Pictures can “transform obsession with the single event of death” into a lasting acknowledgement of life, however brief.
Julie DiBlasi woke early one morning last June, eight months pregnant, resting through those precious quiet morning moments before her husband and three daughters woke up. It was time typically reserved for feeling the baby kick, for enjoying the sweet, restless anticipation of renewed motherhood.
This morning was different. She woke up her husband, Nick, saying, “I don’t feel the baby.” She sent him to fetch her juice, a sugary boost to stir the baby, “all the things the doctors tell you.”
Nick left for work but returned within an hour when a doctor on call told Julie to come into the hospital immediately. “I right away started crying,” Julie remembers. “I just feared the worst.”
At the hospital, they were told not to panic. “We didn’t hear the heartbeat,” says Julie, “I looked at Nick.”
“Because we’d been through it before. There was a miscarriage at 12 weeks,” Nick interjects.
“Before our first daughter,” Julie says.
“And that’s how we found out,” Nick sighs. “With an ultrasound, at the same hospital, probably two doors away.”
On that too-recent June morning, “we could see her. We could see our baby. I remember Nick just—Nick just kept saying no, no, no in my ear.” Tears cling to her blue eyes. There were more tests, another ultrasound. “That’s when we found out she was a girl.”
They had a name ready: Clare. Tests were inconclusive. “Nothing was wrong with her,” notes Julie. But their little girl had already passed away.
The couple had to wait a day at the hospital, a wait Nick calls “horrendous.” There were more tests. Clare was head-up, and Julie couldn’t yet be induced. Questions were thrown at them: Do you want to hold her? Do you want photographers? “They hand you this bereavement folder”—Julie voices the world folder in a tone that conveys all of its inadequacy—“and I’m like what?!?”
“I thought they were crazy, honestly, when the nurse brought up that a professional photographer should show up for this event,” Nick explains. “You’re out of your mind—why in the world would I want, number one, anyone else there at all, and number two, to remember how awful I anticipate this to be?”
“However, then you think about that later, as a parent,” Julie cuts in. “How could we ever have not wanted our daughter’s picture taken?”
We’re talking about a decision made five months ago. When they finish telling me their story, we’ll look through a reel of what Julie calls one of “the most horrible days of our lives,” but also “a wonderful day.” It was the day their Clare was born, when they said hello and goodbye. The photos they have, a misty black and white record of their pain and wonder, trauma and miracle, are treasured because they tether Julie and Nick to their time with Clare. It’s a lifetime of photos.
The DiBlasis are part of an increasingly common custom, parents who document their infants’ brief lives with the help of a professional photographer. It’s a practice that resists the taboos around infant loss and gives families a meaningful artifact of their babies’ existence. The photos can serve as memories, but also entry points to healing.
“The intimate tears and the faces I see on us in those pictures—those are the ones I think that help me remember most of what happened that day,” Julie says. “Not in a good or bad way, just remember.”
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep \n
At hospitals and hospices in the U.S., Germany, Ireland, and other countries around the world, grieving families like the DiBlasis are referred to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a network of over 1,700 vetted and trained professional-quality photographers who volunteer to donate their time, photography, and digital portraits to families who are suffering the loss of an infant. It’s a volunteer position of gravity and import. The organization always needs more photographers.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was founded out of heartbreak and necessity. Ten years ago, Cheryl and Mike Haggard’s son Maddux was born. They’d had an amniocentesis and plenty of ultrasounds and were expecting to deliver a big, healthy baby boy. He didn’t breathe right after delivery, and when Cheryl was wheeled back to her room, she knew something was wrong when the hospital chaplain came in before her doctor. The couple spent the next few days watching over Maddux. Cheryl took pictures with a new camera she’d gotten for Christmas. Those pictures showed the tears, the red swollen eyes, the blue wires running to Maddux’s body, and the orange tape over his mouth.
Maddux’s doctor came to them with some hypotheses about what was ailing him, but the simple reality was that Maddux couldn’t breathe on his own. “If you can’t breathe, you can’t live,” he told them. On day six of Maddux’s life, his parents made the gut-wrenching decision to remove life support. There was little they could control, but at least Cheryl wanted something to remember Maddux by, something beautiful, something as meaningful as the professional portraits of their other children hanging up at home. “I wanted him to have his space on our wall.”
Her husband called photographer Sandy Puc’, whose photos they’d seen hanging in the labor and delivery ward. Puc’ took pictures of Maddux on life support—as Cheryl puts it, “the only way we knew him those six days.” Then Puc’ waited and came back in after Maddux passed, after the hospital lines and tape were removed. She gave Cheryl the intimate, loving photos she wanted, in gentle black and white and sepia tone.
Her own color photos stir memories of hospital sounds, the anxiety and confusion of that time. The softer hues of Puc’s images evoke memories of her son. Just him.
“I really didn’t realize what she had given me at the time that I left the hospital with my empty arms, but through the means of photographs, she really has given me my son,” says Cheryl.
Soon after, she met another mother who’d lost an infant son. They compared pictures. The other woman’s baby had been too sick to be held. “Not every family has the choice of holding a living baby in their arms,” Cheryl says. “What if I could share my story with other parents and tell them that it was ok to create these memories, even after your baby died?”
