What We Remember
Photography changes our experience of loss
Sandy Puc’, professional photographer and co-founder of The Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep Foundation, relates how portrait photographs help bereaved families cope with the loss of young children.
In 2005 I received a call requesting that I go to a local hospital to take a photo of a mother and her newborn. The dad on the other end of the phone didn’t project the joy most new parents do. He was insistent that I come as quickly as possible to take portraits of his infant son. I suggested that I’d try to fit the session into my schedule for the following Monday. “You have to come today,” Michael Haggard said, “My son will be removed from life support later this evening.” At the time I received the call, I could not imagine being in his position. My heart just broke for this stranger and I knew that I had to go and provide the images.
I cleared my schedule, prepared my equipment, and took my assistants to the hospital with me that evening. I was overwhelmed with emotion and prayed that I would have the strength to keep my emotions under control. The portrait session that followed was one like none other I’d ever done. Mike and Cheryl Haggard explained that they wanted pictures of their baby, lovingly held by his parents. And then after he passed away, they wanted pictures without the tubes, wires, and breathing apparatus. They wanted tender portraits of parents and their sleeping baby, pictures of their precious son that they would be proud to display and share with everyone.
The session was as peaceful as it was heartbreaking. The portraits taken that night did more than chronicle a life cut short; they were the first steps in letting go and in the healing process for the Haggards and their family. “This was our memorial for Maddux,” Cheryl said. “There was no funeral, no visitors, just this beautiful goodbye.”
Within two months of the tragic loss of Maddux, Cheryl Haggard and I co-founded Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep (NILMDTS), a non-profit foundation committed to assisting parents and families who are going through the difficult times and experiences that follow an early infant loss. NILMDTS works nationally to connect families with local photographers and provides parents with a DVD and a reproducible CD of images of their baby.
The gift professional photographers bestow—heirloom portraits of beloved babies—are something tangible for grieving families to hold on to, something that proves that their little one was on earth and that their baby’s life was valuable. The portraits are a bridge for anguished parents and help them journey back to the business of living. The photographs help them to become more whole again after losing a piece of their heart to eternity. They will never forget their baby, and they shouldn’t.
Feedback from parents who have lost babies has proven the need for and the worth of this project. The portraits make a very difficult time just a bit easier for bereaved parents. Parents have said that despite the experience of only spending hours or days with their babies, the portraits are what they return to. One mother said that when she looks at the portraits, it’s like having her child back in her life, even if just for a little while. After viewing the portraits of her baby, another mother said that seeing them made her son, Matthew, real in a unique way. He'd never have a birthday or a take a first step, but looking at the portraits of her son was a validating and meaningful experience for his parents.
There will always be some people who may think what we’re doing is strange, but parents who have lost a child understand and applaud our efforts. We’ve seen, time and time again, how the experience of receiving infant bereavement portraits has a positive effect on grieving families, despite the awful circumstances. The portraits prove that their baby existed, was loved, and was an important part of a family.
Losing an infant is a tragedy, and I’m grateful to have the ability to help grieving families. In a meaningful and tangible way, making photographs for them is like giving them back their child. Like all parents, those who have lost a child still need to share the news of their baby with the world. Beautiful bereavement portraits can proudly be included with a display of family portraits without parents having to worry about offending someone who might be squeamish with amateur, unflattering pictures of a child who is no longer living.
More importantly, even bereaved parents love to carry a wallet photo of their little angel and say, “This was our child. Wasn’t she beautiful?”
- Maddux Achilles Haggard with his mother, Cheryl Haggard, February 2005, courtesy of Sandy Puc’ and the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation
- The Haggard Family, February 2005, courtesy of Sandy Puc’ and the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation
- The Haggard Family II, February 2005, courtesy of Sandy Puc’ and the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation