Home > Daily Special

Pictures of the Dead

By Hildie Westenhaver

,Even though I feel comfortable blogging about almost anything, there is one thing I have never written about: I had a stillborn baby. It was many years ago and it was very sad and really, what is there to say? One day I was happily six months pregnant and the next day I was having an ultrasound and being told the baby had died and I would have to deliver it that evening.

It. Him. It was a baby boy.

I was lucky enough to have him at a hospital that was very kind and helpful and considerate. The staff suggested I name him and hold him and take pictures. I was fine with their suggestions until they got to the “take pictures” part. Who in their right mind wants to take pictures? I just wanted to put the whole thing out of my head and get on with life. The nurse was adamant, “one day you will want to see pictures. So we will take them and keep them. And when you want them they will be here.” I thought the nurse was a total nutjob. But I had other things on my mind like how quiet the delivery room was without the constant “whoosh, whoosh” of the baby’s heart monitor. Or how to handle the pain of labor even though it somehow felt right to be in agony both mentally and physically. Or what would it be like to walk past the hospital nursery window with empty arms. Pictures? The least of my concerns.

The baby was teensy and perfect and purplish. His body showed no clues to what went wrong. After the delivery (barely one push) we held our sweet little baby while our wonderful doctor sat in the hospital room with us for almost an hour. Just talking. And listening. He didn’t hurry out and make the nurses deal with it, as doctors are wont to do. It’s hard to say how much that meant to me.

As sad an experience as you would imagine it to be, it wasn’t. At least not at the hospital. All I can think is that my prayers and the prayers of friends and family had bouyed me up. I felt so loved. I could feel God everywhere around me. I felt calm. I felt assured. Everything was all right. Even though it was so not all right.

Once I got home I was a mess. Even something small like the funeral home calling to ask how to spell our last name sent me sobbing to my bed. I had four very young children at that point and although I must have taken care of them, I have no recollection of doing so. My fondest wish was that the nightmare would end and I would be back to normal as quickly as possible. I was glad there were no pictures to remind me of all that had happened. The milk that poured out of me mixed with tears was reminder enough.

The thing I didn’t understand about the death of someone who has been part of us or whom we have dearly loved is that there is no going back to normal. We have just cracked open and begun a new existence. In a matter of hours the survivors have metamorphosized into different creatures, never to be the same.

That moment pushed me to a crossroad of my beliefs. Would I be angry and bitter and shake my fist at God, my body or whatever else I could think of? Would I wallow in the pity and anger that I cycled between all day long? Or would I chose faith? Would I believe that a Father in Heaven–a parent who loved his children as much, even more, than I loved mine–had my best interests at heart? Would I believe that He knew me better than I knew myself and would allow me the experience of losing a child to make me a stronger, greater, more compassionate person?

I sat on my back porch one cold evening a month or so after leaving the hospital. I knew that the choice needed to be made. What would it be? Anger or faith? It had been distilled to two options.

I chose faith. I choose faith.

I don’t see pain as evidence that God doesn’t care. It’s as foolish a notion as my children seeing their vaccination shots as evidence that I don’t love them. Pain and heartache are the gifts we may use to help us grow; the invitation to become stronger. But difficult things don’t necessarily make us better; if so, there would be nothing but wise people roaming the Earth. We are given obstacles, grief and heart-searing trials as powerful tools to make ourselves exceptional people.

I have never gotten the pictures from the hospital. I have wanted to. I have asked. But someone always says they’ll need to find out where they are being stored, blah, blah, blah. It was over eight years ago. Who knows where the files are now?

The pain has mostly gone away. The anniversary of my baby’s death passes and I forget some years. All I have is a little certificate with hand and footprints and that will have to do. I would like to see the photos of my little baby. Though not just to see what he looked like. To also remind me how far I’ve come on my spiritual journey. His birth is the experience that has mostly strongly shaped my view of God and the purpose we have on Earth. As much as I would never wish such a dreadful experience on anyone, it saved my soul. Pain can do that if we allow it.

It seems wrong to me that we only take pictures at happy times. How many birthdays we photograph but can hardly remember a few years later! But the huge, looming, world-changing things we never photograph. I think it’s wrong. I think we need to change it. Take photographs at these times when the world falls away and we are left with a scorched soul. These are the times that make us who we are–not vacations at the beach. There are professional photographers at a wedding but nobody even brings a camera to divorce proceedings.As stated by Beverly Hills divorce lawyers, even though the divorce will sometimes be more influential than the marriage was.

Do we believe that a photograph will prolong any experience, good or bad? It won’t, obviously. But my experience having a stillborn baby made me realize that it’s all worth remembering. Even the bad.

About Hildie Westenhaver

(Blog Team) was born and raised in Detroit, but is happy to call Austin, TX home now. She majored in Art History and Geography at BYU and graduated a week before having her first baby. There have been five more babies since then. Hildie is an avid baker and tries to fatten up the people she loves.

43 thoughts on “Pictures of the Dead”

  1. Jennie, I am so sorry. This makes me want to call the hospital for you and throw a hissy fit till they find the pictures. I love your description of the grace you have found.

  2. That was beautiful, Jennie. Thanks for sharing such an intimate picture of a spiritual crossroad, and what your choice has led you to become today. I had to make a similar choice and my thought process was much like yours. You expressed it beautifully.

  3. Having gone through a divorce, having lost twins at 20 weeks,and having gone through a heartbreaking failed adoption, this piece resounds with me on so many levels. I have found that choosing faith is a process that I have to go through continually and that I must reaffirm that choice over and over again when the sadness of these event threatens to overwhelm me. One thing that has been helpful for me is to express my feelings about these things through art. This has led to many wonderful healing moments with others who have also had painful events in their lives, like the time I was honored to be commissioned to do a painting from photos taken at the still birth of a dear friends baby boy. She wanted to memorialize him in a happier way. I placed the baby in the arms of the Savior, and changed his coloring to that of a healthy newborn. He appeared to be peacefully sleeping. This painting now hangs on their family room wall. I never thought I'd say I was glad I went through what I did, but at times like that, I am.

  4. "We have just cracked open and begun a new existence." I agree completely. What a beautiful way of saying it.

    Thank you for sharing such a personal section of your life. I am so sorry for the loss of your baby. Your thoughts about choosing faith instead of anger are inspiring.

  5. Jennie,
    Thanks for sharing your story.

    "The thing I didn’t understand about the death of someone who has been part of us or whom we have dearly loved is that there is no going back to normal. We have just cracked open and begun a new existence. In a matter of hours the survivors have metamorphosized into different creatures, never to be the same."

    This is so true. It really does change us in ways we can't explain.

  6. Oh, I love this! “Take photographs at these times when the world falls away and we are left with a scorched soul. These are the times that make us who we are–not vacations at the beach.”

    I could not agree more with this advice. My mother died of cancer when I was twelve years old. Nearly 20 years later, after my maternal grandfather passed away, his wife handed me an album that had been hidden among his possessions. I found myself looking at photos I had never known existed.

    There were many happy pictures that I cherish. But I was amazed to see that my grandpa had also photographed the sad days: Mom smiling weakly from a hospital bed, a bulky bandage covering her head and an angry red incision snaking its way down her neck. There were her poor feet, all purple and swollen from some dye-injecting procedure she underwent. He felt the need to photograph every room in our house the way they looked on the day she died, including her empty bedroom, the bedside table strewn with prescription bottles, the walls adorned with hand-written quotes and scriptures.

    And then at the end of the album, there I am—an awkward twelve-year-old standing apart from the group in a snowy cemetery, clutching a handful of flowers and staring at my mother’s casket before it was lowered into the ground.

    I drink these photos in, scanning them over and over, taking in every tiny detail, remembering the feelings. I’ve wondered why I care about them so much. I think it’s because for so many years, that time was just a memory for me, though it was the memory, really. The pivotal moment in my universe, the point between a golden childhood and the dreary reality of being suddenly grown up. And now it’s more than a memory—it’s right in front of my eyes, in stark, undeniable color.

