Precious memories for those who have lost a newborn
A charity providing professional portraits to families that lose a newborn is looking for volunteers.
A family portrait is not complete without all members of the clan being snapped. Tragically, for some families, this can require photographing a baby that is 'not compatible with life'. Entering a hospital with the expectation of leaving with a new addition to their family tree, sometimes all they're left with are memories when the baby passes on. Since memories fade, yet bonds do not, a global foundation, called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep (NILMDTS), was set up to provide a helping hand to healing hearts.
Offering gentle and beautiful photography in a compassionate and sensitive manner, over 1,600 volunteer photographers operate worldwide, 22 of whom work within the Republic of Ireland. Many of these photographers have had no experience of child loss themselves; yet travel the length and breath of the country, all on their own dime, to help families on the worst days of their lives.
For Cheryl Haggard, that day was February 4 2005, when she and her husband Mike made the decision to turn off life support for their six-day-old son, Maddux, who had been diagnosed with a condition called Myotubular Myopathy. It prevented him from breathing, swallowing or moving on his own.
"Maddux was my fourth child," she tells me. "I had pictures of all my other children hanging on the wall. I have their drawings and their artwork. And I knew I wanted Maddux to be in the middle of all of that. He deserved to have his space on our wall in our home."
New to Colorado, she had spotted some beautiful portraits on the walls of the maternity ward. "My husband found the name of the photographer, Sandy Puc, on the bottom of one of them, and contacted her. He explained our situation and asked her if she could be there for us. This was the only opportunity we had to capture these memories and these memories would have to last us our lifetime."
One photograph (pictured) captures mother and child skin to skin. "I was bare, he was bare. He was just that sleeping baby in my arms. Even though he isn't with me, physically, that bond isn't broken."
Sandy took pictures before and after Maddux passed. "It was really important for me to have those images," says Cheryl, "as we knew him for those six days, where he had tubes and wires."
Those photographs documenting Maddux's short life and last moments, were the inspiration for NILMDTS which was founded 10 years ago this year. Puc was on hand to launch the organisation, officially, in Dublin last Monday.
Operating in Ireland for almost five years on an ad-hoc basis, in the past six months a steering committee has been set up to provide more accountability for their volunteers, coordinating all the calls through a central number and working with hospitals in the 26 counties to increase their visibility.
"We believe every family deserves to have this service," says Eileen Hyland, coordinator for NILMDTS-Ireland. "When familes have been discharged it's too late and a lot of areas in Ireland are very sparsely covered. We don't want to have the same people going out all the time, but it would be terrible having to say no to grieving parents. It wouldn't be unheard of for photographers to undergo four to five-hour round trips."
The organisation undertook about 150 sessions in 2014 while PJ Corbett was called out 20 times over a five-week period the Christmas before last. "If we had more photographers it would take an awful amount of pressure off of us. Photographers travel from Cork up to Dublin because literally no one else was available."
The service being free is key to the ethos of NILMDTS. "I never wanted a family to feel they could not afford to hire a professional photographer to come in and take their picture," says Haggard.
If photographers were to charge the standard rate for the work done - between the travel costs, original session and studio work after, it would run to €1,000. But according to Hyland, the volunteers consider it an honour to give their time. "To be honest, it puts things into perspective and, after doing a NILMDTS session, you drive home counting your blessings. The work itself is hugely rewarding."
"Before you go, you are focused on the job at hand," says PJ. "All the practicalities - such as parking or whatever details you have on the case and what that means for you technically. It's when you are leaving the emotion of what just happened just hits you."
For the NILMDTS photographers I spoke to, the camera is protection for them. It draws the line between the personal and the professional. "When I have a camera in my hand mammy mode is off and photographer mode is on," says Louise Brooks. "In the training NILMDTS provide you with, you go through a number of conditions that you may face in the hospitals or the homes, how best to be sensitive to the families that you might be meeting and how to do the photos as sensitively as possible.
"You're a professional. But because you are a parent yourself, after the job it's hard not to be affected by the situation. I'll often call another volunteer, or my husband, just to express the enormity of what I have just been through."
Sometimes parents find out early on in the pregnancy that their child has passed, or will not survive long outside the womb. Other times, something goes wrong at the last minute and it's trauma and turmoil. In these cases, the midwives will act as an intermediary, calling NILMDTS to get a photographer on standby and then preparing them for the individual cases.
"They tell you all the salient details," Fran Byrne says. "The names of those involved, if the baby went to full term, what state the body may be in. If the birth was premature the baby might have perfect hands and feet, but their head might be misshapen. They might be blue or purple; their skin can tear very easily. Just knowing all this beforehand insures that you can be fully focused on the job and putting the families at ease when you go in and aren't taken by surprise."
When the photographer arrives, they introduce themselves. "I tell them I am sorry for their loss and I run through what I intend to do. I ask them the baby's name, get them talking about their child. It's harrowing, but as soon as you walk in, a switch flicks. You have to photograph this baby as best you can for these parents, and you start focusing on the technical aspects of your job."
PJ likes to hold the babies before he starts. "If you are hesitant or unsure, the parents won't be comfortable with you touching their child. So I shush the baby. I rock it and talk to it. It comes across that I am caring. I am sensitive and compassionate. Parents want to see emotion. They don't want people who are clinical and cold. One parent I worked with said she can't remember most of the nurses from the hospital. But she remembers the one that shed a tear. She shared their emotions."
Demand on the individual photographers varies. "You can be out two to three weeks on the trot," says Louise, "and then you won't be out for two months in a row. Once I was in the hospital and the midwife asked me to hang on as another little fella had died while I was doing a shoot."
Editing the photographs took its biggest toll on Fran. "Sometimes you have to go back and do touch ups and it brings it all back, and you're all alone in the studio, reliving it."
"Sitting there, in front of a monitor, seeing things you might not have seen during the shoot, it can be very lonely," agrees PJ.
"Some of the pictures we have of Gavin have the mark on his face," says Laura O'Connor, who lost her baby on the day he was due in 2012. "They're just for his father and I, our special photos. As he was. Louise took out the blemishes in the ones we put up on the wall. They're easier on the eyes for somebody who doesn't understand what happened."
When the nurses told her about NILMDTS, there was no doubt in her mind that she wanted to avail of their services.
"A lot of people would think I was half mad in one way. It's a thing that wasn't talked about openly. But Gavin is a part of our family. To me he was real. We couldn't brush it off. We might never have looked at them. But maybe in 10 years' time I would regret it. If they are there, they are there."
Both Laura and Vanessa O'Riordan, who lost her daughter, Emily, talk about how important the photos, and their relationship with Louise, was in their grieving process.
"A lot of it was a blur to me," says Vanessa. "But I remember her being a lovely presence in the room, a very gentle, lovely manner. Ever since she has been on the end of a phone for us. If you send her a text, she'll send you a lovely message back. She even sent me a picture that I could put in a locket I had."
Collecting the pictures from Louise's studio she admits was bittersweet. "You're dying to collect them. And they are lovely. But then you realise that it's the last piece you will ever have of her. That is it."
For more information: NILMDTS Ireland want to engage more photographers, photo editors and admin staff. If you are interested in volunteering-or wish to avail of their services, please contact their central number on 083 377 4777.
Health & Living