I have been a volunteer with NILMDTS for about 9 months now, and I was not at all sure that I would even be chosen as a volunteer photographer. I did not think my work would measure up, and the responsibility seemed enormous. The reasons I felt drawn to volunteer with this beautiful organization starts with two brief points:
My sister Lauren died on December 23, 2015. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after her 30th birthday at the end of October. We were gearing for a fight, but instead we were told a brief time later that there was nothing the doctors could do and we needed to make our way to San Diego, where she was hospitalized, and say our goodbyes.
I had a miscarriage in July of 2016.
When I miscarried, I was only about 8 weeks along. My husband and I were very sad, but I cannot say I was devastated. I know devastation–it was my recent companion. I know women who have had miscarriage after miscarriage, lost hope. I had two beautiful babies at home, so I keenly felt the loss, but it was only fair to keep perspective. That doesn’t mean that baby was not loved.
While talking to my other sister, who was one of those women who had experienced multiple miscarriages, I said something about the fact that I regretted not “announcing” on Facebook, not telling extended family and friends yet, but it wasn’t for sympathy reasons. My sister, who can be very wise, told me, “It’s because your baby was real. Your baby existed, your baby was so loved, even if the pregnancy was new.” That was it exactly. Every parent knows that you love your child long before you ever meet him or her. You imagine their personality; create hopes and dreams of whom they will be and how your family life is going to be.
I knew who Lauren was. She was 30. She had a husband, a job, a life of experiences and daily chats and a lifetime of memories. We all made it to the hospital in time to say goodbye–we didn’t get to fight. We instead experienced possibly the most painful thing a human can go through–holding a loved one’s hand while they take their last breathes. Being present for the last days, the pain and the struggle. Being helpless and railing against hopelessness. Finding acceptance if it means they find peace.
Over and over again in that hospital room, amidst our grief and her suffering, I wanted my camera. First I thought it was because I am a photographer and that was my comfort zone. A combat journalist once said there was a measure of separation, of protection, when behind the camera. A layer protecting him from what was happening in front of the camera that allowed him to do his job, function and capture the pain he witnessed without being swallowed in it. I thought maybe that was it. Then I realized, although I didn’t want to admit it–cus it was weird, if I’m being honest–that I wanted my camera because I wanted to capture the beauty in the pain.
There were so many moments: ugly, beautiful, raw, precious…so many things we would never have again, so much we would not even be able to remember clearly.
Should we ever want to remember it, we wouldn’t have it unless there were pictures. That’s how I operated at any family function: capture the story. Document the mundane, the every day, and the routine; because today’s routine will be different than tomorrows. Today’s mundane is tiny hands and toddler wobbles and then it’s high school graduation. Today’s tea party turns out to be the very last time your sister was laughing with her nieces.
For these little ones, the entirety of their existence outside the womb will be in that hospital room. The families have THAT day, THOSE moments…and forever can spare a minute, but it does not always spare many.
So all of that together is why I wanted to volunteer–why I needed to volunteer, even if I wasn’t sure my technical skills were there. What I have is an eye that recognizes the agony, and the beauty to be found there. I have a heart that knows how much love that family is feeling for that precious little soul, and how their hearts are breaking for the life that was over before it truly started. I have a mind that knows one day, they will be ready to see the photos of the love that rose above everything else, but they don’t need to hear that, because they aren’t sure right now how they will make it though the rest of this day. So someone should be there to capture it, to bear witness to the first and last moments of them as a family here on Earth, to know what every parent knows: our children are real. Our children exist. Our children are so loved, long before we ever meet them.
“It takes a village.” For the families and the babies, WE are the village–the doctors, the nurses, the photographers, the dispatchers, the digital retouch artists, the fundraisers, the communications crew, and all the volunteers. In the agony of those first days, we can offer a measure of solace. None of us can do it alone, though—there is a spot for you.
Click below to see a full list of volunteer opportunities and learn more about how you can give of your time to bereaved families!