The Rememberance Photography of Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
If you are a mother, you know what it is to carry a child and to get to know them as they grow inside you. You get the nursery ready. You select names. You are showered with presents. You long for the day when you get to meet this little person you have so many hopes and dreams for. And then you find out it’s not to be. Your baby’s gone. What would you want if this happened? For the more than three million stillborn babies born each year and the four million others who pass within 28 days of coming into the world, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) offers them beautiful remembrance photography they can see and hold onto forever, an eternal reminder that though these children were here so short a time, they were important and loved.
Maddux Achilles Haggard was born on Feb. 4, 2005, with a condition called myotubular myopathy that prevented him from breathing, swallowing or moving on his own. On the sixth day of his young life, his parents had to make the excruciating decision to take him off life support. But before they did, they called photographer Sandy Puc to take black and white portraits of them cradling their son. Puc photographed the couple with Maddux at the hospital before he was removed from life support and after–when he was free from the tubes and the wires that had sustained him.
“That night was the worst night of my life,” Maddux’s mother, Charyl Haggard said. “But when I look at the images, that’s not what I’m reminded of. I’m reminded of the beauty and blessings he brought. Our cherished photographs show the love we shared and gave to our son. They show he was here and that he will forever be a part of our lives–no matter how brief his stay on earth was. This is our way of honoring and remembering our precious baby boy.”
Those tender photographs documenting Maddux’s eternal connection with his parents inspired Cheryl Haggard and Sandy Puc to found the nonprofit organization that has provided thousands of families of babies who are stillborn or are at risk of dying as newborns with free professional portraits with their baby. Named after the children’s bedtime prayer, NILMDTS administers a network of more than 5,000 volunteer photographers in the United States and nineteen International countries who are willing to devote personal time, money and heart to help families in need, providing a helping hand and a healing heart.
When photographer Michelle Powell moved to Arizona, she started doing newborn photography at local hospitals. One day she watched a nurse sit for almost an hour calling area photographers to take remembrance photos before becoming so frustrated, she took the job herself. Now the area coordinator for Phoenix, Powell says she tries to capture photos that will bring comfort to the family and in the long term, give them peace. “I attempt to have no emotion in the room, but simply, quietly capture all that is happening and tell the story,” said Powell. “Some days I do as many as five in one day and it is entirely too much and it takes a toll on you in the long run.”
Talking about a particularly moving shoot, Powell recalls the Turner family, who were experiencing their second loss that year. The baby was born at 18 weeks and severely disfigured. “The parents apologized for asking me to take the photos,” Powell said. “I felt such love and sorrow for these parents; that during this grief they were concerned for me and what I was about to see. I treated their baby like a special angel, like she was the most important thing in the entire world. The joy in the parents face was overwhelming and on several occasions, I caught the parents watching me to see the look on my face, to see if I was disgusted by their baby. I showed no expression and handled the baby like the special angel she was. I made it to my car before I broke down.” In another occurrence, a Mother delivered while her husband was away. Powell took images of her with the two other siblings. These images are the only tangible items that this Father had of the experience that his family was going through.
For families overcome by grief and pain, the idea of photographing their baby may not immediately occur to them. Offering gentle and beautiful photography services in a compassionate and sensitive manner is the heart of NILMDTS. Photography is capturing a moment that is so fleeting forever on film. It is what life is all about. As human beings, our memory is so unreliable for all the details, capturing all those images can help preserve the memory that might be lost over time. Remembrance photography is significant in this healing process. They allow families to honor and cherish their babies, and share the spirits of their lives. Everything provided to the families is free and includes their session and a CD of full resolution images; some photographers even include a DVD slideshow set to music.
Powell’s most memorable session was of a 38 week baby boy. The only thing wrong with this perfect child was that his umbilical cord got knotted. “It’s unimaginable that something so simple could take your perfect little baby from you. I walked in the room behind the nurse to see the baby’s uncle crying his heart out. On the outside, I was calm and collected and started getting my equipment ready. Inside, I wanted to hug this man and cry with him. The baby was beautiful. I’ll never forget him. His parents were very calm and accepting of their fate. I can only guess their faith is incredibly strong. He has a big brother who is thankfully too young to really know what happened. One day, he’ll understand and get to see his baby brother through the pictures I took. I know that pictures alone could never fill the void created by his passing, but I know that they will never have to try and remember him. All they have to do is look and see what a perfect little angel they held in their arms for so brief a time. And I hope that brings them comfort.
The goal is to capture an image that will not look like it was in a hospital. Images are often taken in black and white to achieve a timeless, classic look. They are very careful with asking the families if their child can be moved. They never want the focus to be off of the family and work very hard to give breaks or private time if it is needed.
Before Paula Massey became a professional photographer for My Sisters Smile Photography, she was a nurse, making her a perfect fit for NILMDTS. “The photography session seems to add some normalcy to the chaos and trauma the parents are going through,” Massey said. “The parents can be very emotional during the session as they gaze lovingly at their little one. For some, it seems calming. My nursing experience has helped me stay on track and do my job. I have gotten emotional but I get control over my emotions by focusing on the technical side of the photo session. The parents don’t need to take care of me; I’m there to take care of them.”
