Pictures of the Dead

There is something I don’t think I have ever talked about on my blog: I had a stillborn baby. It was many years ago and it was very sad and really, what is there to say? One day I was happily six months pregnant and the next day I was having an ultrasound and being told the baby had died and I would have to deliver it that evening.

It. Him. It was a baby boy.

I was lucky enough to have him at a hospital that was very kind and helpful and considerate. The staff suggested I name him and hold him and take pictures. I was fine with their suggestions until they got to the “take pictures” part. Who in their right mind wants to take pictures? I just wanted to put the whole thing out of my head and get on with life. The nurse was adamant, “one day you will want to see pictures. So we will take them and keep them. And when you want them they will be here.”  I thought the nurse was a total nutjob. But I had other things on my mind like how quiet the delivery room was without the constant “whoosh, whoosh” of the baby’s heart monitor.  Or how to handle the pain of labor even though it somehow felt right to be in agony both mentally and physically.  Or what would it be like to walk past the hospital nursery window with empty arms?  Pictures? Those were the least of my concerns.

The baby was tiny and perfect and purplish. His body showed no clues to what went wrong. We named him Hamish. It is a name we had always liked but was a bit too outlandish even for intrepid baby-namers like us (who wants a child to spend the rest of his life saying “it’s Scottish for James. And it’s a long ‘a’, pronounced HAY-mish”).  After the delivery (barely one push) we held our sweet little baby while our wonderful doctor sat in the hospital room with us for almost an hour. Just talking. And listening. He didn’t hurry out and make the nurses deal with it, as doctors are wont to do. It’s hard to say how much that meant to me.

As sad an experience as you would imagine it to be, it wasn’t. At least not at the hospital. All I can think is that my prayers and the prayers of friends and family had bouyed me up. I felt so loved. I could feel God everywhere around me. I felt calm. I felt assured.  Everything was all right. Even though it was so not all right.

Once I got home I was a mess. Even something small like the funeral home calling to ask how to spell our last name sent me sobbing to my bed. I had four very young children at that point and although I must have taken care of them, I have no recollection of doing so. My fondest wish was that the nightmare would end and I would be back to normal as quickly as possible. I was glad there were no pictures to remind me of all that had happened. The milk that poured out of me mixed with tears was reminder enough.

The thing I didn’t understand about the death of someone who has been part of us or whom we have dearly loved is that there is no going back to normal. We have just cracked open and begun a new existence. In a matter of hours the survivors have metamorphosized into different creatures, never to be the same.

That moment pushed me to a crossroad of my beliefs. Would I be angry and bitter and shake my fist at God, my body or whatever else I could think of? Would I wallow in the pity and anger that I cycled between all day long? Or would I chose faith? Would I believe that a Father in Heaven–a parent who loved his children as much, even more, than I loved mine–had my best interests at heart? Would I believe that he knew me better than I knew myself and would allow me the experience of losing a child to make me a stronger, greater, more compassionate person?

I sat on my back porch one cold evening a month or so after leaving the hospital. I knew that the choice needed to be made. What would it be? Anger or faith? It had been distilled to two options.

I chose faith. I choose faith.

I don’t see pain as evidence that God doesn’t care. It’s as foolish a notion as my children seeing their vaccination shots as evidence that I don’t love them.  Pain and heartache are the gifts we may use to help us grow; the invitation to become stronger. But difficult things don’t necessarily make us better; if so, there would be nothing but wise people roaming the Earth. But we are given obstacles, grief and heart-searing trials as powerful tools to make ourselves exceptional people.

I have never gotten the pictures from the hospital. I have wanted to. I have asked. But someone always says they’ll need to find out where they are being stored, blah, blah, blah. It was over eight years ago. Who knows where the files are now?

The pain has mostly gone away. The anniversary of my baby’s death passes and I forget sometimes. All I have is a little certificate with hand and footprints and that will have to do. I would like to see the photos of my little baby, though, not just to see what he looked like.  To also remind me how far I’ve come on my spiritual journey. His birth is the experience that has most strongly shaped my view of God and the purpose we have on Earth. As much as I would never wish such a dreadful experience on anyone, it saved my soul. Pain can do that if we allow it.