By April, and with Puc’, Cheryl co-founded Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep as a nonprofit. It was a learning curve. Cheryl remembers the first time she attended the delivery of a stillborn baby. She didn’t know the child might be bruised, with skin peeling or missing. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep has a policy of gently Photoshopping out blemishes caused by death—discoloration, redness, dark fingernails. “We don't change anything like anomalies or cleft lip or birthmarks or anything like that. That is part of that baby, and that's what those families remember.” The goal of softening the images is to bring families comfort, to give them a chance to share their babies with friends and family, without a sense of morbidity.
“I don’t want somebody to look at Maddux’s photograph and feel sorry or pity for me,” says Cheryl. “I want them to look at his photograph and go, ‘Wow, he’s beautiful. He’s real.’ ” She believes for other families, too, a central concern is making sure that even though their babies are no longer here with them, people will know they are real and remain an important part of the family.
I Have Nothing to Get Through
Dianne Bomar is a Cincinnati-area photographer who in her 38 years of work never expected to find herself documenting the intimacy of infant loss. “I am the person who would go to a funeral and not go see the body in the casket. I had a tremendous fear of death, a tremendous fear of hospitals,” she says. Around the same time that Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was founded, a photographer friend of Bomar’s, Damon Fecitt, lost his twins—one to a miscarriage early during his wife’s pregnancy, the other stillborn—“and he had to photograph his own son in order to have those memories.” Ever since then, he has “terrorized me in the most loving way possible … to become involved in this organization.”
It took years of gentle pressure until Bomar relented and signed up as a volunteer nearly four years ago. Bomar is an energetic, auburn-haired woman with the disposition of your most lovable, no-nonsense school teacher. It’s hard to imagine her being afraid of anything.
The day after she was approved as a volunteer photographer by the nonprofit—a step that required about two and a half months of training and vetting—a call went out. A photographer was needed that weekend. Bomar was willing to shadow an experienced bereavement photographer—which is the standard the organization aims for with newbies—but when the day came, no one else was available. Bomar’s area coordinator asked how she felt about going on her own.
“Pardon my language, I am scared shitless,” Bomar remembers saying.
The coordinator suggested Bomar call the mother at the hospital and explain the situation. The mother told Bomar, “Well, we’ll just get through this together.” That’s when it hit Bomar. “I have nothing to get through. I’ll be there for you. … What I have to do is easy. Painless.” She reported to the hospital, and while she waited for her first client’s C-section, a nurse came in and told her another family also needed her services. So she had two sessions that first day.
“I do happy moments,” says Bomar of her typical work. But she gets a particular reward from serving families grieving their infants. “What other situation in your life do you go into someone’s worst possible nightmare and have them trust you implicitly and completely from the moment you walk into the door?”
She can’t describe her work as a calling—she doesn’t believe in such things—but she’s been the one to help a father accept his grief and lay eyes on his lost child, hold the child. Something about having Bomar in the room allows families to face what they feel. “I’m a stranger coming in, and I’m a stranger who’s coming to look at the scariest thing this person has ever imagined. And I’m ok with it? And I’m coming to take pictures? And I’m going to talk to that baby, and I’m going to love on that baby.” In the way she carries herself, in the way she talks, you get the sense that Bomar is at once a documentarian and a force of love. “Suddenly, it’s ok to feel those feelings for your child and with your child.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A Beautiful Death
Bomar and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep are a modern incarnation of a practice nearly as old as photography. In the Victorian period, postmortem portraits were a common part of the grieving process for middle-income families. According to photo historian Robert Hirsch, the daguerreotype process took hold in the U.S. in the 1840s and had its heyday in the 1850s. It made having one’s likeness captured—something the majority of people would otherwise not have had done—much more affordable. A postmortem photo of an infant might be the child’s only picture.
“One of the reasons that children were photographed so much in postmortem,” says Hirsch, “was that this would be their only record, and so it was really done as a memorial.”
In our era of believe-it-or-not listicles, a few stories have appeared recently, filled with Victorian-era postmortem photographs, relics from a time when death most often occurred at home and a person might be remembered with a single image. Now, when death most often happens in hospitals and nursing homes, those more-than-a-century-old images can be viewed as macabre. We miss the care put into creating them as memorial, tribute.
Nicola Bown, a Victorian cultural scholar from Birkbeck, University of London, notes in her essay “Empty Hands and Precious Pictures” that it was an expectation central to Victorian practices of mourning that a child’s corpse be portrayed as beautiful. During this time of high infant mortality, there became a standard, an expectation for how good postmortem photographs would be taken. Great care was put into framing the child in carefully selected contrasting colors and textures. They were to look as if peacefully at rest. Only sleeping.
The picture, a unique and precious daguerreotype, was something parents could hold, touch. The photos “filled the empty hands of bereaved parents who mourned their dead children. They helped them to feel that their children were not lost to them,” Bown writes.
