“I picked up the phone outside of the locked labor and delivery doors. My voice used to shake and crack when I would say, ‘Hi, I’m the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographer.’ The nerves and anxiousness used to take over before even making it through those doors. Almost a year and a half later, it doesn’t anymore. Now I say it with confidence and ease. Softly, but with purpose. The doors unlock and I make my way to the nurses’ station. The nurses are always so grateful and kind that I could come. I nod humbly and thank them for calling me on behalf of the family. The nurse tells me more about the family and the precious baby that had just passed away. Sometimes a nurse will say, ‘Baby was only 22 weeks and has been gone for quite some time.’ Or it’s, ‘Baby was full term and they found out yesterday there was no longer a heartbeat.’ And other times it’s, ‘Baby has been in the NICU for days/weeks and parents are preparing to remove life support and say goodbye.’ No matter the version of their story, my heart sinks.
The nurse escorts me to their room. And I find myself trying to catch a deep breath through my knotted throat right before entering. The room is still, and almost silent except for the gentle chatter among family. There is a baby down the hall whose cries ever so faintly carry over into their room. It’s so faint but feels so painfully loud. The hospital staff tries their best to have bereaved families in a room away from all the noises of L&D. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
I extend my hand and my heart to the parents. I introduce myself and go over formalities and unpack my gear. I meet their beautiful baby, I hold their baby, talk to their baby. I treat their baby just like I would my own. All while taking a mental assessment of how much or how little posing I can do. I set up a place to take his/her portraits. As I begin to pose baby, I ask who he got his beautiful wavy hair from, or his button nose or long toes. I talk, but not too much to overwhelm anyone. I work gently, efficiently, and try not to overstay my welcome. I do my best to capture every single detail. From baby’s precious hair, long toes, to the memory box the family will soon be carrying out the hospital doors instead of their baby.
I swaddle baby back up in a special blanket that the hospital provided. One that was handmade and donated by another bereaved parent in memory of the one they miss dearly. I ask mom if she is ready to hold her baby. She takes a deep breath and sits up as straight as she can, scrounging up what little energy she has left. As I place her baby in her arms, we are careful to not move baby too much. Baby feels so fragile and mom is cautious not to cause any harm to her baby – as am I. I begin taking portraits of them together as a family. Sometimes parents opt out of these portraits and sometimes they don’t want to be present at all while I take pictures because this is just too much to bear. It’s unfair and not how they imagined their time with their baby at all. And most definitely not the kind of newborn pictures they envisioned.
As the shutter on my camera begins to release, their tears begin to flow. The pain and realization of these pictures sinks in deep. No one plans for this. No one wants this. This is a reality I wish no parent had to endure.
And this. This reality of me standing in the face of immense sorrow and great love is something I willingly choose to do. I choose it because I, too, know the importance of it. Having been on the other side of the lens myself. Holding my own child, knowing it would be the very last time. My son Silas died in 2014. And he is the reason why I have a heart for the mission of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS). The gift of these photos has been priceless to us and we cherish them greatly.
I leave every NILMDTS session feeling heavy. I shed tears as I climb back into my car and begin driving home to my own family that has had time to heal over the last several years. I think about these families and all the pain that still lies ahead of them. Because the hardest moments are still yet to come. Their grief doesn’t end when they leave the hospital or after they bury their child. Their grief has only just begun and the memories that are being held inside my camera are priceless and irreplaceable. These photographs carry so much pain and heartbreak. But more than that, they carry great love and proof that their child existed. Proof that their child was so loved and so wanted. Proof that this little life mattered a whole lot.
The work we do as NILMDTS photographers extends far beyond our work during a session and the time we spend retouching images. This is the most important work that we do. It is time and love that we give to families who are experiencing the unthinkable.
I hold each one of these families close to my heart long after my work is finished. I remember every single baby I have photographed since I started this work and I will never forget them.
I have a mobile hanging above my desk that I made. After every session I come home and add a feather to it. It’s my small way of honoring the babies I photograph. It also serves as a reminder to me to release the pain that I carry from these sessions and focus on the goodness of the gift that we give to families. Because in order to continue to do this work, I have to release the weight of it all. It’s how I am able to serve the next family that will need me.
I never share images from these sessions because it is never my place to do so. These images are sacred and personal to the families. But I do have permission to share a few of sweet baby, Hazel. Hazel was born in June of 2018 and is missed dearly. She was surrounded by lots of family on her birthday and I still am so touched by the amount of love and support I witnessed that day.
Hazel’s mother shared a picture with me of her resting place. The marker that sets on her resting place elegantly displays her name and birthday and it reads, ‘A moment in our arms… a lifetime in our hearts.’ And in the middle is a picture of Hazel’s beautiful little feet cradled in her mother and father’s hands. A picture I took during their NILMDTS session.
After seeing this, I was again reminded the importance of why we serve these families. Serving bereaved families brings an immense sense of purpose and honor to our lives and our work. I am always so sorry to have to see families in this situation and I wish so much I could change things. In the same breath, my heart is full of love and gratitude to them for allowing me to witness and document the greatest love there is. I have an immense amount of gratitude for allowing me to honor not only their child, but also my own.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessi Snapp, a volunteer photographer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. You can learn more about their nonprofit work here. For a full list of volunteer opportunities with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, click here.
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