    So even though the photos do hurt, it’s a validating, almost healing kind of hurt. I see that yes, this did happen. Yes, I was heart-breakingly young. But look how I came out of it! It happened, but it did not destroy me.

    Sorry for the novel. Thank you for a poignant post.

  7. I wish someone had taken pictures and video of my niece and nephew sobbing hysterically the night their dad told them he was leaving.

    Then he could look at them every time he tells himself "It's for the best".

    I'm so sorry for your loss and hope you can get ahold of those pictures.

  8. Jennie – thank you. And you are so right – faith is a choice. That's something I haven't really thought about.

    And pictures of pivotal hard times. I will remember that I will want to look at them someday to see how far I've come, like in the conference talk this past weekend (can't find who it was). He would have his children look back on how far up the mountain they'd been able to travel, how far they've come, instead of how much further there still was to go.

  9. I'm so sorry. They say that time erases old wounds. While I agree with that we still have scars whether they are physical, emotional or spiritual. The scars remind us of what we went through but also of where we have come since we got them. I think of the hymn, Sweet Is the Peace The Gospel Brings. I have found it to be true.

    I hope you can gently and persistently find those pictures soon. Keep trying.

  10. Thank you for this. I think of my pretty trivial-in-the-big-picture but big-to-me-for-now problems and my struggle to consistently choose faith. Still working on that, the fence-sitter that i am. I want to be able to stand and say "I Choose Faith" on a daily basis.

    I was a labor and delivery nurse for 8 years and some of the most sacred experiences i had were when helping a mom/family through a stillbirth delivery. These are some of my most vivid memories. i have to believe it's due in large part to the support and prayers and simply the hand of God in the room at that time–buoying up those parents. I think that Spirit gave me the strength to know when to speak and when to shut up and listen and how to give care at such a devastating time.

    One patient i remember clearly was adamant that photos not be taken. We discussed it and i tried to explain why we thought it was important when it comes to grief and mourning. I sat down with her to try to understand where she was coming from. Her explanation was beautiful. She told me about the joy of that pregnancy. That she had carried her baby for all those months. She had felt his movements and bonded with her child through his life within her and that was what and how she wanted to remember him. She gave me an added perspective to our sometimes overbearing hospital policies. She will always remember and he will always be a part of her, even without physical evidence.

  11. Tay — The Conference speaker was Matthew Richardson. (He was in one of my BYU ward bishoprics and was a pivotal person in my life.)

  12. As others have said–thank you for sharing this. I needed to hear this. It's a lesson in itself, similar to your point about pictures: on the one hand it's awkward, maybe even voyeuristic to turn another's pain into an edifying lesson for yourself. But shared pain (and hopefully, the subsequent healing) is a core part of the Gospel. Thank you, thank you.

  13. Thank you. I took pictures at my cousin's funeral. It felt awkward but he was a young man and I thought it might be something his parents, wife, brothers and sisters might appreciate. Yet, maybe they wouldn't.
    I made copies for everyone, but them in individual books and mailed them. My aunt thanked me.
    I am fine if some of his loved ones threw the pictures away thinking why would they want to remember? But maybe some of them need to remember that day. Need to see all the friends, coworkers and family members who came. To see the casket or flowers or gravesite. To remember the funeral.
    It's been 10 years. I still feel awkward sometimes about it. But I think I would have appreciated if someone had done it for me.

  14. Beautifully written, thank you for sharing this experience with us. And while I hope you end up getting those pictures, I liked what ashlee said about the mother who wanted only to remember and didn't want pictures taken.

  15. What lovely comments everyone. I hate being The Heavy and putting something personal out there. I so appreciate the kind words.

    Kristin, and Ashlee– I've been thinking about your experiences all day. Thank you for sharing them.

    Amy–Wow. Just wow. You have me pretty choked up.

