Trigger warning: stillbirth, child loss
I remember when I first heard about parents sharing photos of their deceased children on social media. It sounded like the strangest thing to me — morbid; macabre. Why would anyone want to look at that?
And then I read a story on a parenting blog about a family who experienced the loss of their child. In those days, I still thought of loss as something distant; a thing that happened to other people, but never me. And so I read the story, and I cried when the mother talked about the nurse taking four Polaroids, and how it felt awkward, trying to decide on the right expression to document the day her child was both born and died.
Years later, the mother pulled out those photos, and with distance, realized how much she treasured them. She also realized she wished she had more. Four photos is nothing compared to a missing lifetime.
About a year after I read that story, it came to my mind again. It came to my mind, because I found myself in that mother’s position. My son was also stillborn. And suddenly, thoughts of the macabre became meaningless.
No one talks about the reality of giving birth to a deceased baby. No one talks about the fog that envelopes you and wraps your mind in grief. Nothing, not even stories like this one, can prepare you for the enormity of going through a full-term labor and leaving the hospital without a living child. In the simplest terms possible–it changes you. And in addition to losing your child, the person you were before also dies.
I was lying on the hospital bed, staring at the patterned flooring. Tears were still running, but I had finally stopped screaming. The nurse came in and out, held conversations with my doula and my sister. At one point, she brought a form for a photographer. And I thought back to that story, and I think it was only because I had read it, that I sat up, and I asked my sister to fill out the form for me. Because I wanted everything. Every tangible token possible.
I went into labor later that evening, and the photographer waited in the lobby outside. And I still have one regret about my decision, because I had declined the option of having her present during labor, and those are memories I will now always be missing. But she came in after my son was born, and she took 66 of the most beautiful photos of my so-recently-deceased child. My nine-pound boy; so large he needed three-month clothing, and round cheeks still so full of color he looked like he was only sleeping. And although the photographer captured everything, I still understand the other mother; the one who wrote the article. Because whether four photos, or 66 –“enough” just isn’t possible.
And despite my experience, I still understand when people call these photos “gross.” As I said, I used to feel this way. It’s a perspective that’s hard to change without experience, and this is not one I would wish on others. But now that I have these photos, and now that they are all I have, I don’t see them as gross anymore. They are, instead, quite precious.
Which brings me to subject of this piece, and thoughts about sharing on social media — that crazy, and sometimes chaotic vehicle of modern discourse. That thing that I used to both love and be addicted to; that center of many mixed feelings today.
When I came home from the hospital, I turned off all my social media. I had had a horrible argument on Facebook just days before my son died, and I still, to this day, wonder if my stress was part of the cause.
But I think it’s a reality of this world that you cannot live without social media forever, and so I eventually returned.
I actually started with Pinterest, of all places. Googling things like, “I feel so alone” and, “life feels empty,” I found, again and again, there were quotes on Pinterest that resonated with me. And so I finally made an account and built a board of all the things I wished I could tell my son.
And then later, after I attended a retreat for loss parents, I got active on Instagram. And I found so much community in what I had originally thought was shallow and full of selfies. This community was the first place I shared a photo of my child online, and the first place I was comfortable, because people didn’t judge me.
I think back on this, with the perspective of an outsider, and I hear people talking lately about influencers who have also lost a child. And there is criticism of these perfectly curated feeds that now include photos — and emotions — about these children. But I am thinking — why not? If the entirety of your life is already shared online, why wouldn’t you also talk about your most important pain, and the corresponding love?
Our children are not shameful. They are beautiful, real people. In my opinion, the only shame comes from the perception that they should be hidden away. Because in sharing, comes community. And community tells us we aren’t alone.
I’m not an influencer, and my life doesn’t exist entirely online. But in being and sharing online, I have found commonality with others in my grief. And part of that commonality comes from talking and sharing about my child: my beautiful boy who should be three.
Although I am still conflicted about it, I rejoined Facebook six weeks after my son’s death. And it took me a while to become really active again, but it’s where I am today. And I have joined groups, and I have found more commonality, and one of the things I love most is being honored with the privilege of hearing about and seeing photos of someone else’s child. Because it is an honor, and all children are beautiful.
And I wish it were more acceptable and maybe more understood, that none of us do these things for “attention;” at least not in the way that may be assumed. We aren’t looking to build followers, or capitalize on grief. We merely want to be understood, and sharing photos is part of how that happens.
I have 66 photos of my deceased child, and they are all I have. And yes, I keep some of them private, because they are sacred, and they are mine. But there are a small handful I share openly, like any other parent shares about any other child.
And that’s not gross, not even remotely. It’s just another aspect of this messy thing called life.