Legacy Hospice Volunteer and photographer captures precious final moments with pets
October 24, 2014
We live in a culture that doesn't like to discuss death, let alone look at it.
Yet pet owners who ask Portland-based photographer Kristin Zabawa to take pictures of their dying pets say the photos are critical in helping them process their grief.
For the past five years, Zabawa has been quietly capturing the final moments between owners and their pets during what she calls "SoulSessions."
"For me, it's almost like a meditative practice," says Zabawa. "I just open myself up to the moment and accept what's presented."
She doesn't charge for the sessions, although she does accept donations, and she is hoping to establish a nonprofit to enable her to do the photographs full-time.
Zabawa first started doing the SoulSessions about five years ago, when a family friend asked her to photograph their dog, Hoover, during his last days.
The experience was so powerful that a flash bulb lit up her in head (only figuratively, though – Zabawa never uses a flash).
In a way, she says, her career trajectory makes perfect sense.
She volunteered and then worked as a zookeeper at the Los Angeles Zoo for a total of 15 years.
After moving to Oregon, Zabawa discovered a free-roaming pony herd at the Tide Creek Welsh pony farm on Deer Island and has been photographing the horses for years.
Zabawa also began actively volunteering as a human hospice caregiver, which she started about six years ago after the death of her father-in-law.
He died peacefully, surrounded by his entire family – and pets – in exactly the way that he chose, she says.
Zabawa was so moved by the experience and by her desire to ensure people didn't die alone that she enlisted as a volunteer with Legacy Hospice.
That segued into photographing human hospice patients with their pets.
After the photo session with Hoover, Zabawa realized that everything she had done up to that point had led her to do the SoulSessions.
Whenever she gets teary-eyed from her poignant subject matter, she takes a deep breath and reminds herself that death is part of life.
"My experience with both human and animal hospice has taught me a lot about life and about people," she says, "about connection and the courage of animals and people."
Zabawa's photos indicate that more people acknowledge and value the human-animal bond, says Enid Traisman, a certified grief counselor and director of the Pet Loss Support Program at DoveLewis.
What's more, she says, they reflect a growing public awareness and acceptance of hospice and palliative care.
"In our culture, we've had everything so clean and put away," she says. "The tide is certainly changing for both humans and animals."
Northwest Portland resident Shawn O'Dierno, whose nine-year-old Great Dane, Lulu, is dying of bone cancer, says Zabawa's photos are helping her deal with her upcoming loss.
"I feel the more we can become comfortable with death, looking at it as more of a transition than a finality, can help with the process," she says.
She was amazed at how different Lulu looked through Zabawa's lens than on an iPhone.
"There was something about her that looked like she had already gone," O'Dierno says. "She was so peaceful and relaxed."
Traisman believes owners like O'Dierno value the photos because they depict a loving connection built by years shared together.
"She was able to pull out the beauty of the animal's spirit, the love of the animal, and that was what the people saw," says Traisman, who attended the SoulSession with Lulu.
For Southeast Portland resident DeeDee Remington, the photographs from a September 2013 SoulSession with her and her beloved cat Mickey Grrrl helped her cope.
"Oddly enough, [the photos] really allowed me to cry, which is a critical part of processing a loss," she says.
In anticipation of Mickey Grrrl's passing, Remington had been attending a monthly pet hospice support group, where she met Zabawa and learned about the SoulSessions.
"Mickey and I, through our 16 years together, never had photos taken," she notes.
She decided it truly was then or never.
"It was one of the best things I ever did," Remington says. She uses one of the pictures as her computer screen-saver, allowing her to remember Mickey Grrrl every day.
The photos are "so intimate and close that I almost feel like I can reach out and touch her, which is one of the things I miss most about her passing," she says. "That is a huge gift."
Sign up for a SoulSession: To contact Kristin Zabawa for a SoulSession, call her at 503-490-2480 or visit her website at kristinzabawaphotography.com for more information.
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