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Ugly isn't a word I like to use, especially as a photographer. Beauty exists in all things, and I'm coming to believe it's only because of these awkward, painful, or ugly moments that we can come to appreciate and see the loveliness that comes from them.
The magnolia trees are in full bloom. Gorgeous.
And look! There's an ugly part.
The brown, wilted bit around the flower has served its purpose. It protected the bud as it grew. When the bud grew large enough and opened, the humble protectors fell aside.
Many people would call them ugly. They would probably want to trim them or otherwise keep them out of view in a photograph.
These essential parts of the flower are ventilators. They are the rages in locked cars where no one else can hear the screaming. They are weekly visits for treatment. They are the heaving sobs that give no tears because there are no more tears to give.
The brown, wilted bit is grief. It's adversity. It's the thousand pieces of really crummy things.
It's a little space we keep for ourselves because we need it to allow the flower to bloom. Sometimes it's a really big space. Sometimes we can see only the wilted protection, even though others admire the gorgeous flower. It's tricky that way.
Every flower on the magnolia tree does this. Each flower is a slightly different size. They bloom at slightly different times. Some may be more pink than others. Each passes through this ugly bit to reveal its loveliness.
You are doing this, too.
The pieces of your day that seem tedious hold lovely bits. In those moments you feel full of anger and despair, there is something beautiful. It's my work to see that and show it to you, just like this magnolia.
The more you see it with a little help, the more you can begin to see it yourself. As much as I say medical, bereavement, and grief photography is about preserving family history, it's also about supporting families who are hurting today. It's painful to see these moments reflected back to you from someone else's perspective. It's also a way to recognize how much loveliness exists in unexpected places.
Here Comes the Crash Cart
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?
One of the most compelling aspects of working in grief and bereavement is the opportunity to witness the amazing transformations people undergo in their journeys. They become advocates, champions, educators . . . the most difficult experiences of their lives lead them to do things they never would have considered before. While the pain that inspires this change is something I wouldn't wish on anyone, it creates lives of stunning beauty and clarity.
At a memorial celebration for a four-year-old girl, Ellie, I had the honor of seeing the man behind Heart of a Hero in action. Heart of a Hero is a nonprofit organization that inspires, motivates, and empowers children who need it most. Ricky Mena, who dresses as Spider-Man and visits children in hospitals, told the story of the dream he had of his deceased grandmother showing him visiting children in hospitals as Spider-Man.
So he made that happen. He has visited more than 8,300 children since October 2014.
Heart of a Hero audience
He was raw and unscripted. He spoke from his heart. It was plain to see that this wasn't work for him - it was a calling and an honor.
He talked about one of the most frequent questions he receives about his work: How can any good come from the suffering or death of a child? How is that possible?
It comes back to this: we are all here to teach one another and learn from one another. Some of those ways are painful, some are joyful. The things we learn from children who live in hospitals, have had umpteen surgeries, and undergo chemotherapy are important because they show us how to live. They silently challenge us to reevaluate what is important and why. They push us to make changes to honor those most important parts of life and decline or minimize the competition for our time.
What could be more important than connecting with someone else? Giving and receiving love? Finding joy in small things?
Yes, we need to pay bills and meet our other adult responsibilities. There is more to life than work. There is more than collecting possessions and buying a bigger house to hold them. There is more than having scads of followers on social media.
There is the opportunity to really be with someone. There is the opportunity to love, to show compassion and empathy, to offer support. We are here to connect. We are built for it, in fact. How are you embracing that?
He called a little after 10:00 a.m. to tell me they had made a decision.
"We'd like you to be with us tomorrow." He sounded like he was disappearing. If I had asked, and if he had been able to articulate, I'm sure he would have confirmed that he was shrinking, dissolving, or in some other way ceasing to exist.
After weeks of life support, he and his wife were preparing for their last moments with their nine-year-old son.
How do you do that?
How do you paint your memory with all the last times? How do you reconcile the first times you won't witness? How do you wake up, get dressed, eat . . . knowing in a few short hours you'll feel the life leave his body as you hold his hand?
I don't know. There is no sleeping. There is no eating. There is nothing other than breathing until that very last moment.
Deafening silence. Then comes the weeping. The mumbled prayers. Anguished gasps between sobs.
The room is dark. The air feels heavy and soupy.
I hover the perimeter of the room, documenting this indelible mark through vision blurred with my own tears. My face is hot and flushed. My fingertips are icy.
We've talked about this for a few weeks now and I know what they want me to freeze in time. His features are appropriately childish, and with his eyes closed I can no longer see the wisdom he painfully acquired in seven short months. He is perfect. He is loved.
These are pictures I do not share and the details I change slightly to grant the family as much privacy as possible. I can tell you only my experience.
I feel hollow. Being with parents during this time is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Practice does not make it easier. In each child I see my son. I see the children of my friends.
After I left the family, I took a few minutes for myself in the family lounge. I can't show you how this moment acts on them. I can show you how it acts on me.
I also feel warm and full. This couple, a little younger than I, have entrusted me with a piece of their family's spiritual care. Since I met them in September I have preserved joy, devastation, and all feelings between. They have leaned on me to reflect their lives and love back to them. Today's reflection is one they probably won't want to see for months.
It will wait for them. They will see the story when they are ready.
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.
Katie preserves the details of each wedding dress and finds the best ways to showcase those in the gowns she creates. The results are stunning.
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.
Gowns with beading and lace make beautiful pieces for girls.
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.
These three gowns are from one dress.
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.
Every gown is lovingly packaged in a box with tissue paper. Katie made all of these pieces in one week. She had heard from a nurse that the hospital had no gowns and so she worked to provide a bit of inventory.
This is one of the gowns I had the honor of packaging. As a boy mom, the bow tie on this one puts a lump in my throat.
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.
Boy gowns typically include a bow tie. The wedding gown from which this gown was cut had the same empire waist detail. These gowns came from the same wedding dress. The gown on the left is a micro preemie size and the gown on the right is a medium infant size. Two boy gowns and two unisex gowns Micro preemie gowns for baby girls
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.
Infant WrapsBabies who are too small for a gown receive a wrap.
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