Photographers needed to preserve memory of stillborn infants

Published 9:46 am Monday, February 22, 2016

Contributed Photo/Sarah Tunstill  Baby Mackynzie Brown was born slightly premature in March 2014 and passed away at 35 minutes old.

Contributed Photo/Sarah Tunstill
Baby Mackynzie Brown was born slightly premature in March 2014 and passed away at 35 minutes old.

Birthing a stillborn child or experiencing the loss of a newborn only minutes after its delivery is incomprehensible for most parents, and finding peace after the loss is even more difficult.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a non-profit infant remembrance photography organization that helps give parents beautiful memories of the time spent with their infant by providing a professional photo session and free photos to the parents following the loss of a newborn.
The nationwide program began in 2005, following the loss of Mike and Cheryl Haggard’s 6-day-old son. They wanted to remember the “beauty and blessings he brought,” said Cheryl, so photographer Sandy Puc captured those final moments for the family to cherish after their son was no longer with them.
The concept developed into an international non-profit providing this service to families in one of their most painful moments.
In 2011, Tri-Cities photographer Karen Jenkins began contacting area hospitals to see if this was a service they provided. Since that time, approximately 10 photographers have participated, and she has a staff of three now. Photographers are professionally trained in how to interact during this tragic time and how best to meet the needs of the family.
With only three photographers, families are not guaranteed a photo session, but with just a few more, a photographer can be on site within a matter of minutes or hours.
“We just had a need for a photographer at Indian Path in Kingsport and unfortunately could not cover the session because none of our three active photographers were available,” said Jenkins.
Over the course of the year, Jenkins said she receives between 10-15 calls, and that with more photographers, each one volunteers less time. It is an intense experience, said NILMDTS photographer Sarah Tunstill.
“You go into a room with a woman in her darkest moment,” she explained. “She’s very vulnerable. It’s very emotional.”
Preferences vary for parents on the styles of photos they want: whether they want to be in the photos, whether they want to show only hands, or to have both parents in the shot, or newborn-style shots, Tunstill said.
“It’s heart breaking. It’s life changing,” said Tunstill, adding she has two little ones and can’t even imagine the experience. “It makes me hold my babies a lot tighter, and I try to let go of the small stuff.”
Clients make her feel very appreciated with letters, cards and updates, she said.
“It seems like it’s like the only thing that they have left of their babies that made their lives real,” said Tunstill. “They don’t get to bring anything home, so those pictures are like the only things they have to show that baby was real.”
Even if they wait to look at the photos till months down the road, Tunstill said it provides a sense of closure and affirmation that the baby existed and was beautiful.
Due to a genetic disorder, one of Tunstill’s clients experienced two stillbirths.
The first, Mackynzie Brown, passed away 35 minutes after her birth. Tunstill arrived quickly to take photos with outfit changes and with the family and doctors holding her. For her mother, Sarah Brown, these photos have been an irreplaceable treasure.
Of the photo shoot, Brown said, “I was comfortable because I knew they were the only memories we were going to have of what she looked like. Sarah was super sweet and made us feel comfortable and didn’t do anything we didn’t want her to and asked us what kind of photos we wanted.”
But there’s no denying being present with a family for whom a harsh reality is dawning is not easy.
“It makes me appreciate life in general and makes me realize how easy it is to be here and gone the next moment,” said Tunstill.
For this reason, she asks photographers in and around the Tri-Cities, Southwest Virginia and western North Carolina to donate some of their time and skills to help grieving families.
“Go into it with an open heart and open mind,” she said. “It’s something these people are in desperate need for. If we can’t come, they hand them a disposable camera, and then they may get a handprint or locket of hair, but they’re not going to remember they’re little feet and hands.”
“I’ve talked to other ladies who have lost kids, and that’s the one thing they regret: not having pictures,” said Brown, whose photos of Mackynzie and Brantley hang in her living room.
After her second stillbirth, she had a successful birth, and Tunstill was in the hospital capturing every moment of it. Nathaniel turns two months old on Sunday, February 21.
“[Tunstill] said, ‘You deserve to have these photos,’ and now she’s like one of my best friends,” said Brown. “You build that relationship with them.”
Jenkins encourages photographers to join NILMDTS so they may serve more families in the Tri-Cities and surrounding area. Those interested should call Jenkins at 423-773-9781 or visit

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