Both Powell and Massey agree that whether they are giving or receiving a gift by volunteering with NILMDTS is up for debate. “It’s truly been a blessing in my life as it is in the lives of the families I’ve photographed,” Massey said. “I never expected to feel so rewarded from my experiences. I am so much more appreciative of life and my family. And I am appreciative of the burdens that have not been placed on my shoulders; the burden of losing a child and carrying that grief with you every day.”
As area coordinator for Northern Los Angeles, photographer Leila Jones believes that her years of struggle to have her own children were training grounds for the services she offers with NILMDTS and meeting expectant parents like David and Mary Jo Peterson. The Petersons learned early on in their pregnancy that their son A.J. was diagnosed with a chromosomal condition called Trisomy 18. Jones first met the Petersons when they volunteered to speak to a group of NILMDTS photographers in training and quickly matched them with area photographer Katie Moos. “Having a parent at a training session is invaluable to the organization,” Moos said. “It helped me realized that as much as we as photographers might feel obtrusive there with the family during their loss and how it may feel awkward to be taking photos in the first place. These parents want these photos and they may or may not know what they want at the time, but they are counting on us to get them.”
Moos’ first meeting with Peterson was hard because “when she walked in all cute and pregnant nothing about her made me think the baby wasn’t going to make it–she looked so healthy and like a great Mom. My heart just ached for her and what these past months were like and what the next few to come might be like. I thought about ‘what if this was me?’ They are so brave to come and talk to us about something so personal and so painful, but that was the other surprising thing. They seemed at peace with the outcome. I loved that about them. They knew they were doing all they could as parents to bring their baby to term and the rest was out of their hands.”
“There was an immediate connection with Mary Jo,” Jones agreed. “She knew her time was short and valuable with A.J. I am still so amazed in how brave she was in approaching the unthinkable. The Petersons looked at their fate and decided to tackle it with all the reality that could possibly occur. To look at A.J. at birth, you would not guess that his life was to be so short,” Jones said. “With the Petersons, they looked at reality, about the future for A.J. At diagnoses they really planned out the moments they would have with him to make sure they were uncluttered with decisions. They cherished every moment that A.J. lived.”
Leila Jones, Katie Moos, and Mary Jo Peterson have shared many hugs and tears and will always share those priceless moments in their lives where they were invited to document the few precious hours of A.J.’s life. Jones will always remember the Peterson’s son Joey saying to his grandmother that his brother had gone to heaven. “Katie told Joey that she would get him a portrait for his room of him and his little brother. While we were in the waiting room with the family, Joey was fascinated with the images that he was looking at in the back of the camera.” NILMDTS photographers look for items that are special to the families and their baby that are in that room. In the case of the Petersons, they made sure a special charm necklace with baby booties on it was in several pictures. David had purchased it for Mary Jo just after they received A.J.’s diagnosis.
The two now have a profoundly deeper connection through their shared experience with the Petersons. “They have such a wonderful perspective on life and time on this earth,” Moos said. They spent their tender moments with smiles, hugs and kisses, laughing and loving. They did not waste A.J.’s time mourning, but rejoicing in him! They also have the unique perspective that they can help people even when they themselves are grieving and need help themselves. They are such a warm giving and loving family. When I drove home from the hospital I remember thinking I am the only person on this earth that has photos of A.J. It feels like you are giving someone their child back [in photos. It’s huge and really humbling and deeply touching. When I first heard about NILMDTS I thought to myself how could anyone do this, meaning how can a photographer go in to a hospital emotionally and do this? And it didn’t take me long to realize…how can we not? I will never forget A.J. and the Peterson family. They are in my heart.”
The photographers of NILMDTS bridge the gap on the healing process. Jones says occasionally there are mothers that say they haven’t held their baby yet or they don’t want images with them. “In most of my experiences, the mother decides to hold the baby for just one photo, which tends to lead to more. Cheryl Haggard, the co-founder instructs during training sessions that ‘you can’t go back and decide later that you want this.’ I tell Mothers in this situation that if the images are taken, they can choose to not look at them, but I don’t want them to regret not having taken them. In all my experience with this there is not one Mother that has regretted.” There is probably no greater intimate moment to share with a stranger, but the connection the photographers feel validates the notion that we are all the same: human. “Every living being instinctively knows how to grieve,” Jones said. “It is learning how to heal that some need help with.”
Photography by Leila Jones
The photographers of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep offer a priceless gift to a family in need. “These families are leaving the hospital empty handed after saying goodbye to their child,” Jones concluded. “They are so thankful that soon they will have professional images of their child. I think for most families the day they learn that their child is not going to live is the worst day of their lives. I have had more than one parent say that when they look at the images created by NILMDTS that this not what they are reminded of, they are reminded of the beauty and blessing on that day as the day their child that came into their lives.” Co-founder Cheryl Haggard was once asked the question ‘When did my healing begin?’ “My first thought of course was to say ‘When I first looked at the images Sandy did of my son, Maddux.’ But I gave this question just an extra second of thought and I can honestly say: “For me, my healing began knowing a photographer had rearranged her schedule and was on her way to our hospital to photograph our last moments with our son.”
To learn more about the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep organization, please visit their website: