To so many, pets are members of the family -- and losing those loved ones can be heartbreaking.
Minneapolis, Minnesota-based pet photographer Sarah Ernhart has found a way to beautifully memorialize the love and happiness canine companions bring into their owners' lives through something she calls, "Joy Sessions."
Ernhart began arranging these poignant final portrait sessions of sick and elderly pets back in 2010. She offers them at a reduced rate and often schedules them on an emergency basis, if needed.
She came up with the name for the sessions after meeting two very special clients just before Christmas 2009. She had been asked to photograph Joan, who was then living in hospice, and her service dog, Joy. "Joy was her rock, her best friend and had saved Joan’s life on more than one occasion," Ernhart, owner of Sarah Beth Photography, says in a statement on her website.
"She would let Joan know when her blood sugar was low and if she was about to have a seizure. Joy would place herself under Joan to break her fall, stand firm to help her up and was by her side day and night."
According to the photographer, even though Joan didn't have much time left, the bond between owner and dog was palpable. Ernhart said Joan's apartment was filled with the word “Joy” in artwork, pillows and Christmas decorations, and she even wore a “Joy” sweatshirt during the session. The name "Joy Sessions" is a loving tribute to that loving pair.
Ernhart told HLN she finds these special photography sessions to be "a mix of both sadness and joy. I'm there because the animal is dying, and it's very emotional for the owners but, at the same time, I'm there to help them celebrate their lives together and preserve the love -- and joy -- they share."
When families later see the photos, Ernhart said "tears are inevitably shed."
Often the pets have recently passed away and "it can be tough to revisit the images."
Ernhart said she always keeps a box of tissues close by. She hopes her photography reminds people to take photos of themselves with their animals. "We all take tons of snapshots of our pets, but we're almost never in the images. Whether you hire a professional or invite a friend over, please take some photos of you and your pet," stressed Ernhart.
"You don't need to show them to anyone, but it's so important -- after they're gone -- to have those tangible memories to look back on."