“I’m headed to the 3rd floor, please.” The button is pressed.
“You must be heading up to see a baby!”
And it’s true, yes I am. People are quick to notice that I am not bubbly in my response and they begin to internally question if their elation was, perhaps, a mistake. They notice the very tiny hat I have in my hand and a rolling camera bag – silence follows.
It can be awkward and difficult explaining why I photograph families that have had their baby pass away – but it is something I have practiced articulating because in talking about it, others are exposed and learn how to better have conversations about miscarriages and babies born still. Grief and death is something that our western culture has made into a taboo subject – and while in the past decade we’ve made strides to try and throw off the shroud of silence… As a community, within our social circles, and families, we need to continue pushing past the discomfort to create support networks for parents experiencing terrible heartache. Though I have yet to find a way to convey in 12 seconds (as is the length of our time together on an elevator) that a child has been born and that although that precious baby won’t be going home with their family, this child did exist! Their very existence in the world has changed it forever, and their legacy should be acknowledged with love and joy (all in their own time). The ectopic pregnancies, missed miscarriages and still born babies – those little ones, they matter.
I will however, manage to say that I volunteer to photograph families that have given birth to a baby that has passed away and that the pictures taken provide the family with something tangible that will help honour their child’s life and can help on their journey to finding peace.
Whatever awkwardness may have been present is now evolving into empathy from my elevator companion.
Over the last handful of years, I’ve been to almost every area on the 3rd floor, known to local families as labour and delivery, the green room/NICU, antepartum and the mother and babe unit. This has been my first year attending to grieving families. I am told every time before heading into a family’s room that “the parents are so lovely” – which makes my heart break further.
Usually I am brought to the room, and the feeling of grief and shock hang heavy in the room, like an early morning autumn blanket of fog. Other times I am greeted gently by parents and ushered over to the side of a Cuddle Cot – I learn the name of the sweet soul that has been born that day and parents whisper “he is so handsome, my son..” or “my daughter is so perfect, she looks peaceful..”
Hearts swell and tears flow – there is no need for words to fill the silence – we cradle the beautiful baby in soft swaddling blankets and love – while I photograph every detail. Eyelashes. Tiny toes and fingers. Mothers and fathers gazing in admiration of the child. The smallest hands you’ve ever seen, cradled in a father’s giant hands. Older siblings giving kisses on foreheads.
Nurses may come and check on the family while I am there. They are like angels of compassion floating about – their voices, soft humanity, for lives that have been devastated. They are wonderful and endeavor to support families to the fullest of their ability. When I leave, I will head over to the nurses station and hug them. It is all I can think to do to express my admiration and respect for their profession.
Every child I have photographed that has been unable to go home with their family, I think of them. I don’t think I could ever forget their names. The experience of documenting their loving families say goodbye to them and truly learning to support and sit with grief – well, it has been character building.
To every family that I’ve had the honour of photographing, thank-you so much for allowing me to meet your wonderful and precious child. You have the love a mother/father planted in your heart. How many weeks gestation you have carried your baby for is not a measure of how deeply you are allowed to grieve your loss or feel love. Your love for your child is your own. The emotions you feel, give yourself permission to truly feel them. The world may tell you that you need to grieve in a certain way, but don’t listen. Honour and hold the space that you need.
To every friend and family member that is faced with learning to support a loved one through pregnancy loss, infertility, still birth: Sometimes there are no words; the silence may feel strange, but know that it can help to give the parent time to process thoughts and feelings.. there are many and they are overwhelming to sort through at times. Tears may come, unexpected things can be triggers for intense emotions. Check-in with them, months after the day of their child’s death – the months that follow can be trying on friendships and marriages – be available to lean on, go for a walk, or just sit at home with them in sweatpants and a glass of something. Don’t rush them or expect them to be fine – their journey through grief, and finding a new way of living after losing a child will be unlike anyone else’s journey. Lastly, if your loved one’s child had a name, please please please remember it (that may mean the most of all) – it helps to know that others remember them and that the child’s memory is being held in many hearts.