There is a person who approaches me at every event where I am a photographer. It's a different person each time. The intent is the same.
This person really wants to be a "real" photographer and wants to pump me for information with questions or demonstrate knowledge by quizzing me or slinging loads of jargon. The conversation almost always heads to "once I upgrade my camera my photos will be amazing."
This person arrived at my photography event yesterday. He quizzed me. He wanted to know what I thought of his gear. He told me that when he upgrades his photos will come together. He's still having a little trouble with focus and exposure - that must be the lens.
This image came from my iPhone. I did a simple B&W filter. There is nothing fancy here - I couldn't adjust much of anything. The Boy was in the right place at the right time and I couldn't let it go. I'm glad I didn't.
Amazing photographs do not come from a camera. Best-selling books do not come from a computer. Evocative paintings do not come from a brush. The cameras, computers, and brushes are tools. It's how we use them that matters.
Every person who uses a camera is a photographer in the realest sense there is. Professional photography may be out of reach for a while. We all start at the beginning, and when progression matters to us we continue. I'm not a "good" photographer because I have four camera bodies, shoot film, or use prime lenses. I keep learning about the science. I practice each day. Most importantly, I value emotional connection over technical mastery.
As far away as I was from my son in this moment, I was connected with him. I felt like I was seeing him in an honest way. He allowed me to witness his life. While I may have had more options with a "real" camera, I couldn't have done much better than this.
It's not about what we have. It's about how resourceful we are and how well we use what is available. It's about how we love and listen. It's about how we connect.
The tools are secondary.
The President of the United States has been in the news this week because of a conversation he had with widow of a soldier who died in an ambush. I have no comment on politics or policies; I'd like to share what I've seen, heard, and experienced repeatedly.
Reason doesn't comfort.
There is no explanation, logical or not, that takes away even a tiny piece of the shattering heartbreak of death. There is no amount of reason that soothes mourning or grief. There are no words that have a magical "feel better" property.
Why do we say these things? Why do we try so hard to say the right thing and then fall flat?
We are uncomfortable being with people who are experiencing tragedies. We don't know what to do or say, so we say what feels right. We say what helps us to feel better, and that's often an explanation of why everything is "okay."
He's in a better place.
It was her time.
At least he's no longer suffering.
As many bereaved people have said, these well intended comments that explain away the pain of loss offer no comfort. None. It's hard to appreciate a better place when it's not here. It's hard to appreciate the right time when it means less time. And while the end of suffering for one is a wonderful thing, it's hard to be grateful for that while drowning in a different kind of suffering.
Could we change the language of grief? Could we change the beliefs about and understanding of it? Could we start talking about it with each other?
Grief isn't linear. It doesn't care about logic. It can't be explained away, just as death can't be explained away. It must be felt. When we say things that are more reason than heart, we deny the emotional connection that we need. More importantly, we deny the emotional connection and support the bereaved needs.
We can change the conversation, and the President just opened a door for us. People are listening, whether they support him or disparage him.
Let's do better. Let's make safe spaces to feel. Let's have difficult conversations.
Let's leave reason and logic out of this grief stuff.
We live in a sea of pictures. In the course of an average day, a social media user sees a steady stream of snapshots of vacations, the irritating guy on the bus, cute expressions babies and toddlers make, dinner, the sofa the dog destroyed, and lots of selfies. Social media and mobile devices have given us the ability to rapidly document and share every nuance of our lives with friends and family, and I admit I enjoy seeing images from people who are important to me.
How much is too much, though? At what point do we transition from images that connect to images that overwhelm?
InfoTrends forecasts that people will take 1.3 trillion digital photographs in 2017, and 87% of those will be captured with mobile devices (that's 79% for phones and 8% for tablets). In 2010 the total number of images was 0.35 trillion. Oh, and these numbers exclude professional photographers, by the way.
