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Memories of loss

As science seeks the causes of stillbirth,parents use photography to honour their babies and cope with their grief

Published: February 8, 2009 3:28:57 pm

As science seeks the causes of stillbirth,parents use photography to honour their babies and cope with their grief
When Marirosa Anderson answered her cellphone at 8:20 p.m. on November 11,Karen Harvey,a labour-and-delivery nurse at Inova Fairfax Hospital,Virginia,gave her the rundown. A baby was about to be delivered by C-section and the parents wanted photographs. Could she come right over?

At the hospital,Harvey led her to a quiet room where Laurie Jackson and her husband,Michael,were waiting. Laurie’s pregnancy had been easy and enjoyable,but during a routine check just three days before her due date,the Jacksons were given the incomprehensible news that their baby no longer had a heartbeat. The night before,Laurie had felt the baby kicking. Now she and Michael were confronting the impossible: saying hello and goodbye to their firstborn child at the very same time.

Anderson introduced herself,then took out her camera,turning her attention to a perfect little girl who lay still in a bassinet,peaceful in a white cotton blanket with pink and blue stripes. Then she started to shoot. The baby’s face. Her tiny hands. Her little pink feet. Now it was time for the three of them. Laurie cradled her baby girl in the crook of her elbow,Michael leaned in next to her. Together they studied their daughter’s face. Their baby girl weighed six pounds,seven ounces and she was 19 inches long. They named her Brenna Rose.

Stillbirth happens more often than we imagine. Decades ago,stillborn babies were whisked away from their parents to morgues; doctors and nurses pretended nothing happened,mothers were medicated with Valium,parents suffered their sorrow alone. Today nurses encourage parents to hold the babies. Molds of hands and feet are created. Locks of hair are collected. And photographs are taken. Not just the clinical snapshots that nurses have been capturing for years,but striking and sensitive portraits that have burgeoned since the formation of a group called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in 2005.

Volunteer photographers who belong to the group,including Anderson,take pictures of stillborn babies–and babies expected to die soon after birth–for their parents at no cost. The idea was born from the life of Maddux Haggard,who was six days old and on life support in Colorado when his parents,Cheryl and Mike,decided they wanted pictures of their baby and contacted Sandy Puc’,a local photographer well known for her beautiful baby portraits. After that photo session four years ago,Cheryl Haggard and Puc’ founded Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,which has since grown to 7,000 photographers,most of them professionals,across the globe.

“We associate giving birth with life,with the future,with the defiance of death,” says Irving Leon,a psychologist at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor who specialises in reproductive loss. “To have that smashed,violated so powerfully,it’s something people don’t want to look at,both literally and metaphorically.” Memories facilitate grieving,says Leon,which is critical to long-term healing.

Studies show that mothers benefit from bonding with their stillborn babies. Joanne Cacciatore,a researcher at Arizona State University,studied 3,000 women and found that those who had the chance to see and hold their babies had fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Stillbirth is in many ways a medical mystery. Despite its gravity,it has been largely overlooked. Even today,researchers don’t know the true incidence of stillbirth nor do they fully understand why it happens. “Over the last 50 years,we’ve put a lot of research and clinical energy into preventing sick babies from dying after birth and a lot of energy into premature babies,” says Dr. Robert Silver,an Ob-Gyn at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “We haven’t put the same energy into stillbirth.”

The US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has collected data on more than 500 stillbirths at five sites around the country. Now it is analysing the information. The hope is that the new information will help researchers sort out how to reduce a woman’s risk for stillbirth,identify problems in advance so that couples can prepare for a loss and,ultimately,save lives.
With Andy Murr. Newsweek

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