    JKS–it's hard to tell what people will think of pictures. I wish I'd had them but I know there are some people that live in denial all their lives. As the nurse who was with me when I delivered said, "you can always take pictures and throw them away, but you can't decide later to take pictures."

  16. Jennie —

    Thank you for your beautiful thoughts on what is such a painful experience.

    Amy Stewart — Your comments left me speechless.

    The thought of what visual documentation can do for our emotional closure is significant. I now think about how much I wish I had photographs of certain painful events, such as the day my father announced to my family that he would be leaving us. I've found that over time such experiences take on an other-worldly-ness, where each person who was involved remembers things differently, and soon the mythology surrounding the event is almost more warped and painful that the straight truth of what actually happened. Over time our emotional memory fills in gaps, and I find that I crave the stark objectivity of a photograph.

  17. For one who seems to always have something to say, I un-naturally don't know how to express myself.

    Jennie…what you shared was beautiful and moving and so spot on and inspiring. And the additional comments just added to it.

    "I chose faith. I choose faith.

    "I don’t see pain as evidence that God doesn’t care. It’s as foolish a notion as my children seeing their vaccination shots as evidence that I don’t love them. Pain and heartache are the gifts we may use to help us grow; the invitation to become stronger. But difficult things don’t necessarily make us better; if so, there would be nothing but wise people roaming the Earth. We are given obstacles, grief and heart-searing trials as powerful tools to make ourselves exceptional people."

    Amen and amen. And thank you.

  18. Jennie – This post is truly beautiful! You have described the foundation of true happiness in the Gospel. I cannot help but honor my own crossroads moment 3 years ago when my former wife confessed infidelity and her intentions to go "figure things out on her own". Of course I was stunned, of course there were moments where I was overcome by sadness and wept like I never had before. And there was the choice that could not be avoided, looming before me, which would ultimately change my life for the better.

    Would I choose faith in God, love and compassion for her and the sad state she must have been in to make such a decision, and forgiveness? Or would I choose anger with her, with God, and the unfairness of my circumstances…would I hold her mistakes over her head as a tool of manipulation and "just" payback, would I wallow in despair and sadness?

    I too chose faith. It is difficult to describe the awesome power in a decision like that. I learned that the miracle of faith in God is not that he changes the circumstance of your life, but that he changes you and your heart. I learned that though I cannot control all my circumstances, I can control my reactions to them, and those reactions (faith/hope/love vs fear/doubt/anger) define the direction of my soul and the degree to which I experience God's peace. I learned the freeing and redemptive power of Christ's words "forgive them, for they know not what they do". I learned the truth of Christ's promise to his disciples the night before his crucifixion – "Peace I leave with you, *my* peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." The peace of the Gospel, HIS peace, is not conditional on circumstance (I think that's why he says "not as the world giveth", because the world's version of peace and happiness is everything working out for you temporally, ie circumstance), but on choosing to faithfully and humbly submit to all things.

    Notice I didn't just say submit…I said faithfully and humbly. You can submit begrudgingly, angrily, unhappily, fearfully…but I have a feeling you won't receive HIS peace or joy. But to submit faithfully, with perfect brightness of hope, with patience….the windows of heaven open up. It's like Nephi in 2 Ne 4 after his father dies and his brothers start acting up almost immediately. I've read verses 15-35 every time I found myself slipping into self pity, self doubt, anger, etc. He describes the process of ACTIVELY CHOOSING faith. My goodness I love that scripture.

    Regarding pictures…though I don't with I had a picture…I wish I had something similar. I wish I had the recordings of my almost nightly calls to my mother as we talked about the meaning of life, the purpose of trials, the redeeming power of charity and forgiveness, etc. Oh man do I wish I could see more clearly the path I charted in that turbulent time. I wish I could watch my spiritual evolution and tie it to each choice that ultimately led me to say "If I had it to do over again, if I could have chosen another girl to avoid this pain and divorce, I wouldn't…because then I wouldn't have what I have now."