Photo technology has become so ubiquitous and simple that we've lost what is most precious about photography - connection. Digital files have become less valuable and more disposable because they lack connection. The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) reported that 67% of people stored their photographs only digitally. About 70% of people no longer create or maintain photo albums and more than half haven't printed a single photo in the past year.
When was the last time you printed photos or created an album to share? Of the last 100 pictures you've taken, how many of them are meaningful to you? How are your capturing the stories that go with those photographs?
We are in danger of losing this generation. We are losing our connections with our past and leaving behind very little that is archival. Digital storage is not archival - technology changes so rapidly that storage methods become outdated after a few decades and the devices that once read and stored those files are no longer available. Museums keep things in hard copy for good reason.
One of my favorite parts of visiting my grandmother is looking through her photographs. She displays many in her home and keeps even more in albums. It seems she remembers every little story associated with those photographs, and she is a tremendous resource for our family's history. I don't remember all the stories she tells, and I certainly don't tell them like she does.
I am on a mission to build bridges to history so families can cross to the other side together, any time they choose. These stories are important, and they are almost gone.
Every life makes an impact.
I am teaching this to my son. He's attended many funerals and memorial services. We talk about death frankly in ways he can process. It is my hope that he will see death as a part of life rather as something terrifying that is to be avoided at all costs. At four-years-old, he is death positive.
This summer he came running inside the house shouting that he had found a bird that needed help. I could see he had a bird cupped in his hands and together we gently hustled back outside to investigate - I surely didn't want a bird who was ill or injured to attempt to take flight in a house with animals who would have seen that as the best day ever.
We sat on the front step and he slowly opened his hands to reveal a sparrow.
"This bird needs help, Mom. What can we do?" he asked.
Oh, my sweet boy.
"This bird is dead; her body stopped working. We can't help her get better. We can say goodbye to her and thank her for the life she brought to our forest." I put my arm around him and held him tightly to me as I spoke in a whispered hush.
We arranged a small, quiet service for this lady bird. The Boy helped me to find leaves in which to wrap her tiny body.
We held her and thanked her for what she brought to our forest. We told her that while we didn't know her, we appreciated her song. We thanked her for being a part of our world.
We buried her. She has a place under a large maple tree. The Boy dug the hole himself with his boy-sized shovel. He filled the hole above her. He did it because he wanted to.
This is how we can begin to change the culture regarding death. This was a ceremony for us. It was a moment of reverence and reflection. Our focus was on caring for the body of this bird and acknowledging the beauty of her spirit.
Children can do this. While I appreciate that at four years of life experience and brain development, the permanence of death is something beyond The Boy's reach, I also know that being honest with him from the beginning feels right to me and honors him. This bird didn't "go to sleep."
For those of you who are curious, we also talked about why it's important not to pick up dead or injured animals and did a lot of washing of hands.
It's so hard to know what to say or do when you care for someone who is living through a difficult circumstance. It doesn't matter if it's divorce, illness, family stress, death, or something else . . . sometimes it just flat out sucks.
As Emily McDowell and Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., state, "there is no good card for this."
Maybe you are familiar with Emily McDowell's Empathy Cards, which she designed "for the relationships we really have." This book is more of the same - sound guidance from two women who have lived through those sucky times. Reading this book is like sitting down with a trusted friend and getting the real scoop. It's relatable, candid, and as breezy as writing on this topic can possibly be.
Emily and Kelsey write about the three touchstones of showing up: kindness, listening, and small gestures. They share from their own experiences as well as from those who participated in the research to bring this book together. It's heartfelt stuff. It's really accessible. It's not at all intimidating, thanks to the humor and credibility these great ladies bring to their writing.
One of my favorite parts was the guide on page 95 called "What Kind of Nonlistener Are you?" The authors identified five types of nonlisteners and courageously shared their own tendencies.
Honestly, there are so many phenomenal quotes, tips, and passages in this book I feel I'll take in and appreciate something new every time I read it. It's that good.
In short, I think you'll love it and put a lot of miles on it. Please read it before you need it, because trying to figure out how to support your friend who is hurting at the moment she needs help is hard for both of you.
