Lost Babies: how a photosculpture is changing the etiquette of consolation
Kari Ruth in Intensive Care
Kari Ruth re-envisioned as a Lost Baby
Digital photomontage photo sculpture
8″ x 10″ x .125″
The mother who loses her full-term baby goes home with the five stages of grief (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross), funeral home pamphlets, and a support group calendar. But the well-meaning friends and family who await her return have little if no experience with consolation. They will prattle on about how So and So lost her baby last month, gush about her fertility, and remind her how good it is to have other children to “take her mind off her grief.” In other words, they will do almost anything except talk about the lost baby which is precisely what a grieving mother pines for. If you ask her to tell her story, she will gladly do so to make sense of it, in part because her body is still shaped by pregnancy:
I was/I am a mother.
I went through a pregnancy and labor. I bought my baby a crib,
toys and outfits, special linens, towels and spoons.
I had big beautiful plans.
Yet all this effort to erase a mother’s memory may change with a miraculous, three-dimensional sculpture that a mother can give herself, or others can give to the mother. From its conception I have called it a Lost Baby. How these precious objects came to be, how they are teaching etiquette to family, friends and strangers, and how they are connecting mothers again with their lost babies days or decades after their deaths is at the heart of this story.
Why photograph a seriously ill or lifeless baby?
Let’s go back 35 years. Gae-Lynne’s infant son dies in a hospital and leaves without a trace; without a photo or even a name on the death certificate (a form of denial at the time). If a name was picked out, it evaporated at the sound of her husband’s voice, “Our baby died.” She begged the nurses to let her see her baby because seeing him would have made him real. But their reply was always, “You don’t want to see him, Mrs. Stewart. The baby’s turning gray.” So his little body was donated to the hospital, without a cemetery plot or headstone to remember him by. Gae-Lynne still remembers that nurse, and her words don’t make any more sense today than they did back then. One thing she knows for sure: she had a fourth son who even her youngest grandchildren know as Baby Stewart (or “the boy who would be Uncle”).
Today, hospitals routinely let grieving Moms and Dads hold, bathe, and dress their babies. If the parents can’t bear taking photos, the nurses do, and these go into the baby’s record. Once their grief is further along, the parents return, and this is where the genesis of Lost Babies begins.
The first “Lost Baby”
The very first Lost Baby I created was for Ruth Brown. It is a photo sculpture of her daughter, Kari-Ruth. In the original photo she is intubated, wearing a pink gingham dress on the third day of her abbreviated life, when the prognosis of surviving her brain tumor looked grim. A nurse urges Ruth’s husband, Randy, to shoot an entire roll of film of his daughter, and these are pasted into an album shelved with other baby books. Turning its pages always made Ruth sad until July 2007, decades later, when she became enthralled by the idea of making photo sculptures of all her children to stand on the piano . . . all her children, including Kari-Ruth, whose birth and death was never a subject fit for conversation.
Most vendors would cut out the photo exactly as is, but the gentleman Ruth called that day knew better. Remember the husband who whispered to Gae-Lynne, “Our baby died”? This was Al, whose photo cutout business first exposed him to many such deeply personal photos. Al knew that as is, the Kari-Ruth photo would be a terribly sad thing for others to look at. So having collaborated with me on several such occasions, Al suggested that I “dreamscape” Kari-Ruth’s photo into a work of art before creating the photo sculpture.
It was very important that the dreamscape strike exactly the right balance between camouflaging unpleasantries (like the tubing and incubator which tend to squelch inquiries) and creating an inviting vision that could quick-start that long anticipated dialogue about Ruth’s baby . . . a dialogue very much like this:
Ruth, who is this beautiful girl? Oh . . . how long did she live? What did she die of? . . . What was it like dressing your daughter? Did a butterfly really come with that dress?
The placement of the butterfly, in fact, was out of necessity. Tubing obscured most of Kari-Ruth’s tiny little face; reconstruction would have been difficult as no other photos existed. So I opted to lift Kari-Ruth into a wishful reality that lays her down in a basket of verdant reeds. A butterfly matching her polka dot dress lightly quivers on her lips. The only hospital artifact I would leave in would be the ID on her tiny ankle. My intention was to let the butterfly and bracelet relay what words could not: the aching love a mother has for her child, whether it lives or dies.
Often too loaded with sorrow and failure rather than the pure soul of the child, original photos depicting death do well with a little digital artistry. The real sharing of experience begins when the scene is not only wholesome but also transformational and magical. When Ruth saw her daughter at peace in that basket she told me her heart just melted. She hugged her Lost Baby and said: “I never saw my baby in any other setting but at the hospital. Seeing Kari-Ruth outdoors made it kind of a fun picture.” In another mother’s hands, the same scene might have held more spiritual meaning, conveying her baby’s final resting place. That is why it is so important to fully understand the client’s faith tradition, spirituality, and culture before beginning work on a Lost Baby’s dreamscape.
The benefits of hugging a likeness
Why is a framed dreamscape not enough? Because a 3-dimensional version of a Lost Baby opens a door. Maybe it is because you can literally hug a Lost Baby. It is representational, unlike a photo behind glass in a frame with sharp corners. When you think that a grieving mother’s deepest fear is that she will forget her child, a Lost Baby is wholly tangible. A mother can stand it next to photo cutouts of her other children. When no one is near, she can coo to it, or catch up on gossip, telling the baby about its siblings or her plans for the future. Whether as icon or proxy, the Lost Baby does it all, with grace and beauty. A Lost Baby photo sculpture also feels more substantive and sensuous; it is thicker and curved to follow the shape of the object, which is your baby. So of course, you are inclined to hold it.
Keeping the conversation alive
After all the cards, flowers and casseroles, it is up to the mother to keep the conversation alive. When the first anniversary of your baby’s birth comes around, consider a private celebration. On your baby’s birthday, light some candles near your Lost Baby and make a toast. If the spirit moves you, say something from the heart and say it aloud. If you are one of the Well-Meaning (i.e., friends or family), seek out a detail in the Lost Baby you hadn’t noticed before. Don’t be bashful. Saying something as pure and simple as “She was perfect, wasn’t she?” would make any mother radiant.
Empty Arms: Hope and Support for Those Who Have Suffered a Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Tubal Pregnancy by Pam Vredevelt (Wintergreen Press, Inc.; 20th, Revised & enlarged edition, January 20, 2000)
NANCY GERSHMAN is a digital artist who works with the mental health and pastoral community. The mission of her studio, Art For Your Sake is to create positive visualizations in the form of fine art through therapeutic photomontages−a means of collecting stories, healing broken hearts, opening dialogue and mending relationships.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 4, and Winter 2009- Volume 1, Issue 2
Winter 2009 | Sections | Art Essays