When the nurse asked us if we’d like to hold our son after he was delivered, I had reservations. What if something was horribly wrong? Could I stand to hold the lifeless body of this person who just the day before had been joyfully squirming around inside of me? I told her that I just couldn’t make a decision right then – I would let the team know after the delivery. Later I took my younger sister aside and asked her to look at him for me, to let me know if he looked okay and to warn me of anything that might be shocking.
My sister also asked if I wanted pictures. I told her that again, I was unsure, but that if she used her phone, that would probably be okay. I didn’t think I wanted them on my phone, but if I decided later that I wanted to see them, I didn’t want there to be no pictures of him at all.
After his birth, my sister exclaimed that he was perfect, that there was nothing wrong with how he looked – he was just a small baby boy. So after a nurse swaddled him, Rich and I cried as we held our son. It was a beautiful moment as we looked him over, seeing what about him reminded us of one another – Rich’s nose and toes, my ears and lips. It was over far too quickly, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget those moments with him.
After about a week, I texted my sister and asked her to send me the pictures she had taken of Elliott. Rich and I were taking a few days by ourselves at a friend’s beach house that he generously offered us, and as part of my time to sit with my grief, I wanted to see pictures of our little boy. To remember that he existed, that he had a body, that he was beautiful, that we were his parents, no matter how briefly.
And the pictures did that. They helped connect me in a different way to this small person who blinked out of existence far too soon. Because the circumstances of his birth were physically tolling on me, there were times when I had mentally checked out simply to survive the physical aspects of recovery, but now I wanted a moment to be present with the sadness.
As I scrolled through the moments that my sister had captured that morning, I remembered that my friend Tamara had texted me, asking to see pictures of Elliott if I was willing to share them. I texted her back, tentatively asking if she still really wanted to see them. I was hesitant – after all this wasn’t a typical happy baby picture. Maybe she had changed her mind. Maybe asking to see a stillborn baby had been a mistake and she was regretting it. But her response to my question asking if she still wanted to see him was, “Absolutely.”
I sent her a picture of me holding Elliott. He still was covered in vernix because his skin was too fragile to clean much off. I was holding him awkwardly because my arms were severely swollen. But there was beauty in the picture – a mother holding her child nearly always has an element of beauty in it.
When I shared it, I experienced something I didn’t expect. I felt pride. This was our son. He was no longer with us, but this picture proved that he had existed and it proved that he belonged to us, that he would always belong to us.
There are numerous posts written about the things not to say to parents who have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth. I’m grateful for those, even though I’ve heard more than I expected in just the few weeks since his birth. But I’ve seen fewer that have offered advice on how to comfort a grieving parent.
And while this may not be true for all parents who have lost a child, nothing has been a greater encouragement to me than for people to ask to see my son’s picture.
If he had been born alive, one of the first things that I would have done would have been to make Rich Instagram a picture of me nursing him. My Twitter and Facebook pictures would have been immediately changed to a picture of my newborn, my profiles inundated with photos of this new little one who I loved so completely. I wouldn’t have cared how annoying it may have been – I would have been a proud mama and I would have wanted the world to see why.
The truth is, I am still a proud mama. For 8 months, I carried this little one inside of me, feeling him move, thinking about my hopes for him and his life. I loved it when he would respond to Rich’s voice, when I could time his hiccups. While I never had the privilege of caring for him outside of my womb, I was still his mother, and a mother who loves social media wants to show pictures and tell stories about their little ones, even if there are only a very few.
When friends and family ask to see his picture, they validate his existence for me. They validate my role as his mother. They validate our status as a family.
Nothing can replace the joy of a healthy newborn. But in sharing pictures and memories of Elliott, there is a bit of life that is breathed into him and into me. For that, I am grateful.
(The picture for this post is of Elliott’s hands. I want to be respectful of those who have lost a baby or who are expecting and don’t want to see the face of a stillborn baby, but I also want to share some of the beauty of our son, so this is my compromise. I promise that I won’t share his face with anyone who doesn’t specifically ask to see, but I also don’t want to hide him away like a shameful secret. He is my son, and he was lovely, and I am proud of both of those things.)