    I've since met an amazing woman, who experienced the same things I did, and made the same choices I did, and learned the same lessons I did. That life is BEAUTIFUL, the joy of the gospel is REAL, and that the most consistent miracle we can and should seek is spiritual deliverance IN our trials, instead of temporal deliverance FROM our trials.

    We are documenting our love story on a blog we just started – ablogaboutlove.com – Tomorrow she'll be posting on the lessons she learned through infertility and divorce, and posting a picture taken of her a week or two after her husband left…it is a picture that conveys the strength of choosing faith.

    A big AMEM to your post and many of the comments, it spoke to my soul and is the root of the message I try to share with every one…I choose faith! (or as Nephi says – "Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted")


  19. Beautiful, Jennie. And beautiful comments as well.

    danny k, thank you so much for sharing your experience. This really resonated with me: " . . . that the most consistent miracle we can and should seek is spiritual deliverance IN our trials, instead of temporal deliverance FROM our trials."

  20. Thank you Sharlee – if that's the part that resonated with you then my way-too-long-comment was worth it (hopefully). Because that really is one of the greatest things I've learned and ever expect to learn.

  21. Jennie, that was beautiful. I'm sorry for the loss of your son, but your perspective is truly wonderful.

    I have a good friend who went through the grief of having a stillborn son at 9 months. She is a photographer, but couldn't bring herself to take pictures that day. Many years later she wished she had photos of her son and so she has turned to helping others in the same situation. She has joined an organization of professional photographers called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. They provide free photography services at any time of the day to families who have stillborn children or infants who only live briefly in the hospital.

    It is an amazing organization and I think you are right. You may not want the photographs of those hard times in the moment, but perhaps years later it would be nice to have those to look back on.

  22. What a beautiful post, Jennie! Thank you for sharing such a poignant experience and the lessons you chose to learn from it—your words were wise, profound, and true.

    And Amy, your comment made me teary. Beautiful and heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing your experience, as well.

  23. Thank you for sharing this post. If we were more open with the experiences of our hearts during these grieving times maybe we would as a culture have less fear surrounding death. Recently I've thought a lot about the life/death/life cycle and your post confirms that there is life after death in many ways.

  24. I haven't lost a baby; however, I can relate to your post somewhat. I took one picture of my husband in his casket. I haven't shared that picture with anyone. I occasionally pull it out on a day when I'm feeling sorry for myself and it reminds me that I wouldn't choose to have him linger. His death after suffering with pancreatic cancer was the gift of a merciful and loving God. Thank you for sharing.

  25. I have a photo of a group of us gathered with my sister-in-law after the funeral for her husband, who died in a tragic accident after they had only been married for a few years. We've all changed out of our 'formal' clothes and are sitting around her living room, but if you look close you can see the sorrow on everyone's faces. It is not a photo I would want to look at all the time because it is so sad, but it is also a good reminder of the family and friends who were there to support her.

    I do wish we had more formal memorials to the dead here in the US. I think people just want to 'move on' or 'get over it', and I don't think you can. I really like the traditions they have for Day of the Dead in many countries that involve some sorrow, but also joy and remembrance.

  26. I am so sorry for your loss. My grandfather died last year and at his funeral my 10 year old took a picture of him lying in his casket. Even though we told her not to take anymore, I am glad I have that one. I had a miscarriage earlier this year and the one ultrasound photo I have (which I asked the doctor for later) is so blurry that it doesn't even look like anything. I wish I had a clear picture of what I saw on the ultrasound that day, just for me, to help me remember.

  27. Jennie, I think I held my breath for paragraphs at a time – a breathtaking piece. Thank you for sharing something so precious.

    There's a photo I have of my sons taken mere weeks after their Dad left. That one photo says so much, for so many reasons. Your post has clarified some of the wrestling I've been having about the photo. Thank you.

    I wish brownies didn't take two weeks to get to you.