“When you touch a photograph of a person, you touch a trace of their presence,” she adds. “Your hand, caressing the surface of the image, moves through time in a gesture of remembrance, invoking both the desire to touch the pictured person and the memory of doing so.”
Ours is a digitally documented age. Through childhood, American children can have tens of thousands of photos taken of them—their smiles, their pouts, their tantrums, their my-mom-is-bored-and-stuck-her-phone-in-my-face face. Photos are easy, plentiful. To have a child but no photos is rare and can punctuate a brutally painful loss with an extra layer of absence. In our time, parents may need their few photos of lost infants even more.
Photos have also long been understood as an important part of the grieving process. In their fieldwork with bereaved parents published in the journal Death Studies, sociologist Gordon Riches and bereavement coordinator Pamela Dawson found that photos serve multiple purposes: They help assuage fear of forgetting the child, they serve as evidence the child existed, they create an opening to start a conversation about the lost child. They also confirm the ongoing significance of the dearly departed. In parental grieving, Riches and Dawson write, pictures and other children’s artifacts help “transform obsession with the single event of the death into a broader acknowledgement of the meaning of his or her life.”
A Family Portrait
We’re in Bomar’s studio, a comfortable space with carefully lit portraits of smiling families and children all over the walls. A stand on a waiting room table holds a stack of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep brochures. Julie and Nick are here to view their new family portrait, to meet me, and to introduce me, through stories and pictures, to Clare.
We sit together around a glass table, watching a slideshow of images projected on a large screen. Only a few family members have seen these photos. In them, Nick’s eyes are locked on Julie until Clare is born. (Bomar was with Julie and Nick through the delivery—her first time in a delivery room aside from when she birthed her own children.) Nick describes how his grief and concern were focused on Julie through the delivery, but then he saw Clare. Nick and Julie knit their hands together under the table as he describes how his focus shifted. In the photos, his attention makes a sharp transition from Julie to Clare. He didn’t have those early morning hours like Julie to get to know their daughter.
“It’s a lot different for dads,” he says. When everything goes as planned, you can wrestle them when they’re 2. This was different. “When she came out, it was just, it all became so real for me, very real. And I wasn’t there for you anymore,” he says, his voice mingling guilt and regret and necessity, “just this baby that I loved.” Julie tells him it’s ok, how she loved watching him with their daughter.
“I got to hold this baby for about two hours,” Nick remembers. “I just sat in the chair and rocked and rocked.”
We look through images of Julie, Nick, and Clare. “That was my baptism gown,” Julie says pointing to a stark white dress. She’s got the proud, loving tone of a mother looking at any baby picture. “I bet she had blue eyes, if I had to guess,” she says of another.
“That’s the smell,” Julie sighs as an image of her smelling her daughter’s head fills the screen. “I look at the picture ... and I remember what she smelled like.” The photo transports her, not to the beep of hospital monitors or the grief, but to her daughter. As much as these photos occurred on a day that marked death, their soft edges, their love, it all now serves as a celebration of Clare’s life.
In the first weeks and around the time of Clare’s memorial service, Julie looked at the pictures at least once a day. “When I look at them, I'm reminded of that day,” she tells me, “and also reminded of my daughter who is in my heart and has taught us so much more than we could ever ask for. … To me, it's been a huge part of our healing process, having those photographs.”
The pictures have also created a shift in the empathy the DiBlasis receive. Nick has heard what sound like rote condolences, “but the second they see a picture of my daughter, those are not empty condolences.”
“It actually helps me validate how real these feelings really, truly are,” he adds. “I mean, this beautiful, wonderful daughter that I loved so much, and I had for so little, was real. She was here, and she was mine.” His voice wavers. “Those pictures can tell that, and I can’t.”
There’s a true difference between these photos and other snapshots. There’s a chasm between the sharp reality of the digital autobiographies we build out with daily selfies and smartphone pictures and the careful framing of families pausing in their grief to marvel at the wonder of their children. Briefly Nick shows me the wallpaper on his phone, a cellphone snapshot of Clare’s hand wound round his finger. It clearly means a great deal to him, a most precious, miniature embrace. But the photo is not like those that Bomar took. It’s the difference between how Cheryl describes her own full-color images of her son, compared to the more muted, composed images that Puc’ captured.
The presence of a professional photographer creates a sort of distance. In the insertion of that space, the falling away of color, the images of these children—those not taken by their bereaved parents themselves—there is the gift of another, of an outsider finding beauty there, too.
A couple of weeks ago, when the DiBlasis were ready for new family portraits, they asked Bomar to take them. The oldest two DiBlasi girls bounded excitedly up to Bomar that day, saying “You got to meet my sister!” They knew she’d been with their parents, taken their sister’s picture.
Bomar is now tied to the family in tears and laughter, tragic memories and new ones.
On family picture day, the DiBlasis spend a sunny evening at what the girls call “Clare’s park,” the cemetery where Clare was laid to rest and where the family has taken to having donuts on Sundays, the girls playing, adjusting to a new normal where joy and grief coexist. They hold hands around her grave marker, as sunflowers gaze down from a built-in vase. And they play, and they laugh, and they try to live in a way that pays tribute to Clare.