A Picture is Worth a Thousand Breaths

Elliott's hands

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.)

23 thoughts on “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Breaths

  1. I used to work with a woman who lost a child at about 28 weeks. She kept a photo of her daughter on her desk. I always understood why, but sadly, not everyone did. A close friend of mine works with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, and I think it’s such a gift. With earlier losses, I always found it hard because there was no tangible remembrance, no proof that it was ever real. I always tell moms to buy a piece of jewelry, art, or even a tree – something to look at and remember. That’s what really worked for me.

    Thank you for sharing. I’m so glad you have your photos, and I hope they bring you comfort and, someday, peace. Many hugs to you and your family.

    1. I’m sure that an earlier miscarriage would leave a different kind of emptiness. But I agree with you – I think some kind of memento could be beneficial. I had never heard of Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, but I’m so grateful for the work that they and other groups like them do. What a gift.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this. My brother and SIL lost a daughter at 29 weeks in December. The hospital was incredibly kind and compassionate through such a horrific situation. I know the pictures the hospital took meant so much to them. I wasn’t there for the delivery and I’m very glad I got to see pictures of my sweet niece, who looked so much like her big sister.

  3. Alise, this is a beautiful and tender post. Close friends of mine experienced a stillborn birth (pre-eclampsia) and had similar photos taken of their son. They cherish them. They are precious photos, as are yours, and capture a memory that was way too brief and a life way too short. You are in my thoughts as you continue to grieve. Thanks for being willing to share your story.

  4. Oh, Alise…I didn’t know until today that your baby had passed away. I remember tweeting with you about pregnancy & being so excited for you.

    I’m so very sorry for your loss. Thank you for being willing to share the fragile beauty of your grief. May you continue to find comfort in the pictures of your tiny one.

  5. Those little hands are adorable. Your sister did great with the ictures. I would love to see him. Your story is amazing and Your a very stronge lady.

  6. Thank you for sharing! I am so glad that your sister took pictures of Elliott for you to cherish. Praying for you during this hard time. My friend had a still birth & I thought it would be rude of me to ask to see pictures without her suggesting first.

    1. I think it kind of depends on the mom. I’m a bit of an over-sharer to begin with, so getting to the point to just ask people if they want to see him wasn’t too hard for me, though I SO appreciate those who asked before I did. If she’s someone who generally shares pictures or stories about her life, I think asking would be okay. If you approach it with gentleness (something like, “If you want to share, I would love to see pictures of your child to celebrate him with you”), I don’t think that would be considered rude. If she’s a more private person, she may want to keep them to herself. But I think there can also be fear that people may not want to see your baby, and that can keep people from suggesting it in the first place.

      1. Thanks, that is such a great way to ask without offending her! This is such a touchy subject, thank you so much again for sharing. Still praying for you & your husband during this time.
        And I would love to see Elliott’s picture 🙂

  7. Beautifully, beautifully said. So glad you got these pictures and can now work through all those layers of grief more completely and fully. It is so important.

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