A photographer's work with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

July 27 | Guest post by Angela Gaul

You may recognize Angela of Milestone Images from her various Offbeat Mama features, or even her numerous apperances on Offbeat Bride (such as this Q&A). Today she's featured in a slightly different light–through her work with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. You can find a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep affiliated photographer in your area by searching the organization's directory.

And a heads-up: this post may make you cry.

Photo provided by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
When Ariel first asked me to write about the volunteer work I do for an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I wanted to start writing this entry right away. The problem was, I couldn't find the right words to describe exactly what it is that I do.

Oh sure, I could give you the official version, the chosen words as sensitive as the fragile babies I photograph: "We are a network of volunteer photographers who are on call to serve bereaved families and honor their children through infant remembrance photography." I could quote the mission statement right out of the training manual; words that fill my mouth as solemnly and earnestly as a prayer, oath, or pledge: "To introduce remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with the free gift of professional portraiture. We believe these images serve as an important step in the family's healing process by honoring their child's legacy."

So yes, I am one of more than 7,000 photographers in the U.S. and 25 other countries around the world who are on call to go to hospitals and hospice locations where we shoot portraits of babies who only have a short time with their parents. Some of the babies are very ill. Some have already passed; some are born still, and others pass during our time together.

It's easier to tell you WHY I do this than it is to talk about what I actually do.

There is a little girl I've grown up knowing about whom I never got to meet. In 1977, my mom and her best friend were both pregnant at the same time. They were colleagues in the same line of work, both expecting girls with due dates within a month of each other, and they both went to the same OB/GYN. They were so excited to be sharing the experience of their first pregnancies together, with all the hopes and dreams that come with that.

Mimi, my mom's best friend, was devastated when her baby stopped moving during the eighth month of her pregnancy. Actually, they were both devastated. So was Mimi's husband, of course, and my dad, too. It was every expectant parent's worst nightmare.

My sister Amanda was born March 3, 1977. At the exact same time, my mother's best friend was in labor at a bigger hospital in a nearby city, giving birth to a daughter she would have to say hello and goodbye to at the same time under the care of an OB/GYN who specialized in labor and delivery after fetal demise.

Mimi lost her own mother to cancer shortly thereafter, and in the throes of grief multiplied, she and her husband moved to Texas to try to make a new start. Mimi and my mom got together just once more to say goodbye, but my sister- then still an infant- stayed home with my dad. It was just too hard.

They stayed in touch and wrote letters, this being the 1970s and all. Mimi went on to have two healthy children. First, she gave birth to a son, Ryan, in 1978. Mom had me in 1979, and Mimi gave birth to another daughter, Lauren, in 1980.

Mimi didn't actually lay eyes on my sister in person until 1988, when Amanda was eleven. My mom prepped us both, telling us in an age-appropriate way about Mimi's firstborn, the little girl they'd both longed to watch grow up but never got to know.

Mimi is strong, and wonderful, and full of grace, and I know she looks at my sister as a reminder of where her firstborn daughter would be in life.

Eventually, we got to the point where we went to visit them, vacationing together in Boston, the Berkshires and Seattle. The four of us "kids," Amanda and me and Ryan and Lauren, couldn't get over how similar our moms were on those trips. They used the same catch phrases. They had the same all-too-familiar warning tone as we whined past bedtime. They whipped out identical AAA guidebooks dictating itineraries to the Norman Rockwell museum, the Native American story-telling salmon dinner, a gut-lurching drive to the summit of Mt. St. Helens in a minivan.

Our moms. They are the same, and different.

Mimi is strong, and wonderful, and full of grace, and I know she looks at my sister as a reminder of where her firstborn daughter would be in life. When Amanda got accepted to her first-choice college, coincidentally Mimi's alma mater, she sent immediate congratulations and one of those all-important stickers for the rearview window of my sister's car. More than 28 years after her losing her daughter, Mimi attended my sister's wedding in the campus cathedral of that same college.

So I do this volunteer work, photographing families for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Sometimes the parents have been prepared for these all-too-fleeting moments with their child from a telling ultrasound onward. Others, not at all.

