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Through photography, remembering Alaska babies who died too soon

Amy Newman
Though Sara Frawley's son Hayden Lee was stillborn on Aug. 1, 2012, Frawley had spent much of her pregnancy planning the photographs she’d take of her son when he was born. One of those photos was of her hands in the shape of a heart, framing his feet. Courtesy Annie Enderle

Tessa Bergmann’s pregnancy with her first child, McKinleigh Renee, was picture perfect. The baby girl was healthy, and the pregnancy itself was free of complications.

So when Bergmann walked in to the hospital in August 2010 to deliver McKinleigh, she and her husband, Ryan Littleton, never imagined they might leave empty-handed. “The delivery was going fine,” Bergmann recalled through tears. “She had a heartbeat in the birth canal.”

But something -- Bergmann still isn’t sure what -- went wrong, and all attempts to resuscitate McKinleigh failed.

Later that day, a nurse gave Bergmann’s father a pamphlet on Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS), a volunteer organization that provides remembrance photography to families whose baby has died. Bergmann says she looked at the pamphlet and tossed it aside.

“'No way,’” she remembers thinking. “I thought that it sounded tacky. Why would I want a photo of my dead child?”

Now she can’t imagine not having those photos.

“Although they immediately bring tears to my eyes, they bring comfort,” she said. “(They’re) a tangible item that I can hold and remember, and show those people that are close to us - she really did exist.”

A validation of life

Founded in 2005 by Cheryl Haggard, who lost her son shortly after birth, and Sandy Puc, the photographer who captured his final images, the non-profit organization provides remembrance photography to parents who have experienced stillbirth or early infant loss (defined in Alaska as the death of an infant less than 28 days old). Professional photographers volunteer their time and resources and provide families with a disc of images free of charge.

There are seven photographers throughout Alaska who are part of NILMDTS -- one each in Anchorage, Ketchikan, Fairbanks, Fort Wainwright and Kodiak, and two in Juneau.

Without these photographs, parents often leave the hospital with no tangible memory of their child’s existence, said Bonnie Hiers, child life specialist at the Children’s Hospital at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.

While hospital staff tries to provide parents with their baby’s hand and footprints, that’s not always possible with some infants, particularly those born very prematurely.

“The skin is not actually intact enough to do those things,” she explained. “So pictures may be the only thing that they have - or the only thing that we can truly offer them -- to go home with.” The photographs also provide something intangible -- validation of the infant’s short life.

Friends and family often minimize stillbirth or early infant loss, claiming parents can’t be attached to a child who lived only days outside the womb, if at all, Hiers said. But for the 98 Alaskan families who experienced stillbirth or early infant loss in 2012, that attachment existed throughout the entire pregnancy, she said. The photographs give “recognition to the bond that’s already there.”

Annie Enderle, a Fairbanks photographer, witnessed the importance of remembrance photography several years before she learned of NILMDTS’ existence. A neighbor who had lost her daughter shortly after birth shared her photographs with Enderle. They were the worst quality photos Enderle had ever seen, but she could see the beauty in them as well.

“They’re proof that your baby existed,” she said. “They’re proof that you gave birth, that you’re a mother. I think she felt all of those things because she had those photos.”

Janna Hardy of Anchorage joined NILMDTS for similar reasons six years ago. A former colleague called Hardy out of the blue, asking if Hardy could photograph her daughter, who died at birth.

“I’d never done anything like that, but I could hear how important it was to her,” Hardy said.

After giving her friend the images, Hardy realized why documenting the child’s life had been so important.

“Having that piece of history that you can put your hands on -- it just validates that experience,” she said. “It helps you work through it.”

Marina Snover, whose son Tanner Eugene was stillborn a year ago, said the photographs she received have helped her grieve. “It helps a lot to have pictures that I can look at every day, to remind me of him,” she said. “It’s a nice reminder that he’s always with me, always in my heart.”

Capturing a brief life

How do you capture a lifetime in a single session?

Some parents don’t want to be in the photos at all, while others include their entire immediate family. Others are okay with their hands being photographed, usually holding their baby’s hands or feet. Some parents include their wedding rings or a blanket or other special piece they’d purchased for their child during the pregnancy.

Sara Frawley of North Pole, whose son Hayden Lee was stillborn on Aug. 1, 2012, spent much of her pregnancy planning the photographs she’d take of her son when he was born. One of those photos was of her hands in the shape of a heart, framing his feet. When Enderle arrived at the hospital, Frawley specifically requested that photo. Her husband, Caleb, now has it tucked in the visor of his truck.

For parents with no ideas, photographers have their own experience or guidelines provided by NILMDTS to fall back on. “I’m a mom and I know that I want to remember things like chubby fingers, and part of the neck where there’s just soft skin,” Enderle said. “I want to remember those myself, so I take pictures of those.”

Photographing an infant who has died can be technically difficult, which is another reason remembrance photography is so important.

Birth can be traumatic and cause bruising even when the infant survives, Hiers said. This discoloration, coupled with other skin changes, can be more pronounced in infants who have died. Professional photographers know how work with angles and lighting to minimize these issues.

“They know to think of the little things parents who are grieving can’t think about,” Hiers said.

Professionalism in the face of grief 

Nothing can truly prepare a photographer for meeting with a family who is saying hello and goodbye to their infant at the same time. In addition to the overwhelming grief, for parents who had no idea the pregnancy would end with anything other than a healthy infant to bring home, there is a profound sense of shock.

With emotions this raw, how do photographers maintain a sense of professionalism and not get overcome with sadness?

For Seanna Hines, one of Juneau’s two volunteers, it helps to remember that it’s not about her. “I really want to be there to document this family and the beautiful things about this child that they want to remember,” she said. “And I am so focused on that, that I don’t have time to think about my personal reaction.”

Rhonda Bolling, who volunteers in Ketchikan, said that it helps to “have my camera in front of me and just stay focused on the shots. The camera really is a filter for a lot of the emotion.”

Experience also makes it easier for photographers to push their emotions aside and capture the images. But that doesn’t mean that they are indifferent to the grief that surrounds them.

They all still shed a few tears and reach for tissues during shoots. Enderle has had to recuse  herself on several occasions to collect herself, and said she still buckles when she sees grown men cry. Hines said she tends to get emotional during the editing process, which is when the gravity of the loss hits her.

But despite the sadness, they say it’s worth it.

“It helps (parents) remember the blessing and the beauty of that child,” Bolling said. “It offers a legacy and is a beautiful way to honor the child, which is very healing for parents.”

Frawley even encourages parents who may initially shy away from the idea of photographs to have them taken anyway.

“You may not want them right away -- and maybe not ever,” she said. “But to know you have the  opportunity to look at the person you created, and to remember them as beautiful angels, is the ultimate gift.”

Amy Newman is an Anchorage free-lance writer who’s written for Alaska Baby & Child and other Alaska publications.