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

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.

Comments on A photographer’s work with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

  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.

  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.

  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.

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