I photograph the baby's hands and feet, their little ears. I try to show how much hair each baby has, to document every little thing a parent will want to remember in the months and years ahead about a child they can only hold their hearts, not in their arms. I photograph the teddy bears and gifts sent as talismans of strength and faith.

I use the baby's name as much as possible. I coo, and pose, and dress, and shoot. I know that for every child I meet doing this work, there are siblings, grandparents, best friends, entire faith communities and even blog readers who love this child, this entire family.

I use the baby's name as much as possible. I coo, and pose, and dress, and shoot. I know that for every child I meet doing this work, there are siblings, grandparents, best friends, entire faith communities and even blog readers who love this child, this entire family. They won't get the chance that I have to meet this baby. My pictures might be the only introduction they get, and so I treat my short time with the family as the honor and privilege that it is.

I go to the hospital with my cameras, a consent form, a brochure explaining how Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep came to be. I also always take a tiny knitted cap with me as a gift for the baby. My mother-in-law makes them. She, too, has walked this path, and she always asks me how the parents are doing whenever I get back from a session. "Sad," I say, and she nods, because there really aren't words to describe how devastating it is when parents lose their child.

Every family that Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep serves receives a high resolution CD of retouched images, completely free of charge. Most of the photographers, me included, also create slideshows set to music composed just for this purpose, and it's up to us if we want to offer an additional gift.

You might be surprised, or possibly not, at just how many women have gone through babyloss. When I tell people about my work with NILMDTS, time after time, mothers and in-laws and grandmothers would open up, saying something like, "You know, Aunt Margaret would have loved to have a photo of Patrick…." and I would say, "Oh. Oh wow. I am so sorry. Who was Patrick? Please tell me about him." The older generations in particular were encouraged to forget, as if that would ever be possible.

I'm not really sure why or how I have the ability to do this. Some of the other volunteers have gone through babyloss themselves, but I myself am not yet a mama. I don't know how I can do this work in the hospital without crying or falling apart when I'm photographing people who are beyond devastated. It's not a gift everyone has the ability to give. I can, and so I do.

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  1. You are an amazing person. I was crying just reading that. I don't think I could do it. But I'm glad you do.

    1 agrees
  2. Such an awesome story. Actually brought tears to my eyes. Its such a brave thing you do for these families. I would totally do it, I just dont know how I could keep myself from not greiving with the families. Awesome story.

  3. Wow, this really floored me. I had a friend due in the same month as me who lost her baby at 5 months gestation. Her daughter was stillborn and she wrote me describing her baby in detail; whose ears she had, how big she was. I have been so touched by her experience, by having a baby who you can only hold once. And the statement "I know she looks at my sister as a reminder of where her firstborn daughter would be in life" is how I feel visiting her now. When my baby learns to sit, laugh, crawl… I know those are reminders of things her daughter never got to do. It is more overwhelming than I could describe.

    • Thank you so much for sharing. I am so sorry for your friend's loss, and yours as well. For the record, when it was time to hit the dance floor at my sister and brother-in-law's reception, Mimi led the way. Wild horses couldn't have kept her away. She sat in a place of honor behind the mother of the bride at the ceremony, with her own healthy, awesome, sarcastically hilarious daughter, her third-born, now almost 30, sitting at her side. There is joy after loss, and with time, acknowledgement and understanding, there is peace, too. Sending you both thoughts of light and time.

  4. Thank you so much for the work that you do. I just heard of NILMDTS recently and I think it's just amazing.

  5. Thank you and many thanks to all the others involved in this project.

    I've read story after story on the PCOS boards of women who have lost their children, and have had NILMDTS come and do photography with them. Its an amazing way to honour and remember a child that has been lost.

  6. I went to their website to check it out, and promptly burst into tears. Thank you for your work and damn those pregnancy hormones.

  7. Wow. My throat is burning from holding in my cries, so I don't wake up the little one in my arms.

    You are truly a wonderful and beautiful person. I thank you for what you do.

  8. I'm not yet 3 weeks postpartum with #2 and I cried. I don't think I'm hormonally ready for this kind of post.
    Thank you.