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I borrowed www.angelovolandes.com/the-conversation/The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-Life Care by Angelo Volandes, M. D. from the library. It's now sitting in my Amazon shopping cart, just waiting to show up on my doorstep. It's that good.
The Conversation refers to a discussion about desires for end-of-life care. It's based on four areas.
This isn't an easy discussion for most people and the author offered several tips for starting The Conversation. He also included four additional questions for those who are already ill.
We all need to think about these questions, and the sooner the better. We need to share our wishes with our family. We need to talk with our medical practitioners. We need complete the paperwork to support our wishes and decisions, which may include advance directives, living wills, and identifying health care proxies.
Dr. Volandes illustrated the importance of The Conversation with stories of his experiences as a physician. He shared stories of patients and their families who wanted every life-prolonging intervention available as well as those who opted for comfort care. These real-life examples were vivid and relatable.
One of Dr. Volandes' achievements was the production of a video to help patients and their families make decisions about end-of-life care. This is a topic that is uncomfortable for many people, including health care professionals. The video contains information about the available options and facts related to each. For example, the video explains that fewer than 10% of patients with advanced cancer who receive CPR in the hospital survive and eventually leave the hospital. Fewer than 10%. Dr. Volandes found that so many people requested full code / advanced CPR because they believed their lives would be relatively enjoyable afterwards, even while hospitalized. They didn't know they'd likely be on ventilators with several broken ribs and a steady stream of pain medication that rendered them unable to interact with their families.
Whatever your current state of health, please consider starting The Conversation with your family. Dr. Volandes wrote about a couple who had known each other for 50 years, yet the type of care Dr. Volandes believed the patient wanted, based on his conversation with him, was very different than the type of care the patient's wife advocated. She said, "We never really spoke about this." Take the time to talk about it now.
How do you want to live?
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The room was dark when I walked by. Nurses were bustling in and out, and although it was a quiet scene it was chaotic. I made my way to the end of the hall to take solace in the view of the park while I waited. I was there to photograph the last moment's of a newborn's life.
The floor-to-ceiling windows gifted an expansive look at the old growth trees in one of the city's oldest parks. I could see children playing at the playground. Adults walked with their dogs. Several people in scrubs were walking quickly along the trails to catch a quick bit of exercise and fresh air before returning to the hospital.
Behind me the quiet chaos continued. A nurse approached me to let me know they were taking care of a few more things and she'd come for me when the family was ready.
This newborn boy, who arrived in the world the day before, was releasing the fragile grip he had on life. The chaos in his room was primarily for his mother, who was recovering from his C-section and overcome by the physical, mental, and emotional anguish of this reality. The nurses were doing everything they could to take care of her so she could be cognizant and comfortable during her son's final moments.
While all of this was happening, I stared out the window. I felt very small. Here I was, standing alone in the hallway listening to hurried footsteps that carried bodies and brains that saved lives. I was surrounded by people who every day change lives with the care they provide. They were working so hard to make this last day the best day they could.
All I had was cameras.
I couldn't save their son and yet they asked to see me. I couldn't relieve her pain, and yet she wanted me to come.
It was the first time I felt so insignificant as a photographer and a person. I felt like an intruder.
The nurse returned for me, shared a few words about baby's condition, and asked if I needed anything. The family was ready.
Before I knew it I was standing in that very dark room. The chaos had ended. Dad held his son and Mom sat next to him in her wheelchair. A family member stood against the wall opposite Mom and Dad. They asked the nurses to leave so they could be alone with their son. Alone with their son and a photographer they had never met.
Thank goodness for training and habit. I introduced myself and asked my usual questions of "what do you most want to see?" and "what do you not want to see?" without thinking about it. From different angles and distances I documented this precious boy's hands and fingers, feet and toes, hair, eyes, and everything else that wasn't obscured by monitors or other equipment. Dad held his hand. Mom stroked his foot.
