Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Helping Parents Cope with Grief

It's rare that I post an entire news article on my blog, but I read this one from the Washington Post this morning and it brought me to tears -- not just as a parent but as a human being. A. and I are so blessed that we have never been through what this article describes, but there are so many others who haven't been so fortunate. As I read the story I became very conflicted about how I truly felt about this; I was certainly emotional (I don't know how anyone could read this and not be), but it was also difficult for me to see this sort of thing being done. Until someone has actually been through this, though (God forbid), there's no way of knowing how anyone would deal with the circumstances.

Regardless, my prayers go out to the parents who have been through this and to the photographers who give so much of themselves (their time and little parts of their spirit) to provide this gift for grieving families. The entire story (along with the link) and the photograph are from the Post story.

Photographers Help Grieving Parents Take the First Step in Healing
By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008; HE01

A white rose hanging outside the doorway tells nurses that the family in this one room of the maternity ward at Inova Alexandria Hospital is different. It puts them on notice not to tiptoe around the curtain smiling, ready to coo at a sleeping baby and congratulate the new parents. That's because this couple is not experiencing the happiest day of their lives, but possibly the saddest: Their daughter, several months premature, was stillborn, one of the 25,000 stillborn each year in the United States.

Julia MacInnis, a 40-year-old Alexandria-based photographer, has walked into 18 such hospital rooms during the past year. She is one of 5,500 volunteers for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a nonprofit organization that offers to send, at no charge, photographers to capture images of babies who have died or who are unlikely to live more than a few hours or days.

Many mothers and fathers who have lost their children go home from the hospital with their baby's blankets, a lock of hair or maybe a Polaroid photo snapped by a nurse. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep steps in when parents believe that something more might help them heal.

The death of a child might seem too wrenching a moment to share with a photographer whom the parents have never met and are unlikely to see again. But many parents who turn to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep later cherish the photos taken of their babies. Sherry Petri, a labor and delivery nurse at Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge, who lost her baby in 2005, offers to call Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep on behalf of patients whose babies have died. Some decline, but of those who choose to have the photographs taken, Petri says, she has "never known of anybody who had misgivings."

Maureen Porto, 34, a photographer from Annapolis who has done nine photo sessions, said that some families wait days or even weeks to look at their photos. She remembers one mother who wrote her months after her baby died: "I was grieving that day," she said. "Did I thank you enough?"

* * *

Late one Sunday night several weeks ago, in the dimly lit room at Inova Alexandria, MacInnis offered her condolences to the parents of the stillborn baby girl. The mother was resting in bed, while her husband, dressed in jeans and a green T-shirt, sat on a couch near the couple's birth assistant. Their daughter, her head no bigger than a fist and her mouth slightly open, lay swaddled in a blanket next to her mother.

After the father signed a consent form and the mother tied back her long hair, MacInnis began her work. First she photographed the mother holding her baby against her chest, skin to skin. Then the father joined them, kneeling on the ground next to his wife's bed and leaning his head on her shoulder.

As MacInnis worked, a silver Tiffany & Co. bracelet jingled around her wrist, the heart-shaped charms inscribed with the names and birth dates of her sons, ages 8 and 5. "I do this [volunteering] because I have two healthy children," she said, "and I'm grateful for that."
MacInnis prompted the mother to wrap the baby's fingers around her pinky, and with a click the moment was captured. When a nurse came in to hug the parents goodbye, there was another click -- that moment captured, too.

After about 30 minutes with the family, MacInnis requested that the baby be brought to a better-lit room where she could take a few more pictures. This is the last step in all the sessions she does for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and it's often the last time that parents see their newborns. And so it was for this mother: After a moment alone with her daughter, she watched her husband carry their baby away. Waiting in the hallway, MacInnis could hear the woman crying.

MacInnis walked with the father down the quiet hall to another room, where he placed his daughter in a bassinet and unswaddled her. MacInnis asked a nurse to clean the baby's soles, still stained with the ink used to take her footprint. She zoomed in on the father's hand cupping her tiny feet.

By midnight, MacInnis had snapped her final shots. As she packed up her camera and three lenses, the father lingered for a few minutes with his daughter. Then he left the room and returned to his wife. They had both said goodbye.

