah Beth Photography

Erin Hennessey had been looking for a golden retriever for several months when she finally met a gentle soul named Sadie.  “It was love at first sight.  I wanted a golden my whole life, and when I saw her, I knew she was the right one,” Hennessey begins.  “You’d never know that the beginning of her life wasn’t perfect.  She was so full of excitement and love and joy.”  Six and a half year old Sadie spent her next two years happily part of the family, along with Kevin Hennessey, Erin’s husband, and a cockapoo named Trixie.

One day Sadie stopped eating, and a trip to the vet revealed that she had a mast cell tumor that had spread to her blood.  The diagnosis was terminal.  Chemo would be very unpleasant for Sadie, but would allow her to live for three more weeks, as opposed to one week of relative comfort.  “We made the decision to let her go naturally.  We just didn’t want to put her through any more pain,” states Hennessey.

Hennessey immediately reached out to Dr. Karen Randall of Solace Veterinary Hospice, who provides in-home care to pets with terminal illness or chronic conditions.   Although some vets would have immediately offered to euthanize Sadie, Randall found that Sadie’s pain could be managed with medication, and giving her one good last week allowed her family and friends to say goodbye.

Randall explains, “Generally I deal with pets with a terminal illness when a client has either made a decision to not pursue treatment, or there isn’t treatment, or treatment has worked for a while and has failed.  They have come to terms with the fact that their pet’s days are numbered, and for so many families, they want to minimize hospitalization and visits to the vet, and taking their pets to a place where there can be a lot of anxiety.  So to be able to provide care in the home can be a really wonderful experience for the patient and also for the families that are caring for them.”

Erin and the gentle soul named Sadie. Photo by Sarah Ernhart, Sarah Beth Photography

Moreover, hospice care can have quite a significant impact on a pet’s quality of life.  Randall says, “Many times I come in and see pets because their owners are considering euthanasia because their problems are affecting the quality of life so much.  We do what we can for pain management, and change the environment.  Some of the animals I saw in the spring of last year are still thriving in their homes.”

Hennessey also called photographer Sarah Ernhart of Sarah Beth Photography.  Ernhart specializes in pet photography (her work is featured throughout this issue), and was inspired by the deep relationship a client had with her service dog, Joy.   After capturing some of their last moments together, Ernhart decided to offer what she now calls “Joy Sessions” at a reduced rate to other pet owners whose pets who will soon be passing.  Ernhart states, “It’s not something that you might think about doing.  But I’ve had almost every single Joy client come back and say how grateful they are to have these photos, and how helpful it’s been with the grieving process.”

Joy Session with a dear cat, Kiki. Photo by Sarah Ernhart, Sarah Beth Photography

Ernhart is often booked months out, but she makes time for Joy Sessions when they are needed.  It’s always helpful if you can schedule them in advance, especially when your pet is feeling more like their normal selves, but not every client has that option, and Ernhart understands that.  Her sessions are individualized, and often focus on a pet’s favorite things and places to go, and showcasing the strong bond between pet and owner.  “One dog loved Chicken McNuggets, so we went to McDonalds, and I got a picture of the dog sticking his head out of the car at McDonalds,” Ernhart recalls.

After Sadie’s Joy Session, Randall came to help her pass without any pain.   Hennessey remembers, “We spent some time saying goodbye, maybe about half an hour, saying how much I loved her and the story of how I found her.  I told her what a good girl she was, and my favorite memories.  Then we sedated her, and Karen gave her something to stop her heart.  And I held Sadie for about an hour when she was gone…it was the perfect goodbye.  There was nothing left unsaid.”

The passing of a beloved friend is never easy, but there are also beautiful ways to honor their physical bodies that offer more to a grieving owner than what’s usually available through a veterinary clinic.  Just last fall, husband and wife team Skip Wyland and Carol Noren founded Pets Remembered, which provides a more sensitive approach to pet cremation.   Noren says, “We cremate pets one at a time, and we typically offer a 24 hour turnaround….so people can have their ashes returned immediately, and we offer personalized service.  Skip’s background was as a funeral director.  I was a pastor for many years and a hospice chaplain.”  She adds, “We offer pickup and delivery, but for those who come to our place, we…enjoy sitting around the table and having coffee, and having people tell us about their pet.  That’s part of the process is to share memories.”

Berit enjoyed her last morning in her beloved Lake Calhoun for her Joy Session. It was a grey day which was apparently very "Berit" weather. Photos by Sarah Ernhart, Sarah Beth Photography.

Pets Remembered has an open door policy, is available even on the weekends, and allows owners to bring their pet in and say goodbye in private.  And while it is common practice elsewhere to charge pet owners, rather insensitively, by the pound, Pets Remembered offers a standard, reasonable rate that includes a beautifully carved urn.  Wyland and Noren are also adding more personal remembrances, including garden markers, wind chimes and urns made by local artists, and they are happy to donate any remaining medicines and food to be repurposed at Paws for a Cause, a shelter serving animals in the five state area.

Nothing can take away a pet owner’s grief, nor should it.  “The pain is just a reflection of the love,” Hennessey states.  But giving your pet a beautiful and graceful end to life can help you feel that your journey together was complete.  She concludes, “It can be a very peaceful goodbye.  It’s part of life.  It’s natural, but it was beautiful that I had the resources to give her a proper goodbye.”



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