How our stillborn baby will always live on in our lives
A poignant photograph may help parents to cope with the loss of a child in pregnancy
Preserving the images of babies that are stillborn, are helping some parents to cope with their loss
The images are poignant. Tiny fingers clutch a wedding ring, little feet rest on a parent's palm, an infant nestles on its mother's breast.
But these babies are dead, their parents grieving.
Although some families may not like the idea of photographing a stillborn baby, for others, photographs of those final moments together can provide a crucial link with a lost child.
When a baby dies, the parents' world is turned upside down. There is sorrow where there should have been joy, loss where a family should have been celebrating the arrival of a new child. And a sense of shock, because the death of a baby can be so unexpected.
Nicola McCormack and her partner were devastated when their baby son Connor was stillborn after a routine scan pinpointed the lack of a heartbeat.
Nicola recalls how they were initially reluctant to have photographs taken of themselves with Connor:
"At first we didn't want to do it as we thought it was a bit morbid but the hospital recommended it and in the end we said yes," says Nicola, a paramedic from Newbridge, Co Kildare.
The photographs were taken by a photographer as part of the service offered by Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep (NILMDTS), a group which organises free professional portraits for the families of babies who are stillborn or who are at risk of dying as newborns. The organisation has branches in the US and 25 other countries, including Ireland, and a register of about 7,000 volunteer photographers worldwide, 11 of whom are based in this country.
Nicola, who lives in the US with her partner Jennifer Sullivan, is now glad that they availed of NILMDTS at the hospital in Rhode Island where Connor was born.
The photographs provided a very important connection to baby Connor, who was conceived as a result of fertility treatment.
"The photographer took different photographs, one with a teddy bear, for example, as well as photographs of me and Jennifer holding Connor separately and together. I think it was really good.
"We were able to spend longer with Connor because of the fact that photographs were being taken. They were good to have. Then, at Christmastime, the photographer sent us a tree ornament with a picture of Connor in it. I thought that was really nice -- she didn't have to do that."
Says Jennifer: "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is amazing. The photographer waited an hour for me to come out of surgery following the birth and then spent her entire weekend fixing the pictures to have them ready for the funeral. NILMDTS gave me something we will have forever."
People in Ireland should avail of the service, believes Nicola. "Anyone I talk to who did use it says they're really pleased they did," she says.
Limerick photographer PJ Corbett recently did his first shoot in a hospital with a stillborn baby and its parents: "It was a very emotional thing to do. I think it was one of the hardest things I have had to do in my career, but also the most rewarding," says Corbett, a wedding and portrait photographer based in Askeaton, and NILMDTS's Irish co-ordinator.
"We normally take pictures of the little hands and feet, and the baby with the parents, together and separately. Any parent I have talked to who has had this done has not regretted it and I have met people who turned down the offer and regretted it later.
"People might not look at these images for weeks or months or even a year after the death of the baby but they will come back to them and it's great to have a really good quality photograph that captures the memory and not just a clinical snapshot taken at a time of great stress."
Nicola and Jennifer also received a Memory Box from their Rhode Island hospital. It contained the blanket in which Connor was wrapped, a printing kit with which they took his footprints, and a little hat.
Here in Ireland, a new support organisation, Feileacain, which was officially launched in October 2010, now works in conjunction with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep.
Feileacain, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland, aims to support anyone affected by the death of a baby during pregnancy or shortly afterwards. In March it started distributing Memory Boxes to maternity hospitals throughout Ireland.
It's a service that is welcomed by many families -- the latest statistics show that 317 babies were stillborn in Ireland in 2007, 156 babies died before they were four weeks old (neonatal death), and 74 babies died between the ages of four weeks and 12 months.
"Several hundred people have been in contact with us since we were established. Parents come to us from all over the country seeking telephone or email support," says Brian Roche, one of the group's founder members.
Among the items in each box is a hand-knitted blanket "made by people from all over Ireland, many of whom have lost babies themselves", he says, a printing kit to take a handprint and footprint of the baby, a single-use camera and two identical teddy bears, one for the parents and one for the child's coffin.
"It is just to give something to parents to help them to start creating memories of their babies.
"By the end of this year we hope to have Memory Boxes in maternity hospitals all over the country."
Both NILMDTS and the Memory Box are services Martine Brennan would have loved to have had when her daughter Hannah was stillborn in April 2004.
"I think I went into complete and utter shock. I think part of me didn't believe it and deep inside myself I felt she was alive."
Although a nurse helped Martine and her husband Gerard to take pictures, she would have loved to have had the support of NILMDTS: "Hannah was absolutely perfect and it would have been wonderful to have had a professional photographer there.
"It would have been fantastic to have had someone from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. I'd have loved to have some of the beautiful photographs that Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep do.
"I've seen pictures that they took and they're absolutely beautiful -- but we have no picture that shows how perfect Hannah was," says Martine, a bereavement counsellor in Tralee, Co Kerry, who has since written a free e-book for parents who have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth -- visit www.afteryourbabydies.weebly.com
The hospital gave the couple a hand and footprint and a lock of Hannah's hair, but she said she'd have loved to have received one of Feileacain's Memory Boxes: "Not only will it hold the memories of your baby but it has a blanket, usually knitted by someone who has lost a baby. It means you're not alone, that someone has gone to the trouble of thinking about you. And even more precious, it's probably the only present you will get for your baby."
How to cope
The Feileacain website offers a number of ways for parents to remember their babies including a calendar where one can add the child's birthday and the age they would have been.
Families can also input poems, messages, stories or thoughts about their baby.
There are pointers in coping with the death of a baby, and information on registering a stillbirth.
feileacain.ie, 085 2496464