For my master’s thesis, I interviewed several people who worked in professions that dealt with death. I was almost forty-years old when I embarked on this project and I had only lost a grandmother when I was young. (Or, so I thought. I’ll get to that.) It was my hope that my interaction with these people could help me overcome my fear of death. Out of all the professions I explored, Carol Caldwell’s was probably the toughest and she didn’t make a dime for her work. She was a volunteer whose presence helped grieving families to heal—maybe not at that exact moment, but in the future.
Here’s an excerpt from my book, Death Becomes Us, about Carol.
I sit at my computer and stare at a series of stark black and white images taken in a hospital room. In them, a woman in her early forties wearing a black turtleneck cradles her newborn baby as her husband gazes at them both with a look of love and reverence on his face. Both parents look tired and totally oblivious to Carol Cardwell, the photographer who captured these moments on film. In a second close-up image, the mother tenderly kisses the child’s forehead. In a third, the baby’s tiny hand is shown inside his father’s. These photographs are typical for new parents in that they are the tangible representation of hopes, dreams and promise for the future, but for these parents, they mean so much more. These images are memorializing the son they just met. He died moments after birth.
I can’t help but stare at the image of this family. I don’t even know who they are, yet tears stream down my face as another photo of them appears on my computer screen. I can’t keep it together. The song “Smallest Wingless” that is playing doesn’t help my emotional state. It’s beautiful and sad, kind of like life. My impulse is to walk away from these photos, but I’m forcing myself to look at them, to study their normalcy.
Death photography isn’t as bizarre as it may seem. In fact, it used to be a common practice to take pictures of people who had just died. In some of those photos, the person is posed as if they were still alive. Families were proud of these images and featured them prominently in their homes. But today there is no culturally normative response to postmortem photographs. We are accustomed to images of death as part of the daily news stream; but actual death, as a part of our private lives, has become a shameful and unspoken subject.
Carol Cardwell has photographed families to memorialize their babies for over a year now. When I called to ask for an interview she told me she wanted to give back to the community by volunteering her services to the national organization, Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, which provides free professional portraits for families of babies who are stillborn or at risk of dying as newborns. Carol is just one of the foundation’s seven-thousand volunteer photographers. In the past year alone, she has photographed ten babies and their families. Out of these ten, the parents in the pictures that I saw are the only ones who knew that their baby was going to die at birth. Maybe that knowledge affected their completely unexplainable composure. If anything, they were able to mentally prepare for their loss.
The other nine families were unaware of their child’s fate. One minute everything was going as planned, and then something happened, whether it was an umbilical cord or an undetected chromosomal disorder. But the end was the same—an end to a life that had never really begun.
Some of my blog readers have commented that the death of a child is unfair. Yes, I agree. It goes against what we assume the world is supposed to be like—we grow old and then we die. But, it is completely normal to die at any age. I interviewed a woman whose daughter died at eight months, and you can read that interview here.
After meeting Carol, I read Now I Law Me Down To Sleep’s requirements for their services. “NILMDTS is available to all parents suffering the loss of a baby as early as 25 weeks gestation or at the discretion of medical personnel.” I can understand the reasoning behind that, but what about the families whose baby died at fifteen weeks or eleven weeks? What is available to help them memorialize their child? I’m sad to say, there isn’t much. It’s a loss that is typically grieved in silence without much support.
I’ve had two miscarriages, both at eleven weeks. People I’d told about my pregnancy loss either didn’t know what to say or they offered, “You’ll have another” or “It’s good it happened when it did.” But that didn’t help. It felt diminishing, like I just needed to forget about it and move on. I didn’t want to forget. I’m not a professional, but I know a lot of women who have silently suffered through a miscarriage because it happened before the end of their first trimester—that moment when it’s suddenly okay to share our pregnancy status. But who are we protecting by keeping the news to ourselves? In my opinion, it is important for any woman who has suffered a miscarriage to be able to grieve openly about their loss, because for them, that loss represents possibility and it is as real and tangible as any black and white photograph.
I didn't consider my miscarriages as a death until half way through writing my thesis. Sadly, there are no formal rituals in place to honor those that die before they’re born, which I think would help with the grieving process. I hope one day that will change and perhaps talking about it is a start.