I never thought that having experienced the loss of my son would lead me on such a surprising path of finding joy. Martin Buber said,
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
I feel like this quote sums up the recent years of my life. When we found out we were losing Zachary, my husband and I were at a complete loss. We shut down. Being across the country from our parents, we told them not to come – what was the point? When you lose someone, especially an unborn baby, you don’t know what you need. You don’t know how to manage those moments and survive. If it weren’t for my sister-in-law, Katie, my grief journey would be completely different.
Katie knew someone on the east coast who had a family member that lost their baby a few months prior and they had an amazing volunteer organization come to take photos of their last moments. She suggested we give Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep a call to find a photographer locally. As I labored, someone found the details and called the Seattle Area Coordinator to see if it was possible to have someone come when our son was born. After almost 12 hours of labor, our son Zachary was born early on 11-10-11. Our photographer, Vicki, came later that morning to help us capture our moments with our son. She captured beautiful, breathtaking photos of us holding him, his sweet little face and feet. Moments that I didn’t even know could look so beautiful – instead of the pain we felt, the images we received from our NILMDTS photographer showed the love captured in those tender moments.
I didn’t realize how significant that time with our NILMDTS photographer would be in shaping the rest of my life. Of course, I will never forget the pain and labor of love having birthed a stillborn son but the gift of our photos would be so much more in helping me look back on that day with peaceful memories full of endless love.
I started attending local pregnancy loss support groups and after a few months, another early loss and the start of what would be a successful pregnancy resulting in a healthy baby girl, I felt a need to honor Zachary’s memory by giving back to the loss community.
My volunteering started locally as Website and Social Media Manager for Parent Support of Puget Sound (P.S.). From there I found my way back to my NILMDTS photographer, Vicki, so she could do maternity photos for my rainbow baby. She eventually did newborn photos and other family photos for us until she moved away. Before she moved, she connected me with NILMDTS as a Community Volunteer helping with local recruiting. She also asked if I’d be interested in becoming the Seattle Area Coordinator to manage the team of about 20 photographers and dispatch calls for session requests. At first, I was apprehensive – it was such a large responsibility making sure families’ session requests were covered by our volunteer photographers. But I thought there would be no better person to advocate for those families having been in their shoes.
My first call was on a Friday night while out to a birthday dinner with a friend. After contacting all our photographers and trying multiple angles, I came to the conclusion that no one was able to take this session. I was heartbroken; my first call to dispatch was declined. As a loss mama I felt sad that another family was not going to get the amazing photos like I had but as the AC, I knew I had done every possible thing I could to help that family which in this case was pointing the nurse to our posing guide and offering our amazing retouching services.
A couple years as Area Coordinator passed, I had also grown in my role at P.S. and by that time was acting President. The loss community was a deep part of my being. I had made some amazing friends at both P.S. and NILMDTS. After having my third living child and leaving my career, I decided that I’d apply for the Regional Coordinator role to oversee volunteers in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii. After a few short months, that role morphed in the Volunteer Coordinator role overseeing all of US and Canada with three other VCs.
It was in that intimate group of Volunteer Coordinators that I think I found my surprise destination. The Seattle area had been getting overwhelmed with session requests and our photographer base was not growing rapidly enough. I wanted so badly over the years to be able to go take a session but without any technical skills or professional equipment, I was not at all qualified. 2017 was the year I decided I was going to change that. With the support and encouragement of my NILMDTS peers, I purchased my own equipment and started building my technical knowledge of photography, lighting, and editing.
It was fun to look at the world in a different way. I was practicing on anyone and everyone who would let me. I was taking daily courses online via Creative Live. I started a Facebook page to post pictures so I could watch my skill develop. Photography started filling holes that I didn’t even know I had – the longing for a hobby.
I didn’t realize it at the time but subconsciously I must have had some connection because on March 22, 2018, six years to the day of Zachary’s due date I prepared my sample portfolio to submit my NILMDTS application. On April 11, 2018, I got the amazing news that my hard work and dedication paid off. I was accepted as a NILMDTS affiliated photographer. Now I can help other families heal with portraits of their precious babies gone too soon. Each NILMDTS session I will go on will not only help others start their grief journey but continue to help heal my heart as well as keep Zachary’s memory alive.
Without Zachary, I wouldn’t have found my purpose. It may not have been my initial destination in life but this surprise destination has brought joy in an unexpected way. I am excited to start capturing the joy of life’s happy moments and honored to be able to capture the most important moments of undying love.
~ Ali Furtwangler, NILMDTS Staff, Volunteer Photographer & Digital Retouch Artist, and Mother to Zachary Conner