Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bereavement Photography and Customs

I know I'm currently working on a series sharing my birthing experiences with people, but I got to read some really horrific comments in regards to the lost Duggar Baby, Jubilee Shalom, that are really leaving me to question humanity. I changed my profile photo to my daughter and posted a status in support of, not only The Duggars, but every single mother out there that has lost a child or will lose a child at any time in her life. Imagine my shock to receive a comment against bereavement photographs by one of my own family. So, I think, this subject really needs addressed.

During the Victorian Era, death was common amongst infants and youth. Childhood mortality took one out of five babies in their first year and two out of five children before their fifth birthday. Over 30% of children passed away during the 19th century. Women always expected to lose children. 

Daguerreotype (a detailed photo on polished silver) was becoming popular. Due to this, people began to photograph recently deceased people, though a majority were babies and children. The practice of Memento Mori grew in popularity as photography became more affordable using other mediums such as ambrotype (on glass), tintype (on thin inexpensive metal), and then on paper known as carte-de-visite. The "deceased" (truly HATE that word as it is so dehumanizing) would be photographed as if they were alive, but sleeping. Most of the time with babies and children, they would be propped up surrounded by family (either parents and siblings, just parents, just a parent, or just siblings). Sometimes, there was a photo of a baby in a coffin or just a child surrounded by it's toys. Again, these deaths were commonplace.

This is our history. So many parents and families never got a chance to have a photo before death, so they got in this one last photo to remember their loved one. It wasn't to remember the death, it was to remember the person. They didn't want to forget their lost loved one.

After WWI, funerals began moving into funeral parlors. Death began occuring in hospitals. Undertakers would care for our loved ones and bury them in a grave in a cemetary. Before that, funerals were at home. Death was at home. Your loved ones would care for and bury you. And again, this was commonplace. Unfortunately, when you took home out of the equation, death was almost hidden from people and it became more "private". The less people are exposed to death, the more taboo it became. Luckily, with medical advances, not as many infants and children died, so this is something most people were not accustomed to anymore. This is a great thing, but it has backfired and made loss a taboo subject.

As the Victorian Era came to an end and death was removed from the home, people were more able to dissociate themselves from death. When a mother would lose a child before/after birth, the baby would just be taken away and placed in an unmarked grave that, sometimes, the parents didn't even know about. At one point, babies weren't named or even considered viable until they hit 30 days of age. It was believed that acknowledging the loss caused you to be in mourning, so if you pretend the baby never happened, you had no reason to mourn. For older infants and children, they were buried and life moved on. For the newborns, most parents didn't even get to see their baby, let alone have anything to remember that child by, like a photo. Parents were encouraged to just get over it and have another baby. So many of these parents were left with these gaping wounds that could never heal because they had no closure. When my friends and I hear about loss from the 40's to the 60/70's, the stories are all the same.

As the 70's and 80's approached, things changed some. Sometimes parents did get to see the child and plan funerals. There were no photos and you weren't suppose to grieve. And now, in most places, you get to hold and see your baby. You get to have photographs taken by a photographer who volunteers through Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, an infant bereavement photography organization. You get to be active with the funeral planning. We know where our babies get buried, if we choose to bury them at all.

Now, due to The Duggars sharing photos of tiny feet and a hand, they have come under so much fire. Not only have people criticized the photos, but they have criticized the way the parents are choosing to grieve. One psychologist spoke up proclaiming " “From what I know of parents who have lost children, it’s horrific. It’s not something you want pictures of.". To this, I have to say- "WTF?". So, I asked some friends and they gave me permission to share:

" I will always be grateful that we were encouraged to spend as much time with him as we wanted and take pictures. It helped me to see his pictures around our home and to look through his memory box as I grieved. It helped to not only make it real so my mind could accept reality but to also heal, each day crying less and less till I could look at his pictures and smile, happy that I have them to remember him, rather than break down."

