Life

“These Are the Only Pictures These People Will Ever Have of That Child”

Two photographers explain how they help grieving parents document a lost pregnancy—and praise Chrissy Teigen for sharing her images.

Chrissy Teigen
Chrissy Teigen arrives for the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 26. Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, Chrissy Teigen posted a series of black-and-white photos to Instagram, the images being noticeably different from the cheerful fare that usually populates her feed. In the first photo, Teigen is hunched over on a hospital bed, tears and grief visible on her face. In another, she cradles a small blanket-wrapped bundle, her husband, John Legend, close by.

“We are shocked and in the kind of deep pain you only hear about, the kind of pain we’ve never felt before,” Teigen wrote in the caption. “We were never able to stop the bleeding and give our baby the fluids he needed, despite bags and bags of blood transfusions. It just wasn’t enough […] To our Jack—I’m so sorry that the first few moments of your life were met with so many complications, that we couldn’t give you the home you needed to survive. We will always love you.”

The couple had confirmed that they were expecting their third child in mid-August, their first conceived naturally rather than through in vitro fertilization. Soon after the announcement, Teigen tweeted that her IVF pregnancies had felt “untouchable and safe” but her most recent pregnancy left her feeling “eggshelly.” She had chronicled the complications that arose as the pregnancy progressed, complications that had her on mandatory bed rest and eventually led her to be hospitalized for excessive bleeding a few days before she announced the loss of a son. Amid the outpouring of support for the couple, some questioned why Teigen would choose not only to document such a tragic moment but to share it with the world. Despite how common pregnancy loss is—somewhere between 10 to 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage and about 1 in 160 births are stillborn—it is rarely openly discussed, and those who experience it often report feeling isolated in their grief.

The flood of judgment that Teigen received after sharing is undoubtedly explanation enough for why few admit to having experienced a miscarriage or a stillbirth. But just as pregnancies are lost more frequently than some might imagine, parents choosing to memorialize them is also more common than Teigen’s detractors seem to think it is. “There are some people who think it’s somewhat morbid,” says Dawn McCormick, a New York–based photographer who volunteers for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an organization that offers free professional portraits to parents who are experiencing the loss of a baby. “I don’t think they realize that, because they have pictures of their children throughout their life, these are the only pictures these people will ever have of that child.”

McCormick’s interest in what is often referred to as remembrance or bereavement photography began when one of her friends lost a child. A nurse took a photo but, McCormick says, it was done so poorly and the lighting was so bad that her friend found that she couldn’t even look at it. “She always would say, ‘I just wish I had something else,’” McCormick told me. McCormick began working with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and through them conducts six or seven remembrance shoots a year. The non-profit, which works with around 1,500 volunteer photographers in 40 different countries, is one of the largest organizations dedicated to remembrance photography, but there are also independent photographers, like Todd Hochberg who was interviewed earlier this year by the Atlantic, who offer the service.

Some of the most well-known bereavement photographs come from the Victorian era, when death portraiture, or memento mori, was en vogue. When these photos periodically make their way onto social media or into the news, they’re often described as “creepy” or “unsettling,” but according to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep’s volunteer program manager, Ali Furtwangler, remembrance photography isn’t about “photographing death.” Furtwangler, who lost her first child at 20 weeks, has been on both sides of the camera. When she and her husband found out their son was going to be stillborn, “we just told our family not to bother coming because when you’re in that deep grief and you don’t know what’s happening, you just don’t see the point.” She told me that having photos “was so important to showing that he was a true little person” to their family and to their subsequent three children.

While she’s been working with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in a volunteer capacity since she lost her first pregnancy, Furtwangler told me that she became “sick of being on the sidelines” and decided to learn photography herself. Since she became an affiliated photographer in 2018, she’s taken photos for “just shy of 30 families.” Parents can either reach out to photographers directly through Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep’s volunteer database, or sometimes nurses and hospital social workers who know about the organization will tell parents about the service. And though COVID-19 restrictions have affected photographers’ ability to go into hospitals, Furtwangler told me over email that a few hospitals have allowed volunteers in and she’s been able to “serve a handful of families during the pandemic.”

According to both Furtwangler and McCormick, besides trying to make the entire process as quick and quiet as possible, remembrance photography isn’t much different from other kinds of portraiture. The main difference is that photographers don’t have access to much of the lighting equipment they normally do and photos are done in black-and-white or sepia tone, which are more forgiving of the differing physical circumstances of stillbirth. And while remembrance photographers are often seeing families on what is certainly one of the most difficult days of their lives, both Furtwangler and McCormick told me that they’ve both learned to compartmentalize so as not to add another burden onto parents who are already overwhelmed with grief. “It’s not our loss,” Furtwangler said. “It’s not our experience. We’re not the ones going through it.”

Photographers who work with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep don’t know what families choose to do with the pictures they take. Once the shoot is over, the photos are sent to the parents through a secure link so that they can choose when—or if—they want to see them. But McCormick praised Teigen’s choice to share the photos of her loss so publicly. “People don’t talk about miscarriage,” she said. “I hope it helps break down the stigma of not sharing these things. It’s sad and it’s hard to talk about, [but] it’s nothing to hide away from the world.”