The days babies come are supposed to be the happiest days. For some families, they are also the most crushing.
There are families who say hello and goodbye in the same day, and sometimes in the same breath. The grief is heavy. It feels too heavy to carry. These are families that should be soaking in those beautiful sleepy newborn days, learning how to interpret cries, feeding at all hours, and changing lots of diapers.
These are not families that should be visiting their children's graves.
Every time I photograph a child's funeral I feel like raw meat. Just beaten. I cannot wrap my brain around how devastating this loss is for parents, grandparents, and siblings. The sight of a coffin that is so small . . . it's heartbreaking.
The person who designed this balloon meant for it to be seen in a hospital or at home. Instead it's marking the new resting place of a little boy who is very much loved.
Comparison in any kind of grief is meaningless and yet there is something different about pregnancy and infant loss.
Most deaths people morn are of loved ones whom they've known for years. Parents who lose a pregnancy haven't had the opportunity to meet their baby. Parents who lose an infant have not had the opportunity to see who their baby will become. It's loss upon loss. It's a lifetime of missed milestones.
First smile. Finding toes. Laughing. Sitting up. Solid food. Crawling. Clapping. Standing. Cruising. Dancing. Walking. Talking.
For these parents there are no birthdays. There isn't a first day of school. There isn't a best friend who is over so much she's one of the family. There are no favorite colors. There are no drawings, school plays, music recitals, or sports. No changes that come with puberty. No driver's license. No complaints about how hard algebra is and how little it will be used in "real life." No graduation. No moving out. There is no wedding. There are no grandchildren.
Every anniversary, every holiday, every birthday . . . they hurt in a new way. Just as the scab forms over the last missed milestone, grief rips it off and exposes the raw tissue beneath that doesn't have the opportunity to heal.
This isn't better or worse. It's not harder or easier. It's different.
The Calvary Cemetery in Lakewood, WA, has a monument to honor the unborn. This isn't meant to start a discussion about when life begins - it's meant to start a discussion about the importance of having a safe space and supportive environment to be with this grief. The monument in this Catholic cemetery includes a central marker, twin angels, and a contemplation bench. It's a beautiful, quiet space.
October 15 of each year is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I will light a candle for the families I have witnessed this year who are without their babies.
Based on the number of young children I see at funerals and memorial services, many people feel that they are not fit to witness these ceremonies. I understand. They are loud. They wiggle and fidget. They ask a lot of questions.
They say things other people would not say. Things about farts, for example. I know this from personal experience.
I recently attended a viewing and graveside service for my grandfather and my son (aka The Boy), who is three, came with me. We traveled for four hours by car (including the break at the rest stop to run around and squeal). The first stop we made was at the funeral home. With just 25 minutes before the end of viewing, I didn't have the time to take him somewhere to run out the crazies first. I felt horrible for the long ride and then a visit to a place that prized quiet conversations and decorum.
I reached my hand out for his, which was a bit sticky from very soft snickerdoodle cookies. We walked inside and he remarked about how it was such a beautiful home. The funeral director smiled and kindly showed us to my grandfather.
My grandfather's sister and two members of her family were visiting. I put down my camera bag and purse and crouched in the corner nearest the doorway with my son. I explained how we would see many sad people. I told him we were there to visit with and say goodbye to my grandfather. He nodded quietly. He climbed into a rocking chair covered with a quilt and snuggled, his feet just barely reaching the edge of the seat.
Then it happened.
RRRRRRRRRRRPFFFFFFFFT RRRRRRRPT RRRRRRRPT
Someone farted. I knew it wasn't us by the location of the sound. I turned to look at The Boy. His eyes were wide and he sat at full attention.
"Mommy! Mommy, I heard something!" he exclaimed with urgency.
"Oh," I replied as casually as I possibly could. "What did you hear?"
Why did I ask that question? How could I make this less of a scene? I thought about the most prudent approach to guiding him through this moment.
"It was loud! It was loud and bumpy!" His stage whisper seemed like it was loud enough to be heard down the hall and in the entry. I was caught between chuckling and wanting to melt into the floor and disappear.
This is why people do not bring children to funerals and memorials. Heavy sigh.
I knelt before him and snuggled him quietly, my back turned to the others in the room. I heard the throat-clearing and brief shifting of positions of the other people in the room. As my body settled into his, I realized how grateful I was for his company and his perspective. I was thankful to have someone there with me, not as a distraction, but as a grounding agent. He pulls me down in the best ways to make sure I am connected. He shows me what things are important and what things don't matter much in the long-term.
When the other mourners left shortly afterward, we had the space to ourselves. I approached my grandfather, who looked just right. He was wearing a blue, button-down shirt and although he had on a cardigan over it I'm pretty sure it had short sleeves. I photographed a few details in the room, because that's what I do. It was a way to help me work through the feelings.
The stage whisper started again.
"Mommy! Stop looking at your grandfather! He's resting."
I smiled. When my eyes crinkled I felt tears well for the first time. This little boy was doing everything he could do to respectfully participate and connect. At three he doesn't understand the concept of death and that doesn't matter. He came for me, and he came for other members of our family who appreciated his joyful chaos and expertise in full-body hugging.
There were other funny moments of the day. This one I will remember for the rest of my days. This one I will tell his future spouse, should he decide to marry. This one I will tell his children.
Parents aren't sure how their children will behave during what is usually a solemn occasion and I understand that reasoning in leaving them behind. I also understand and appreciate that the best way to learn about the world, learn about expectations, and practice what to do is to actually do things. I encourage parents to bring children to services when their children are interested in participating. There may be crying, shouting, laughing, or other distracting behavior. I think that's okay. These kids aren't intending to disrespect the family or the dependent - they're merely experimenting with behavior to find the right place to settle. Adults can help them do that.
And in some cases, they bring a smile or laugh that is needed. When we come together to honor and remember a life, we remember the joy, too. In that little boy of mine is a piece of my grandfather. For that and so many other things, I am grateful.
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.