I returned to the window to center myself when I left the room. I couldn't save their son and that was crushing. How wonderful it would be to tell someone that I had been able to perform some life-saving feat. What I could do was save a piece of him.
With photographs I could give these parents a small piece of forever. I could show them everything in the moments I was with them - the moments that were both glacial in pace and passing by in a blink.
With photographs, these parents can save their son. They can save this part of him. They can keep their memories of him and the time they had together strong. If there is only one way he can be with them as they move through the rest of their lives, I am moved to tears to be a part of that. I can give them this gift.
It's not life. It is a piece of forever. I hope that helps.
I see, hear, smell, and feel a lot of things that I'd never wish to be a part of any family.
I can't tell you what it's like to see the crash cart come in for a 19-month-old boy who has lived in the hospital his entire life. CPR is a brutal activity, and it seems all the more savage when a man straddles a 21-pound boy on his hospital bed and performs chest compressions with every fiber of his being. What is it like to watch your child die and be powerless to help? How does your brain even process that? How do you breathe?
I don't know.
And I don't know how I am able to anchor these parents as they bob about in this sea where the currents are constantly changing and yet there is often no land in sight. I can't explain any of it as it's happening and I need some distance to be able to process it days later. It amazes me that in these moments I can do what I am there to do, and that's document life and love. Sometimes that's the end of life. Sometimes it's the very last breath.
What looks like the end to outsiders is a beginning. It's a new normal of living without a child. It is a string of missed milestones - simple stuff like learning to hop on one foot as well as graduating, getting married, and having a family. I'll return to them for his services, graveside and memorial. I'll return to them to tell this story all over again in albums. We will cry, hug, cry, be silent, hug, and stare into space together, because sometimes that's all that can be done.
I watched her lift her precious son to her lap. She sang to him. She told him how brave and kind and strong and loving and smart he was. She told him how happy she was the day he arrived. She whispered these secrets of love as she gently touched every part of his body.
I've held her hand more times than I can count. I've journeyed with this family for 17 months. Tomorrow we come together again to celebrate his life through stories, hugs, and songs.
Through these families and my own acquaintance with mortality I learn how to live. I learn how wholehearted connection and intentional living make a difference. That's what I stand for and that's why I'm here. I truly believe that when we make these connections regularly and muster the fortitude to live our intentions, we expand our own selves by becoming inseparable pieces of others. We leave marks and patterns. What do you want your mark to be?
If you are a newly bereaved parent or grandparent, this post may be a trigger for your grief. Please be gentle with yourself.
Katie is the woman behind Sleeping Angels Bereavement Gowns. She transforms wedding gowns into gowns and wraps for infants. Grab tissues. These are beautiful.
Like most people who dedicate a part of their lives to grief and bereavement, Katie has personal experience. This work means something to her, and she deeply understands the turmoil of dressing your baby for the first and last time. She makes these gowns so parents have something beautiful for their children when they say the last goodbye in person.
So I'm already tearing up, here.
Not so long ago, Katie volunteered with a national nonprofit organization that provided infant bereavement gowns. In approximately 18 months she sewed 937 pieces - gowns, wraps, and bonnets. That's an average of 52 pieces each month. She was also in college full-time and she made the difficult choice to step back from the organization and concentrate on school.
When a friend of hers from the organization passed away, she returned to sewing. "It's like therapy," she told me. She said that when she sews, she has no aches or pains. She is completely in the moment.
Katie graduated from college with two degrees (business and accounting) and is once again making beautiful pieces that parents will remember forever. She delivers to Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma, WA, and is willing to ship gowns anywhere for people who are able to pay for shipping.
This work is now a freelance labor of love. Katie collects wedding gowns, deconstructs them, and finds the most elegant ways to fit them for babies from under one pound in size to several months of age. Her daughter often helps with deconstruction and packaging.
When I met Katie, she had a delivery of 20 gowns for the NICU at Mary Bridge. I had the honor of helping to pack these pieces.
