The night was dry and still. Everything was peacefully quiet as I pulled into the hospital’s parking lot, but my mind was racing. I had never done this before, and I knew it was going to be an emotionally intense experience, I wondered if I was cut out to do this. Whispering, I prayed, “Please help me know how to help them. Help me be sensitive to their feelings and needs. Please give me strength and comfort to do this, Father.” And so, it was given; my mind was calm and so was my spirit. I gathered my purse and camera bag, and ran to the ER doors.
I was escorted by a mutual friend, Tom, to a room with big glass doors and blue curtains draped behind them so no one could see in from the hallway. Tom had me wait outside the doors while he went in to see if the family was ready for me. Just then, I saw a man walking up the hallway. I knew the moment I saw him, he was the mourning father of this baby. The way he walked was as though he was pulling hundreds of pounds behind him, with his eyes red and swollen, looking straight ahead. He slipped through the glass doors and disappeared behind the blue curtains. Shortly after, Tom stepped out and invited me in.
The nurse was just finishing explaining to the parents what kind of tests were going to be done to see if there wasn’t some underlying cause of baby Hugo’s sudden death, but for now the family would be left to mourn and hold their baby for however long they needed. The parents were tenderly gracious with the nurse and thanked her for her help. As the nurse left the room, Tom introduced me to the parents. Laurie, sitting in a chair and holding her tiny baby to her chest, raised her head, made eye contact with me, and I knew her; I was familiar with her even though we had never before met. David was looking at his two month old child in his wife’s arms. I felt guilty interrupting his gaze on them to introduce myself. He softly smiled and shook my hand. I let them know that I would go about this session by taking pictures of all of his tiny features, and we would get some photos of each of them holding their boy, but if they needed me to stop at any time, I would step aside. I wasn’t in any rush to get this done. I was there to help them capture some of the last moments they would have with their baby.
Hugo was curled up into his mother with his left ear to her chest and his little bum sitting in her hand, I took a couple pictures of him with Mom. Then, it was Dad’s turn. At times, both of these loving parents needed a break from pictures just to hold Hugo and cry. Hugo’s maternal grandparents came into the room and they all wept together while longingly staring at his tiny body. Moments later, we continued with the session, then Tom’s wife, Maren, came into the room.
I knew Maren as a doula colleague and had the opportunity to get to know her a little in the year before this. Maren and Tom had also experience the loss of a baby years before. She too was meeting this couple for first time, but spoke with them like they had been long time friends. Maren came to doula the family through their grief. I was grateful to have her there as she offered tips to the family about handling Hugo. One tip given was how keeping him warm would prolong lifelines in his body. Hugo’s body was being warmed by his parents hold on him, and heating blankets from the hospital. While pictures were taken, a blanket made for him by a friend from church was wrapped around Hugo. Maren also helped me by holding a white sheet up for the background in our efforts to block out the hospital equipment that was on every wall. I continued with the session.
As I began taking pictures of his small features, I gently persuaded his hands and feet into position. This was my first time touching him, which I was quite nervous about (I was concerned that I might start to tremble and further upset Laurie and David), but as my fingers moved his, I felt a great sense of honor. These were some the last few moments this child would ever be held and adored, and here I was invited to participate. Everyone cared for his body as the beautiful vessel of life it once held, with extreme tenderness. The love for Hugo was felt so strongly, it was almost tangible. Laurie and David decided it was time to talk to their other children about what happened and invite them to see their brother. Laurie handed Hugo to her mother and together, they took on the heavy burden of going into the hospital’s small family room where their 3 boys and daughter where waiting, to tell them about Hugo’s passing.
When the couple returned with the children, the older two boys were visibly upset, quietly gasping through tears and unsure what to do. These children were facing a challenge most of us won’t experience until we’re seniors. This wasn’t someone who had lived their life well into adulthood, this as their baby brother, someone they expected to grow up with, now gone. In that moment, I had to turn around and face the wall to calm my emotions and let a few tears finally escape my eyes. As I turned back towards the family while wiping my eyes, I saw the two youngest siblings at their mother’s lap talking to their baby brother. Through their innocents, they were so wise and knew their brother was still with them. I took a picture of these two studying Hugo. The shutter on my camera got the attention of the youngest boy who looked up to me, asked my name, introduce himself, then smiled and told me his brother was now an angel. He was proud of his angel brother. Then, his sister got a chance to hold the baby. She and her little brother continued to caress Hugo’s hands, and cheeks.
Maren then suggested that they take a family picture. The older brothers were more timid about touching little Hugo, and were not comfortable having their picture taken, but they too began to show affection and cradled his tiny hands and feet in the palms of their hands. Seeing this presented us with an idea on how to take the family picture.
Mom and Dad positioned their hands under the hands of their children, all surrounding Baby’s feet, symbolizing how they would hold him throughout their lives. This moment brought on even more tears for most throughout the room. After finishing the family portrait, Grandma held Hugo with the youngest boy again, doting over his baby brother.
The tired and now emotionally exhausted children were taken from the room when they were ready. After the children left, I asked Laurie and David if there were any other pictures they wanted with Hugo before I left. With a quivering chin and break in her voice, Laurie asked, “Can I have one of me kissing him?”
I poised my camera as Laurie brought her baby son’s forehead to her lips. The moment was gentle and heartbreaking. She paused as tears rolled down her cheeks. Everyone was still.
David also wanted a picture kissing his son. Little Hugo fit perfectly in his father’s arms. As David kissed his baby it was as though his lips melted to his baby’s small forehead. Again, everyone was still.
The session was complete. I shared my condolences and let them know I would be finished editing their pictures within the week. I was surprised not to have a complete meltdown by the time I reached my car, but that changed once I got home, and uploaded those precious pictures in the quiet of my house. The comfort I prayed for before meeting this family was now replaced with empathy. Comforting those in pain is greatly opposite of empathizing with those in pain. My role with the parents was to do the newborn session they didn't get a chance to do before this devastating loss, and to be a comforting presence while with them. Now that I was home, my role changed. I was back to being a mom, in my own home, with my healthy children. I hurt for them, cried for them, and prayed for them. Each time I returned to edit the pictures; I was in awe of this dear boy and his adoring family, and days later my work was done.
I met with Laurie and David to give them the CD with their pictures. They thanked me for doing the session and both grinned as I handed them the CD. I told them it was an unfortunate honor to be with them in that space, and that their profound love was a testimony to me of eternal love. Since this tragedy, they have found join again, and have welcomed another little boy into the family. Hugo was a beautiful, happy baby and a fortunate soul to have been loved by his sweet family while earth-side and is not forgotten by those whose lives he touched.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan Proclaimed October as National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, stating, “When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them. This month recognizes the loss so many parents experience across the United States and around the world. It is also meant to inform and provide resources for parents who have lost children due to miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, stillbirths, birth defects, SIDS, and other causes.”
Please light a single candle and set it in a window of your home October 15th at 7 p.m. for one hour, to participate in the remembrance of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness.