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Celebration of Life Sessions: What to Expect and How to Prepare

I write to you from the other side of things—

Sitting in the vet office while I waited for my heart dog Nelle to wake up from her scans and tests, hearing that we had 1-2 weeks left is a feeling I know deeply, and if you're in similar position, know I am so deeply sorry. Nothing compares to the feeling. The sounds that came out of me while I sobbed, so loud that they moved me to a more private room. My breathing so ragged they sent a grief counselor in. Nothing helped. Nothing could. Until they brought Nelle back into the room with me. She rounded the corner and pushed her way through the door before the vets could fully open it, and immediately licked my face. She always knew how to comfort me.

I made a promise to her and myself the second I saw her face. We would not spend this week grieving. We'd spend it doing our most favorite things one more time and capturing it along the way. And I would stretch those memories out forever. I got to work planning immediately.

The first text I sent after getting the worst news I've ever received was to my best friend and business partner Julie, to ask her to do the hardest shoot she'll ever do. A celebration of life shoot for me and my best friend, my muse, my reason for becoming a dog photographer, my soulmate, my Nelle.

We planned the shoot for the next day. "Her decline will be rapid and come out of no where. Anytime within the next two weeks," they told me. They prepared me as best they could. Photos became the top priority, a privilege to having the business we do. I got three different shoots that day. We took it slow, knowing the emotions we'd be facing all too well.

Julie came over to my house the next day and captured our normal routine. Nelle would always lay in front of my espresso machine while I made my morning coffee, and I needed photos of that. And we always shared a banana together, her favorite food. We took our time capturing all the small little moments only she and I ever shared, now immortalized in photos.

Sharing ice cream with Nelle was one of my favorite things to do, and something we do here at Tails when one of our clients leaves the physical world. We got a large strawberry banana concrete from Andy's Frozen Custard and shared it. I was reminded of my grad school graduation photos—I had them taken with Nelle at Andy's in Missouri.

My college graduation present, Nelle. She was woven into each aspect of my life like golden silk, highlighting the best parts and making the worst parts okay somehow.

We drove to the mountains. Our stomachs holding only ice cream, the only thing I'd been able to eat that day. A banana, coffee, and ice cream.

I opened the car door and watched how excited she got to be in the mountains again. She trotted ahead as though we had been there before, but this was a path neither of us had walked before. She still lead fearlessly, turning back to call me forward as we walked to the picturesque vista laying before us.

I had planned our location before. The place I'd want our last shoot. Looking back, I feel silly. All of the required miles of hiking, inaccessible to a dog with cancer filling her lungs so full that I worried as she trotted toward the trees after a squirrel. Her breathing stable, but labored. Not as calm as it used to be.

So we went to a place we had never been before. We began with the only pose I thought of wanting. The only one that felt important. Nelle, running toward me, photographed from the side. I caught myself choking down the urge to cry and calmed myself. No. This was going to be joyous. The feelings these photos would bring back to me would be happy and joyful as if none of this was real. I could pretend. So I did. There were spectacular moments where just for a minute, l let myself believe none of it was real. That forever was an option and the doom awaiting us wasn’t real. We smiled and giggled and played in the snow. Nelle dug a stick from the deep snow and proudly paraded it around. We chased the light and leaned into the delusion together.

We’d mosey over to a spot, she’d look up at me and I’d crouch down to hug and love on her. So we ended up with a lot of kiss photos. And sweet unposed moments. No signature pose of her on my shoulders, or poses I’d been working on with her the last month. None of that mattered anymore. Just the way we were. That’s all I wanted. I wore overalls and an orange shirt to match her.

And it was perfect. Genuinely perfect. It was hard to be thinking about how perfect the shoot felt. I begged for something to go wrong so I could sink into sadness and doom, but somehow, the light kept changing and becoming more and more magical. Snow blew in from the surrounding mountains and offered a glittering shimmer. I kept catching Nelle looking at me; Julie captured those moments. No one else up where we were. 360 views, Nelle's tail wagging fiercley, she loved photoshoots. Loved the camera.

We kept taking photos, knowing that when it was over, we'd have to admit what was going on. "One more" we kept saying, something we've said to every client "just one more" but here it felt different. And when those moments ended and the grave reality flooded in, every fear flashed in front of me in the cruelest light. Our last shoot together.

I breathed deeply when we finally decided we couldn't take anymore. When our fingers had gone numb. Nelle wasn't ready to jump back in the car, but she did. Julie didn't want to put the lens cap back on, but she did. I wanted to cement my feet into the ground and freeze there, but I climbed back in the car instead.

Getting ready for that shoot, being present for it, and going through the photos is the hardest thing I did in her final days, but even with all the photos I have of her, I cannot express how valuable these last ones are to me. It felt like I wasn't in my body, but forced myself to be for those moments.

They are what I hold onto today. I scroll through my album of photos every single day. I write about them. I close my eyes and I can feel the exact moment they were taken, with every emotion I've ever felt all wrapped up into pixels on a screen. Other than my friends, photos are the only thing I can look at and smile.

The clumps of hair left on my carpet I can't bring myself to vacuum, her leash hanging on its hook untouched, the nose prints on my car windows, her foot bowl, chuck it ball, they bring my emotions seeping out of me in tears. The photos bring me burning hot happy tears and I cannot help but smile through the pain. They've stretched her eight short years into infinity.

She had just turned eight. We were supposed to have more time.

A small part of me doesn’t want to get through this. Shrink down to a depth only I know. But the rest of me, the parts that are because of her shine through, calling me forward. I want to get through this. I want to feel everything and that... is because of her. I want to feel your pain too.

When you arrive to your celebration of life shoot, you'll see the pain in my eyes, knowing all too well the hurt you feel. Let me hold onto it for you while we celebrate your best friend. I can handle it. And you can forget and get lost in the moment and celebrate your dog's life. We can talk about their favorite things and tell each other stories and create the most beautiful memories together.

We'll capture all the little details. Their nose, their ear fluffs, their tail, all of it. And we'll photograph all the special moments between poses. Give yourself permission to get lost in the moment and be yourself with your dog, silly or stoic. Get the zoomies with them, let them be naughty, let yourself smile.

Memories to last 700 dog years. <3

My name is Ellen and my heart dog Nelle died from an aggressive cancer called hemangiosarcoma on April 2nd, 2024. These are our final photos together.

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