It seems wrong to me that we only take pictures at happy times. How many birthdays we photograph but can hardly remember a few years later!  But the huge, looming, world-changing things we never photograph. I think it’s wrong. I think we need to change it. Take photographs at these times when the world falls away and we are left with a scorched soul. These are the times that make us who we are–not vacations at the beach. There are professional photographers at a wedding but nobody even brings a camera to divorce proceedings. Even though the divorce will sometimes be more influential than the marriage was.

Do we believe that a photograph will prolong any experience, good or bad? It won’t, obviously. But my experience having a stillborn baby made me realize that it’s all worth remembering. Even the bad.

26 thoughts on “Pictures of the Dead

  1. having had a very ambivalent relationship with God / faith for most of my life, I truly admire your strength and the strength of your beliefs…

  2. Jennie, your post today was so inspiring and helped me realize again how blessed we are to have the knowledge and faith that we do. Eleven years ago I delivered by emergency c-section identical twin girls at 32 wks. After 58 minutes one of our girls died. We did take pictures at the funeral home because she looked so angelic, but the pictures could never capture the spirit that was there to help us deal with losing one of our girls. Each day I am reminded of the love our Father has for us as I look at our beautiful daughter and really all of our children. Thanks for sharing such a private experience with us to help remind us of our blessings in the hard times.

  3. Timely. Having just returned from my mothers passing and funeral where some where upset we took photos of her last hours (not pretty) and photos of the open casket. I don’t know why we do, or necessarily when I will be ready to look at them, but they are so necessary. Maybe later I’ll be able to say why.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. One of the treasures I found while going through piles and piles of pictures at my parents’ house last month were pictures taken 15 years ago of my sister and her family holding sweet Alison who was their second stillborn daughter. I had never seen copies, and they were absolutely precious. You are so right that sometimes the sad moments in life create the most growth. Just like you, my sister is a very strong woman, and I admire both of you.

  5. My SIL was 8 months along when she lost hers. It was devastating on her family! My BIL is a member of the church, but not active and they have not been sealed in the temple. We were hopeful that this could be a turning point for him. Sadly, it didn’t help at all. And she was left not being able to have another child. You are brave to share your experience. I’ve had a couple of miscarriages, but the longest one was at 11 weeks. It must have been so difficult for you.

  6. I loved reading your post. I know I too am a better person because of my loss. So many good things came from the passing of Addison….you for one have been a great friend and support. I was so grateful to meet you, you had such a different perspective on things a perspective that I have loved. I am grateful for all the amazing women brought into my life through such a sad trial. 7 years later I can’t imagine my life any differently. I hope you get your pictures….I haven’t looked at mine for so long and most of the time I don’t want to, but I am forever grateful that I have them. I agree we need to take pictures of all the precious moments good and bad.

  7. Beautifully put Jennie. One of my favorite posts from you because of the message you shared. Thanks for inspiring me.

  8. Lovely. I only take pictures of the good times, and only journal about the bad. Kinda messed up.
    We experienced the same loss – I like this:

    “There is no information given by revelation in regard to the status of stillborn children. However, I will express my personal opinion that we should have hope that these little ones will receive a resurrection and then belong to us. I cannot help feeling that this will be the case.” President Joseph Fielding Smith

  9. I’m not sure why, but your post made me bawl! Maybe from remembering that happning to you. Maybe from remembering my own lost pregnancies (though early, both). But you are right, and I’m glad you chose faith. Anger is a very bitter pill to keep taking day after day, while forgiveness tastes so sweet.

  10. Jennie! You’re post was very touching. I miscarried January of 2010. I was only eight weeks along, but it was still devastating. It took me awhile to figure out that anger wasn’t the answer. It took me a year and a half to feel like I was ready to get pregnant again. He has blessed me with two beautiful children and I have high hopes and faith that this one will come safely to our family. If something happens, I know it’s God’s will. I learned so much about my faith and about myself in that year and a half.