" I did hold her and I do have pictures. I didn't think I would be able to handle either, but after I had her and I slept I woke up with this overwhelming urge to hold her so I'm glad I got to and I'm gld I had someone take pictures of those first moments. Someone told me I might want it later which was why I made sure to have pictures. It definitely helped.- Monica

"Yes Bambi we both me and hubby got to hold or Taylor lynn she was born at 26 weeks and 3 days. We did Kanga care with her. I cherish all the time we had with her. She was in the Nicu for 4 days. We were with her petty much all the time. I don't know what I would do without our time we had, our pictures and the memories"

"I did both and more. We were beyond blessed we knew the outcome of our Babys life before he was born. We had a dear friend and photographer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep capture the most precious moments of the short time we had our son. She made me a gorgeous album and slideshow for his service. I cherish those pictures more than words can express. We also had someone come to the hospital and take 3d hand and foot castings. Every member of our family has his precious feet and we also have a statute if his feet and his little hand holding my finger. These items are so special to me. To this day, nearly 5 yrs later, they are something I couldn't imagine not having. We are so blessed to have walked away from such a devastating loss with some of the most beautiful memories of the time we spent holding and loving our precious son. I wouldn't change how and what we did for the world. Those moments are so precious and will stay tucked in my heart forever"

" The nurses were kind enough to take a bunch of pictures after they took him out of the room and print them for us. I think it has helped to have them and to have been able to hold him."

":*( I had lots of photos, wanted to take photos at the funeral home and my family was REALLY against it. I even asked the funeral home if they took any without me knowing, just so I could see his sweet face just one more time."

" Mine was a miscarriage (14 weeks) so not quite the same, but I do regret not looking at him more and not getting a couple of pictures, or at least getting a copy of the last ultra-sound (although the memory of the screen is burned into my brain, but it would be nice to have for his memory box). I did have an u/s at 8 weeks and the tech gave me a bunch of pics and a cd (which I thought was silly at the time, but boy was I so grateful for it after we lost him), but you know at 14 weeks they're so much more developed and he looked so much different, it would have been nice to have."

" I saw and held Luca. I don't know if it has helped my grief simply because I don't know the reason he left us. I think it was better to have held him and see him than to have not done anything. The hospital took pictures of him for us and I do think that is good for me."

" It gave me time to love on Rachael and it gave us time to mourn her all at the same time. Family members who were willing also got to hold her. Mike went with the nurse and walked her to the morgue when it was time for us to go. That was the hardest thing I've ever done was not to go with them. BUT if we hadn't had that time I think I'd still be a basket case."

Now, since I recently shared about my miscarriages and the story about the second one, I'm going to say that I wish I had a photo of that baby. Even though it was small, I wish I could have a picture to look at instead of relying upon my memory. I'm glad I got a chance to see and hold that little baby. I think acknowledging that little person helped me come to grips with everything. I truly hate not knowing what happened to that baby after me taking it to the doctor. I will never know if it was considered medical waste or if it was buried in a mass grave somewhere. 

On photos and rainbow babies:

"I think it helps with your other kids too. My daughter was born after Faith so she loves the pictures of her sister so I love that we can share them with her."

A Doctors Perspective:

" I always encourage my patients to hold their stillborn babies, to take photos, and to take hand and footprints. Our hospital has a system in place where mementos are always taken, and if the parents change their minds after the fact and want them after all, they are archived for several weeks. I know that I would want to."

As you can see, many of us truly cherish being able to see and hold our children. It has helped us in our grief and given us something tangible to hold on to. Looking at the older women that are just now searching for graves and opening up, you can see and hear the pain of these unacknowledged losses. They have been in pain and unable to talk about it for 30, 40, or 50 years. Could you imagine just having your baby whisked away, not seeing it, not holding it, having nothing, and being told to get over it and have another baby as though another child can replace that lost baby?? We need to be able to talk about our babies. We NEED to hold that child. We NEED to have something of that child. We NEED acknowledgement of that life cut short. It is crucial to how we cope with these deaths. When we are told we cannot share or we see comments such as "that is disgusting", "those are morbid", calling our child a "corpse" (there was a woman on babycenter who did this ALL THE TIME), it hurts us all over again. It's hard enough enduring loss, but to deal with people being insensitive due to their own fears and insecurities, we ARE victimized all over again.

When it comes to our photos, these are the ONLY photos we will ever have. We don't have the chance to photograph those first smiles, first crawls, first steps, first teeth, first birthdays, first holidays, NOTHING. You know, people say The Duggars should grieve in private. In other words, they don't want to acknowledge grieving parents. Back in the Victorian Era, people had special mourning garments and had set periods with which to mourn and how to behave in each period. So, grief was observed back then. Then grief wasn't, and now it is again or we are trying to have it observed by others again.

Our photos are not morbid or creepy or disgusting and they do help us in our grief. With that, I will leave you with the video of my daughter, put together by a wonderful photographer named Teresa.

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