How Photographers Help Parents of Stillborn Babies

Cheryl Haggard and Sandy Puc' met in a neonatal intensive care unit at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Hospital in Denver on Feb. 10, 2005. Haggard's newborn son, Maddox Achilles, was near death. Puc' was a traditional portrait photographer. Two months later, the two women would become founding partners of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an organization of volunteer photographers worldwide who take pictures of stillborn babies or babies who are expected to die shortly after birth.

For four years, Haggard and Puc' have recruited thousands of photographers who willingly enter a place most people cannot even fathom. A place where life's most joyful moments become the most heartbreaking. Where babies die and parents grieve.

Infants are usually the most lovely and endearing subjects, sweet and fresh, brimming with early hints of the people they will become. Until that night, Puc' had never photographed a baby after death. After she agreed to take pictures of Maddux Haggard on life support, Cheryl's husband, Mike, asked Puc' if she would consider waiting until the tubes were removed and Maddux took his last breath. Cheryl wanted to embrace her boy skin to skin, Mike explained. No wires, no breathing machine. Just baby. The idea was overwhelming, but Puc' agreed. "My head was telling me, 'You don't want to do that,' my heart was saying, 'Absolutely'," says Puc'. After he died, Cheryl picked up her baby and held him to her chest. "It was surreal. I walked in and there was this beautiful mother cradling what looked like a perfect sleeping baby," says Puc'.

The privilege and the burden—this would be the Haggards' last images of Maddux—left Puc' determined to create her best pictures ever. "Watching a parent say goodbye and capturing those moments, it was really intense for both of us," says Puc'. In a powerful black-and-white photograph, Cheryl Haggard holds her son to her chest, his arms folded one over the other, her lips gently touching the top of his head. "I photographed every part, body, hands, face, lips, ears," says Puc'. "I remember getting close to the end and thinking, 'Please, don't let me forget anything'." Two weeks later, Puc' sat the Haggards down for a slideshow of her images. "It was a powerful experience," says Cheryl. She played the DVD over and over again, admiring her son. Maddux had some of the physical traits of her three other children, Chase, Anna and Natalie. His "fat little piggy toes" were Chase's. He had dark brown hair like Anna's and a pointy little elf ear, just like Natalie. "I remember hugging Sandy and thanking her and telling her she's given my son back," says Cheryl. It was sweet, it was painful. "It was what I had of him," she says.

And what other parents should have, too, Cheryl thought. Since that night, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep has grown from Puc' alone to 7,000 photographers, most of them professionals—worldwide, all of whom are linked up to hospitals in their own cities and towns. Photographers often hear about the program through Puc', who gives talks about photography in general and always mentions Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, encouraging local photographers to get involved in their communities. Early on, photographers were sent off on their assignments without training. Today, Puc' and a team of 25 certified trainers lead workshops, preparing volunteers for the difficult physical conditions they might see—when babies die in the womb, their skin may be bruised, their lips dark—and giving them guidelines on how to interact with families.

Photographers are encouraged to take pictures in whatever style suits them, whether it's shooting portraits of parents and baby or taking a more documentary approach. And they are given guidance on how to retouch images. Physical anomalies are left as is—therapists made it clear that it would be important for families to see any problems that caused their children to die—but bruises can be removed and skin lightened.

Asking hospitals to consider offering devastated parents a reference for a stillbirth photographer isn't always easy. Early on, Puc' and Haggard had to bang on a lot of doors to publicize their efforts and "the word 'morbid' was used all the time," says Puc'. Some hospitals were concerned the group was going to take advantage of bereaved parents. Others questioned how healthy it was for parents to pose with their babies, put photographs up in their homes and continue to remind themselves of a painful loss. But as the group grew, photographers and families began having more luck convincing hospitals how important the images were to families—a simple Polaroid in a memory box wasn't enough.

Though there will always be plenty of squeamishness and judgment when it comes to death and how people grieve, clinicians and therapists say acknowledging babies who die, bonding with them and remembering them is healthy, not harmful. Memories do matter. In a study published in 2007, Katherine Gold, a researcher at the University of Michigan, found that parents overwhelmingly report that photos were important to them and many wished they had more. Jeff and Lori Tieger have only a handful of treasured snapshots of their baby, Daniel, who was stillborn on Feb. 8, 2007. "If I had to do it all over again," says Jeff, "I would have 1,000 pictures of every square inch of his body." Photography creates a relationship between parent and child "as opposed to the harsh reality of a deceased child," says Puc'. Since the group was launched, Puc' says she has seen a huge change in the way people relate to their work. Hospitals are now contacting the foundation directly, looking for names of photographers in their area. Parents who may be skeptical early on embrace the images as an irreplaceable gift once they've left the hospital and gone home without their babies. "We can't change what's happening to these people," says Puc', "but we can change the way they heal for the rest of their lives."