  9. This is incredibly special and beautiful work. I know that I could never do this but I am infinitely grateful there are kind souls who can. Yes, I'm crying right now and thankfully feeling my baby kick like crazy.

  10. Thank you. Truly. Like many other readers, this brought me to tears. We lost our baby at only 10 weeks, so didn't have much to photograph. However, people made us little quilts and we scattered the cremated remains someplace special. It helped us tremendously with our healing, as I am sure this helps for all the families you touch. Thank you.

  11. My "baby" is 3 1/2 and I still cried. 🙂 It's not just the hormones. It's a truly touching story. I have an online acquaintance who lost her baby in utero, and she had NILMDTS take photos. Amazing.

  12. Anyone reading should visit the website! It's truly wonderful that an organization like this exists. Thank you (and all of the other photographers) for the beautiful service you provide.

  13. My niece passed away 2 years ago at 7 months old. My little girl was 5 months older. We got her diagnosis on my daughters 1st birthday. Unfortunately, the strain of seeing my bub has taken my sister in law from me. We no longer have a relationship like we did. Their newest baby is now 2 months old, and has been diagnosed with the same disorder that took their daughter, and I am unable to be there for her. I have cried immensely reading this. Keep up your work. It is a wonderful thing that you do.

    • Oh, I'm so sorry for your loss. Really and truly. I haven't lost a child, as I said, but I am unfortunately all too familiar with tough, repeat genetic diagnoses in my extended family. I am so sorry. Ugh.

      Personally, I am a Do-er. I need to Do Things in times of crises, but sometimes we just can't be there for our loved ones who are in the deepest need, for whatever reason. If you just aren't the best person to physically hold your sister-in-law's hand right now- it's not your fault, it just is what is it- don't forget that supporting those who *are* on the front lines can be invaluable, too. Depending on how close you are geographically, you could help care for the pets or collect the mail for your mother-in-law or your SIL's best friend, or whoever it is that CAN the best person to be there. Maybe you can update a CarePages site or send emails with updates. If people are donating in your niece's memory or sending notes of support in light of the new baby's diagnosis, you could offer to manage the PayPal transactions or write thank you notes on behalf of your brother and sister-in-law.

      Don't underestimate the value of being the Deflector of Well-Intentioned Idiots. If there's someone who's determined to say that your niece and the new baby's illness are "meant to be" because "God needs another angel" or that your brother and SIL are going through this because God is testing them or some other well-intentioned but incredibly painful cliche, feel free to gently steer that person into your space and deflect them your sister-in-law. Even if nothing is said, I'm sure it won't be unappreciated.

      If there's anything I can do (making a slideshow or sharing music composed to honor cherished children like your niece who passed two years ago,) please feel free to email me. Take gentle care.

      • Thanks so much Angie. Unfortunately there is a bit of distance between us so helping out in some ways just isn't possible. I have taken on a fundraising hat so far, and have taken responsibility for updates for extended family. We will keep on keeping on, and hopefully one day things can mend some more. Thank you for your offer also, truly kind. My brother made a slide with baby's photos. That's how I know just how invaluable the work you do actually is.

  14. Oh my. The thoughts this post brings up are just overwhelming. I dont know how you do it, but Im glad you do.

  15. I heard about this organization a while back and I was really glad that I had when a few months ago my best friend's cousins' baby was stillborn. I was able to tell my friend about NILMDS and her cousins were able to have a forever reminder of their little girl. So thank you for doing this, thank you so much.

  16. Whilst I have never personally lost a late term baby myself, I know of many others that have in the IF community that I am involved with.

    Those that chose to have those photos taken express their thanks time and time again throughout their blogs. You do a wonderful, lasting thing for these women.

    Thankyou.

    Jo

  17. *wiping away tears* This is one of the greatest acts of compassion I have ever seen. May Angela (I just typo'd her name as Angels…hmm) and all those families be granted peace.

  18. As a mama who only has a few pictures from NILMDTS to remember her daughter by I want to say thank you. You know how important and necessary your work with the organization is, but still, thank you.

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  19. thank you so much for what you do for these families i couldnt stop crying through this whole post but i thank you so much for sharing this and for what you do.

  20. I am so moved by these comments! To everyone who has expressed their gratitude for the work done by NILMDTS photographers, I say thank YOU for your appreciation and acknowledgement.

    That said, and I'm not trying to be overly modest when I say this, I swear, I'm no angel. Honestly. I am an ordinary person who accidentally said the "F-word" in front of my grandmother last month. 😉 Plus, I am continually amazed by the other volunteers that I meet through this organization. You have no idea. I'm constantly humbled by their generosity, compassion and commitment to this work. They are The Awesome. Seriously.

    For those who've shared their stories of loss here, thank you so much for sharing. For the babylost who are reading along silently, I acknowledge your parenthood as true, and your children as beloved.

    For the friends who are struggling to maintain connections across the gulf of bereavement, remember that my mom and Mimi spent more than a decade only sharing phone calls and letters. Time doesn't heal all wounds, but by the time when Mimi sat in a place of honor behind the mother of the bride at my sister's wedding, her daughter Lauren- her healthy, hilarious, sarcastically witty, beautiful, nearly 30-year-old daughter, her thirdborn- was at her side. When it was time to hit the dance floor at my sister and brother-in-law's reception, Mimi was right there celebrating with the rest of us. It is entirely possible that- 30 years from this time of deep sadness- that you and your best friend, too, will do the Electric Slide together at your children's weddings. It could happen, is all I'm saying.

    Anyway, all I really wanted to say was thanks for reading and commenting and listening. Take gentle care, everybody.

    • Seriously, the F-bomb. What did your grandmother say? Really, thank you for all that you do! Hopefully, you will never know first hand how amazing what you do is to us BLMs. Those pictures are our most prized possessions. Nothing in this world could persuade me do give them up. So thank you sweet lady for all you do! Blessings!

      • Actually, my grandmother is awesome. She's 90, and when my parents aren't around she tells me all about her adventures from before she was married. With details. My dad, on the other hand, was horrified at my language, but he also doesn't know about the crowbar his mother used to keep in the backseat of her Studebaker in case her boyfriend (NOT my grandfather, before they met) "wanted to get fresh." She made a stern face and then cracked up when my dad left the room.

        Blessings right back at ya.

  21. Three months ago, I lost my beautiful baby girl named Lia. Sadly, the medical staff at the state hospital were not trained to encourage taking photos. If it wasn't for my partner to take 4 photos of Lia with the camera on his phone, I would have had nothing to remember her face by, her tiny little feet and toes and her fat little red cheeks. Therefore, the work that you do is phenomenal. I'm not even sure whether you completely understand the depths of your contribution for a bereaved mother, father, sibling and family. I say this as a mother who has lost her first born and almost had nothing to remember her by. Now, my photos of Lia stand proudly in our room and I can look at her whenever I want, even though I sadly cannot hold her in my arms.

    I do hope that more people such as yourself can contribute in places such as Cape Town's state hospitals in South Africa. I wish you all the strength in the work that you do! It is truly exceptional.

  22. This is an amazing thing you do that I'd never heard of before now. I'm trying not to cry.

  23. Can we get a NSFW warning on stories that might make us sob? I know, i know….probably most of them on here…but this is beautiful. I wish this had been around when my aunt lost her baby shortly after she was born…

  24. as someone who is 6 months pregnant, had a previous miscarriage, and now has stillbirth as an ever-present fear…. this was really hard to read. but amazing.

  25. I wish I had known about NILMDTS when my son Jonathan Sebastian was born still in December 2005. I was lucky in that the hospital was very familiar with stillbirth, and took pictures of him, and gave me a few wisps of his hair, and I had a chance to hold him. I have a cousin whose son would have been almost the exact age as Jon, only 2-3 weeks older. It is so hard to see him sometimes and wonder what could have been.

    Thank you again for this wonderful, so very important work.

  26. You are an amazing woman for helping these families heal by doing this. This made me so sad but also was a comfort to know that there are people out there who think and care about these things.

  27. one of my goals is to become a photographer for this organization. I have known far too many people touched by loss and so many have little to nothing to remember their baby by.

    My mom's best friend gave birth to her son the same day I was born (just down the hall from my mom!). His life was precious short due to complications of jaundice….

  28. All I can say is that you are truly a gift from God to these parents. My good friend lost a daughter in her 7th month of pregnancy. She has nothing like that to remember her by. All she has is a box that her little dress was put in. You should be highly paid for the work you do, but you pay will not be on this earth(I couldn't even understand the gratification you get from what you do). God Bless you for what you do.

  29. Thank you for sharing your story. I gave birth to my son still at 38 weeks gestation. My sister gave birth to her beautiful healthy daughter just 4 days after. I was devastated, and did not see my niece or sister for 8 months. I know Mimi's pain. I have started a organization that supports families dealing with pregnancy and infant loss. We encourage families to see out a NILMDTS photographer. Thank you so very much for offering your work and service to families like mine. I can not express what your gift means to us.

  30. We lost our Eli five months ago and I look at our pictures everyday. They are all I have besides a few memories of him. He only lived for two hours after he was born. I am so thankful for NILMDTS.

  31. I think this is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard of. Thank you for sharing it with us, and for the blessing you are to those grieving families!

  32. You are a great woman and this is a great service. I wish I had known about this last year. My cousin, pregnant with twins lost them both just a couple short weeks before her due date. She survived a ruptured uterus, but both babies were lost. It was devastating and on the heels of the loss of our grandfather. Last year was a rough one for our family. Time moves on. Wounds scar over but the memories remain. I know this would have been something that could have helped the whole family deal with the loss and the memories of those babies better.
    Keep up the good work.

  33. My Cousin was able to have NILMDTS do a session with her son after he was born an angel. She and all that are close with her enjoyed those pictures. As I cry, I have to say thank you for doing a wonderful service to parents and families who don't want to forget but remember so the little angels can live on in our memories.

  34. Oh, man, I'm crying. This is the first I've heard of NILMDTS, but that's such an amazing thing to do for a bereaved family. Thank you for writing this, and thank you for doing what you do.

  35. Our son Zachary was born at 22 weeks — far too early to live for long outside the womb — and the photos we have of him are among my most prized possessions. Through photos, it has been amazing to share him with his older siblings, and in the future, with his baby sister. The work you do is such a gift. Thank you…

  36. What a touching post – I was just notified that I'm now an assistant to a local photographer for the NILMDTS orgranization and when I called my mother, my biggest fan in my photography business, to tell her of my news, she too said she would have liked a photo of her only son that she had. I've always known there was a stillborn delivery before me, and I knew he was a boy, but I never thought of it in the way she did – her only son. I am honored to be a part of such an amazing group.

  37. My god, you've got me in tears here. Your story hits home with me in so many ways. Before I was born, my mother was pregnant with a boy, but he was stillborn. She's told me about how the nurses were sympathetic but the doctors were dismissive– cold, even. She was encouraged to forget about the baby she never held, to move on and have more children (which she did). But what made it even harder than the loss was the fact that her close friend from church was also pregnant, with a little girl. I've known that girl, Melissa, my entire life– and all that time she was a reminder of what my mother lost. Even after all these years, she cannot forget, and I wouldn't expect her to. My future mother-in-law also lost a child, what should have been my fiance's little sister. After the loss and some infertility problems, she gave up on more children. She gave up!

    These women are two of the most important people in my life, and I am heartbroken when I think of how much they suffered. I'm grateful that you and other photographers like you are doing such beautiful work. You are helping families in a time of need, tenderly documenting something that used to be dismissed. My moms will never have a picture of their babies, will never have a keepsake except what they carry in their heart.. but your work means that future mothers don't have to suffer like that. They can remember, they can cherish.

    I'm sorry, I don't even know what to say, except: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  38. I cried when I read this. It is a beautifully written piece. I feel it is all too familiar…

    My cousin and I were due within 6 weeks of eachother. (Both our first. Both girls.) We loved being pregnant together and shared our experiences on a daily basis… We went to the same Dr., We read the same books… We were so excited that we would both have little girls to grow up so close together. I had my little girl in Feb and we were all overjoyed. My cousin had her baby in April, exactly 6 weeks later, She was stillborn at 38 weeks. My heart broke that day. My cousin is now the Godmother to my daughter…

    Bless you for doing this work… I know personally how touching it is for the family. Those memories are the best gift anyone could ever give. Thank you.