  11. You know… this was helpful. My neighbor and I were expecting at the same time. Mine went to full term; her’s did not. He had died at 7 months. It was so very strange. I was sad about hers, but overly relieved about mine. To this day I wonder why God let me keep mine but didn’t let my neighbor keep hers. I suppose it’s one of those things that you don’t necessarily need the answer to, but you have illuminated the situation nicely.

    Also, I always take pictures at funerals. Always. Some people say it’s inappropriate, but, like you, I believe photos at unhappy times have a purpose.

  12. You just put into words my exact thoughts and feelings–and almost my exact same experience of losing a little boy at about 6+ months along. Thank you for your perfect words to describe such an experience. I am forever grateful to my wise doctor who insisted I hold my son and keep a few pictures of him–it helped to heal my soul and find closure and clearer understanding in all the sadness. I have only looked at the pictures once or twice, but I know right where they are and am grateful to have them.

  13. I am grateful for the few photos we have even though they are awful photos. I always regret not telling them i had a camera in my bag with a full roll of film.

    I hope that you will find the photos of your son. You deserve to be able to see them. Unfortunately it seems to be all too common that if the parents don’t take the photos home with them, they get lost somewhere.

    I’m glad you wrote this post. I hope it will open some eyes. Thank you for sharing about your son, Hamish.

  14. How absolutely soul-touching, seering, and comforting. What deep thoughts. Thank you for finding the words to write that have flittered around my sould for so long. You are a wonderful author – bless you! And I LOVE your mother.

  15. I was, at one time contemplating taking pictures at the hospital of stillborn babies. I am so sorry for your loss but also so encouraged that you choose faith to get through it. You are an inspiration. My husbands grandmother recently passed away and I thought to myself that we should take pictures but didn’t dare ask anyone else. I wish I would have.

  16. My sister in law had a stillborn baby about 2 years ago. This was her 6th child. She and her husband decided to celebrate this child, as though it were alive, with pictures of the family holding the baby in the hospital and now have this baby’s pictures next to all the other children’s pictures. She says, “We are a Forever Family and we will have her ( a baby girl) forever in the next life. Why shouldn’t she be shown with my other children?”
    What a wonderful celebration!! I love her decision to have pictures of ALL of her children!

  17. Jennie,
    This brought tears this morning. You truly have a gift of eloquently sharing that tender time of your life. You were so brave that day and my heart broke for you at the lost of your precious son. Thanks for sharing and know you have left an indelible footprint on my heart. Cheryl

  18. Thank you Jennie. I remember that time very well.

    We took photos of my grandma the night before she died. She did not look well at all. My children were very upset by the pictures and most chose not to look at them. I felt a need to record the moment though. For some reason it seemed necessary. I do not see anything weird about keeping photos of the dead.

  19. This was a beautiful post. I remember visiting my mothers good friend in another state and looking through the photos she had of her stillborn child. As a teenager I couldn’t even begin to grasp how painful that experience must have been for her, but I remember the great sadness she had as she talked us through the pictures.

  20. Jennie- I too am very touched by this post. Although I have not had to endure the trial of losing a child either by miscarriage, stillborn, etc, I feel the same about my own special set of trials- that I can choose faith or bitterness. I really appreciate your strength and honesty. I really can’t imagine how very painful it would be to lose a child in this manner. You are so tough! Love you.

  21. I knew about this experience of yours but never in this much detail. I always wondered how you were able to talk about it without bursting into tears. You are so inspirational. Such a good person! So sweet! I hope I’m just like you when I grow up.

  22. Jennie, I read your story and cried my eyes out. I can imagine how you felt and how some things you will never fully leave behind. My second pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage. I never held or saw a baby and I don’t know what it was. I still have a hard time after 31 years. I had three more children and two more miscarriages. My heart goes out to you! We never know why we have these things happen, but I know that I learned to have compassion in a way that I never could have before.

  23. Jennie-

    Thanks for the courage to share with us a little sliver of your experience. You and your husband are amazing people to have dealt with this. I really enjoy your blog and the bling your share with us. Take care!!

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