  28. My brother died last summer, and while I had mixed feelings about the tradition (LDS or otherwise, I'm not sure) of taking family pictures at the cemetery, I am so grateful we chose to go ahead and do it. I look at the picture of my 7-year-old nephew sitting next to the casket, looking solemnly at it, and remember how he sat there for such a long long time, watching, plucking at the grass. I look at the picture of my mother with her mother and her sister and see her courage, her faith, in her sweet half smile. I look at the picture of my seven brothers and sisters and myself and remember how it felt to be asked to get in that line with them, and to realize my Brent would never be with us in line again. I don't look at the pictures often, but every once in a while it feels holy and right to experience again the memory of those hard, sacred hours.

    And I have to agree with other commenters, I loved your statement, "The thing I didn’t understand about the death of someone who has been part of us or whom we have dearly loved is that there is no going back to normal. We have just cracked open and begun a new existence. In a matter of hours the survivors have metamorphosized into different creatures, never to be the same.”

    We haven't been the same. And when I look at pictures of us from even a month before the accident, I feel like I'm looking at pictures from someone else's life. Those people look so safe and happy and protected, so unaware… Not only have we suffered this loss, but so many other struggles since. And I'm finding that I have to constantly choose faith. Some days it's an easy choice. Some days it's not. But when I choose faith, my burdens become automatically lighter, my heart lighter, my mind lighter, and I can live my life without dwelling on the hard things.

    Thank you, Jennie, for sharing this, and thank you to so many of you commenters.

  29. Thank you, Jennie and other commenters. If my husband were awake he'd ask why I was crying. My heart feels the pain shared here and my spirit knows the truth shared here of choosing faith.

    My little mantra I repeat in my head when I experience life's difficult moments is "better, not bitter".

  30. I'm so sorry, kid, for what you went through. I hope you can track down those pictures. I'm a believer in recording events, not to excess, but that nurse was right, wasn't she?

    My little grandson was in the NICU for 3 days after he was born. We were so upset and he was fine, but the thought of the remote possibility that he might pass away was devastating. Don't know how you did it.

  31. My SILs brother took pictures at my moms funeral, and by my request took some of her in her casket. I put the casket shots in a seperate folder so my brothers could decide for themselves if they wanted to see them.

    My mom had a stillborn at 9 months. This was at least 25 years ago and I still feel sad when I think about it. She never really recovered from that. I would have liked to seen pictures of my little sister, but they didn't turn out well. I named my daughter after the sister I never knew.

  32. This post was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing what is probably the worst thing you will ever go through — the loss of a child.

    For anyone else that is reading, I wanted to let you know about Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, an organization of volunteer photographers that take photographs for those families that lose a child at birth or shortly thereafter. http://www.nilmdts.org. It is a nationwide organization, filled with photographers who want to help you preserve those memories, even if you decide never ever to look at them. You'll have them.

  33. My oldest brother died at birth. I pore and pore over his picture from a ways away from the casket.

    My 17 year old daughter almost died in PICU. We have pictures of her all swollen up, all yellow, and on life support. She miraculously survived but the pictures remind me of the before-Lauralee-almost-died and the after-Lauralee-almost-died grand pivot in my life.

    My mother died suddenly in an accident. The last picture I took of her was of her with all her grandchildren. Interestingly, she is the only one haloed with sunshine. I treasure it.

  34. I too had a stillborn baby. Your beautiful post mirrors my experience nearly identically. You captured the entire physical, emotional and spiritual journey.

    –Except I have the photos. Brought them home in a little box, decorated with dried flowers, tied with a green ribbon.
    The box sits in the top of my closet, like ashes in an urn. I nearly never look at them. (I still find them far more disturbing than my memories.) But there is some comfort in having them, I suppose. To remember that she was. And her loss (the death of the one I was supposedly bringing to life) instead brought new life in me.

    By far the greatest comfort for me is the Spirit. The peace that came when I needed it most. Peace and purity and healing that came as a cushion when the veil parted inside me — twice. It was life-changing and unforgettable. The photos? Not so much.


Leave a Comment