  39. Thank you for the work you do, and for spreading the word about NILMDTS. The precious portraits I have of my first son are a tremendous comfort, and I am additionally grateful that his younger brother will someday be able to see the brother he never got to meet.

  40. Thank you for giving this special gift to others.

    Back in the late 1940s, my grandparents' first baby (my aunt) was born with spina bifida and only lived a few days. In those days the hospitals had much stricter policies on visiting, and many people did not own personal cameras. But my grandparents had a good friend who was a photographer, and they snuck him into the hospital, where he took one precious photo of their newborn daughter. My grandma was never even allowed to hold her baby – she just touched her little foot as the nurse held her up before taking her away.

    My grandmother doesn't talk much about the experience of losing her first baby; it has been over 60 years and my grandparents had three more children and a full and happy life. But 65+ years later, that photo is still prized, and I know that my grandma feels so lucky to at least have that one photo of her first child.

  41. Like many others reading this story, it has brought tears to my eyes. Just like I lack the ability to work with special children, I could not bring myself to delve into your line of work. It takes a very strong person to face this every day and do it solely as a gift. I appreciate everything you do to help console those who are, unfortunately, inconsolable. Hopefully your work will serve to help those families and friends deal with the loss without grieving, as much as remembering the love they have.

  42. Thank you for what you do. Such a miracle these parents can have such a precious gift to remember their tiny gem. Close to their hearts forever…

  43. I lost my son on March 25th, 2009. He was full term, beautiful and perfect, and the photographers from NILMDTS help give me memories that I will keep with me for a life time. They made me feel like my little boy was real, when the hospital staff made me feel like he was a "mistake". I look at those photos every day, and remember all the love.

    Thank you. You give a great gift, to families who see no hope in their future.

  44. It was a strange coincidence to find this post. A friend posted a link to this site (not this article in particular) on her FB, and as an offbeat parent-to-be, I thought I'd check it out. This post happened to show up as a featured post, and I couldn't be more grateful that it did.

    It just so happens that I will soon (hopefully) meet my own NILMDTS photographer. I have been carrying twins, but one, my son Zander, stopped breathing in the 35th week after a valiant fight against a congenital heart defect diagnosed early on. We expect to deliver him, along with his (healthy, as far as we know) sister, this week or next, and I've contacted NILMDTS about arranging for photo services.

    After finding out Zander had passed, my first question was whether the doctors would allow me to see and hold him after the birth. I wished that I could have someone capture those moments with him, but I was afraid to talk about it because I was embarrassed–I thought people would think it was awful or morbid or wrong or desperate or something. I was thrilled when a friend referred me to the NILMDTS site. Just the idea that there are people out there who understand my impulse to hold on to some memory of my son means the world to me. I cry every time I consider the possibility that this could happen for me (as I'm crying now). It's an overwhelming relief and comfort.

    I hope my area coordinator is able to send a photographer and that s/he is as sensitive and wonderful as you clearly are. I can't thank you enough for the work that you and all the NILMDTS volunteers do. If I'm able to get photographs of Zander, I know it will mean *everything* to me.

    • Following up on my earlier post. Zander and his sister, Zoey, were delivered on 21 January. (I'm happy to report that Zoey, who was born healthy and active at 6lbs, 6ozs, is now sleeping peacefully next to me as I type.)

      A NILMDTS photographer arrived so quickly after the birth she must have traveled by angel wings. She was kind and sensitive, taking photos of Zander by himself, with Zoey, and with me. She was wonderful. I've already received the resulting photographs and montage in the mail, and I'm overwhelmed with gratitude. Though I've only been able to view them once so far (it's just too hard right now), I thought the pictures were amazing, and I'm so glad I have them. It's such a comfort to know that someday I can show Zoey what her beautiful twin brother looked like.

      I can't thank my photographer, or any of you volunteers, enough for this amazing service. What you all do is unbelievable.

      All best,
      Angel

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