* * *
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was born of a tragedy. The organization was founded in Colorado in April 2005 by two women: Cheryl Haggard, the mother of a baby who had recently died, and Sandy Puc', a nationally known photographer whom Haggard and her husband had asked to photograph their son before and after he was taken off life support. While Haggard was in the hospital, another baby died; saddened that, unlike her family, those parents did not go home with photos of their child, Haggard worked with Puc' to form a group of photographers that would serve all families such as theirs.

By July, they had recruited 350 volunteer photographers; in less than two years, they were 2,500 strong. After the organization was featured on NBC's "Today" show this past March, that number exploded to more than 5,000. The network stretches to more than 25 countries, from Israel to South Africa to China, according to the organization.

MacInnis, area co-coordinator with Marirosa Anderson, estimates that the organization, which has no religious affiliation, has a dozen active photographers in the D.C. region. They are most often called to Inova Alexandria, Inova Fairfax Hospital and Reston Hospital Center in Virginia, as well as Holy Cross Hospital and the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. MacInnis is reaching out to other hospitals so that labor and delivery nurses know about their services.

She is also trying to recruit more photographers; only once did she have to turn away a family because no one was available to go to the hospital, and she wants Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep to be able to cover all requests in the area. Volunteers are required to be professional (though not necessarily full-time) photographers and need to be available to go to hospitals with little notice. MacInnis tries to prepare them for the grief that they will witness, but that's not always easy to do.

Most photographers working with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep are women, and many talk about their admiration for the mothers they meet. Porto said that she is "floored" by their strength; some of them had known for 20 weeks or more that their babies wouldn't survive.
Les Henig of Garrett Park, the father of four grown children and five foster children, has done five photo sessions. "I see a lot of emotion [in fathers]," said Henig, 60. "In every case, [I see] as much emotion from fathers as mothers."

At 24, Mary Kate McKenna of Silver Spring is the youngest volunteer in the area. Any photographer working with the organization has a "huge responsibility," she said. "There can't be a reshoot. . . . This is [the family's] one chance."

The work "calls on . . . resources that I didn't know I had," said another photographer, Sarah Hodzic, 32, of Arlington. "I always cry."

On the way home from the hospital, MacInnis sometimes listens to rock music to decompress. This summer, she photographed a baby boy who had died in utero several days earlier; weeks later, she was still dreaming about him.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep has a password-protected online forum where photographers can correspond with one another. As many as 500 of the volunteers sign on every day to write about their experiences or to ask for help editing images before sending them to families.

The photographers use editing software to smooth over skin that has begun to break down and touch up abrasions and bruises, but Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep asks them not to alter any deformities. The organization generally doesn't photograph babies whose gestation has lasted less than 25 weeks, but some volunteers make exceptions when they feel comfortable doing so. Almost all photographers opt to give families black-and-white photographs; not only do they have a more timeless quality than color images, but they are also more forgiving of the discoloration or tearing of a premature baby's skin.

"Our goal is to revive comforting images of the babies," MacInnis said. But sometimes, she said, "there's only so much that we can do."

Postmortem pictures such as those offered by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep have been around practically as long as the camera itself. During the 1800s, dead children were photographed in peaceful poses, as if they were sleeping. Infant mortality might seem like something from the Victorian era -- an antiquated heartbreak -- yet, as Henig said, "it is still with us."

Debbie Schechter, a counselor at Washington's Wendt Center for Loss and Healing and the mother of a boy who died at age 5 of a brain tumor, said parents shouldn't worry that looking at the photos will be emotionally damaging. Part of the grieving process is memorializing the loss, such as through a funeral, and making a place for the loved one. That could be in heaven, she said, but also in a photo album.

The parents who left Inova Alexandria without their daughter are just beginning that process. "We didn't get to see the color of her eyes, or her smile, or feel her grip our finger," the mother wrote in an e-mail two weeks after her baby died. "Our photographs are one of the few connections we have to our daughter. I can't imagine what we would do without them."


Nancy said...

A thoughtful post, as usual, Matt. I've linked it.


n, np

karen said...

Thanks for posting this, Matt. Some friends of mine just miscarried; so sad for them.