Mourning And Instagramming The Death Of A Pet

In 1998, photographer Preston Gannaway and her college roommate answered a newspaper listing that advertised kittens. They drove out to a house and found a man waiting in the driveway, carrying a kitten in each arm. Gannaway picked the one with short hair, because of allergies, and named her Isis because of the Bob Dylan song — "Isis, you mystical child" like the Egyptian goddess, not the terrorist group.

They lived together for almost 17 years.

"She was the one who was a consistent presence every day in my life during that time," said Gannaway, who was just starting her career and bouncing around the country for jobs and internships. "My parents remarried at that time. Girlfriends come and go."

When Isis died in 2015, she left an emptiness a story could help fill. Gannaway started posting photographs of Isis for 100 consecutive days on Instagram as a way to grieve. Some reference typical cat photos on the Internet. Most look like they belong in a family album. The series, called #100daysofisis, shows the relationship between photography and memory. Gannaway looked through her photo archive and wrote diary-like captions. The process let her spend more time with her cat.

"The thing that struck me was the sense of time," she said. "Like, oh, those are the people I hung out with, that's what I looked like, that's what she looked like, and that's part of the reason why I felt such a connection to her."

Gannaway has nearly two decades of photographs. As Isis grew, Gannaway's life changed. New jobs, new homes. Then Isis' soft fur faded into the tired coat of an old cat. The one constant is their affection.

There's a self-described, "wonderfully brooding" self-portrait made with Isis from 1999. Wearing a beanie, Gannaway sits on the floor next to Isis, who is standing taller on a chair. Dramatic window light and shadows fall across their faces, only revealing one of their eyes each. We also see Isis after her cancer diagnosis, looking up at Gannaway, refusing to eat the buffet of different flavors of cat foods laid out before her in desperation.

"I tend to push emotions aside and battle on," Gannaway said. "This made me wallow in it a bit more and channel it into something that I hope is meaningful to others."

The love for a pet is universal. #100daysofisis is a celebration of their companionship. But it's also more than that. Gannaway spent two years documenting a family coping with a mother's terminal illness, which won her the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. That story showed her firsthand that we often don't talk about death and end-of-life care. Working on Isis' series felt similar, and Instagram seemed like the perfect platform for a photojournalist to tell a personal story.

On Day 97 of the project, Gannaway wrote that she had wanted to let Isis die at home. But when Isis' body started to shut down on a holiday weekend, no vets answered their calls.

"I didn't know how little warning time I would have, and when it was time, it was really quick," Gannaway recalled. "I wish that the vet had been more forthcoming about palliative care and how we could have ensured a peaceful death at home."

Watching someone die is a powerful thing to witness, yet we don't often depict our own ways of grieving. As a journalist whose work often demands the trust and vulnerability of others, Gannaway becomes an open book herself in #100daysofisis, in the age of Instagram.

Preston Gannaway is a Pulitzer Prize-winning documentary photographer and artist based in Oakland, California. Follow her on Instagram @pgannawayphoto.

Samantha Clark works on the photo team at NPR. Follow her on Instagram @samanthabrandyclark.

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