This week has been a tough one, photographically. I’ve photographed two babies who passed away before leaving the hospital.
I am a volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit organization which introduces remembrance photography to families suffering the loss of a baby with a free gift of professional portraiture. I am part of a nationwide team of volunteer photographers who come to the hospital on a family’s worst day imaginable, to preserve the memory of their infant who has never had the chance to have professional portraits taken.
These sessions are, understandably, extremely difficult. Tears are always shed – by parents, by nurses, by myself.
In a family’s darkest hours, why would they find any need for photos to be taken? Photos usually capture memories of joy, in the moments we want to remember forever. But why would the family want a reminder of this heartbreaking moment? To be honest, I can’t answer that since I have never suffered the loss of a baby. But what I am sure of, is that these babies should not be forgotten. Not ever. These babies will not grow up and have a first smile, first steps, first day of kindergarten. These babies are very much a part of a family, and their parents won’t have the chance to watch their child grow through the years. But with a photograph, these babies will remain with their families through the years.
Memory is a funny thing. Time passes, and life goes on, and grief changes us. New memories are made that take root in our minds. Even with the hope of never forgetting an important milestone, the passage of time wears that memory away. But a photograph is a way to preserve that memory. Especially in a situation such as this, where a baby is with a family for such a brief time, photographs are all the more important so that a son’s or a daughter’s presence is preserved. These photos say, “I WAS HERE. I AM FOREVER YOUR CHILD.”
Volunteer photographers are contacted by hospital staff. We come as soon as possible to meet the baby and respectfully capture their images. I am so grateful for the medical professionals who find the words to connect parents with our services. Parents who have just lost a child, minutes or hours before, are feeling a roller-coaster of emotions; giving parents the idea of professional portraits of their infant is the last thing on their mind. But in a month, or a year, or 5 years, that parent may want to remember how their baby looked…. the tiny fingernails, the curve of his nose, her wispy eyelashes, the size of his hand in momma’s hand, the soft swirl of hair on her head.
Why do I do this? Isn’t it TOO difficult to share this loss with families, over and over again? YES. It’s very difficult. This volunteer job has changed me. In some ways it’s made me more fragile – I see how precious life is and how easily it can be lost. In some ways it made me more resilient – when a family can’t wrap their heads around the reality of what’s happening in that moment, I’m able to give them a small measure of hope that, although they can’t ever take their babies home, they will be able to take their memories home and keep them forever.
Becoming a volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is an honor. Only professional photographers with specific skills are accepted, and we undergo regular training to keep our skills up-to-date. NILMDTS has high expectations for its volunteers to be professional, knowledgeable, and compassionate. Knowing that I have met those expectations is very humbling, and I hope to continue serving families through Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep for years to come.