In addition to the time it takes to make each piece (her most elaborate gown was 15 hours of work), she pays for the boxes and the tissue paper. She relies on donations of wedding dresses. It's difficult to pull all of this together because Katie does not have nonprofit status for her work and intends to keep it that way for the foreseeable future.
Here's what you can do.
If you are a sewer, Katie will share her patterns with you and you can create your own gowns. If you want to learn, she'll teach you.
If you can use scissors, Katie will thank you for your help in cutting the wedding dresses into pieces.
If you can't sew or use scissors and do have a few dollars to spare, Katie will thank you for a donation of boxes or tissue paper.
If you have a wedding dress that would like to have the ultimate honor of being the forever clothing many babies will wear, Katie will thank you. It doesn't matter how old it is or whether it is in good repair. She'll even send you pictures of the gowns she makes from your dress so you can have a sob fest (like I would).
If you have white sheets you can give, Katie will thank you. She uses these to line the dresses.
You can follow Katie and contact her through her Facebook page.
Every piece she makes brings peace.
The last time I saw her, she was pedaling away from me on her way to her best friend's house. I watched her thin legs and frail knees and ankles propel her forward on her bicycle. The wind she created with her speed would have blown back her hair had it been long enough. She looked like she felt free.
Two years earlier, she had hair down to her waist. She shaved it to prepare for her first surgery. After six rounds of chemotherapy, she had another surgery. Then eight rounds of chemotherapy. Then another surgery. More treatment.
The last time I saw her, her hair was maybe two inches long. It wanted to make waves over her head and didn't quite have enough length. Instead it wiggled and stood awkwardly at attention. She was so happy to have it, and it was beautiful.
She was overjoyed to be home from the hospital. Six months prior, she and her family traveled to a cancer treatment facility 1,300 miles away for a three-month experimental treatment. It looked promising.
The cancer returned. For nearly three years she had lived the life of a cancer patient with its grueling schedule of injected poisons and evaluations. She found beauty and joy every day.
Her parents told me repeatedly that her refusal to live anything other than a full life was one of the most difficult aspects of her journey. They were heartbroken to know their daughter was living with immense pain - headaches, joint pain, jumbled thoughts, digestive distress. They were elated to see her embrace as much of the carefree life of a 10-year-old as was possible and simultaneously crushed to know that kind of freedom in childhood would not be hers.
She made it herself. She took it. She owned it.
The last time I saw her was her last day. She visited with her best friend for a few hours. She rode her bike home and enjoyed dinner with her family. She played her favorite board game, Monopoly, with her sisters and parents, while her cat sat on her lap.
She went to bed. Her parents kissed her goodnight.
More than 300 people attended her memorial. It was a moving service with stories from her teachers, friends, and family. They hugged and wiped away tears. They stared at their shoes. They talked about how much she would have enjoyed riding her bike on that day, which was unusually dry and warm for February. They looked at the pictures of her on display and replayed the moments in their lives they were fortunate enough to share with her.
I saw all these things, and photographed all these moments. I captured the confusing emotions people struggled to find ways to express. I made art of their love.
This family invited me to be a part of their journey shortly after her diagnosis. I was a part of their "after." I attended family events and celebrations. I was there for school plays. I came to doctor's appointments and visited during treatment. I saw her last bike ride. I photographed that, not knowing it was her last day.
It's been two months since her death. Her mother called me this week and asked me to visit. She and her husband were ready to look through her final photographs - from her last day, funeral, and cremation.
I wish I could find a way to describe how it feels to sit with parents in this way. I wish I could find a way to describe how much it means to be to be invited. I wish I could find a way to relieve the smallest bit of suffering. I wish I had a number to count the tears that fall.
I wish this place didn't exist, and yet I can't imagine myself anywhere else. I know from the backbreaking hugs I received that I am in the right place. I know from the clammy pressure on my hand that my view of their lives means something to them.
I wish I didn't know, and yet I am grateful I do.
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.