The heartbreaking truth behind this beautiful photo

When a newborn baby arrives, those joyous first days are captured on camera in glorious detail, never to be forgotten.

The tiny fingers clutching a parent's pinky, the exquisite ears, the teensy toes, the adorable face; all are recorded for eternity, creating cherished memories to last a lifetime.

But when a baby is stillborn, and that sense of unbridled elation is replaced by heart-wrenching grief, cameras are usually nowhere to be seen.

While photos are usually the last thing on the minds of parents living their worst nightmare, as time passes, many yearn for memories of the child they lost.

It was a need recognised by Melbourne's Gavin Blue, who created a free photography service for families who experience stillbirths, as well as those who have critically premature births or have children with serious and terminal illnesses.

The service, called Heartfelt, has more than 340 volunteer professional photographers across Australia and New Zealand, who do about 1500 sessions a year.

Blue, a commercial photographer, saw the need for such a service when he and wife Kelly, after first having a healthy son, had a daughter who was stillborn in 2006.

Gavin Blue's wife, Kelly Blue, with their daughter, Alexandra. Picture: Gavin Blue.
Gavin Blue's wife, Kelly Blue, with their daughter, Alexandra. Picture: Gavin Blue.

"At 32 weeks, it was found out there was something wrong with her, and we had tests, and some more tests," Blue, from Ashburton in Melbourne's southeast, says.

"Then we entered the world where you learn phrases like 'incompatible with life'. It was just horrible. It was such an utter shock for us.

"They weren't sure if she was going to be born alive, but she actually died during birth."

As an experienced photographer, Blue was able to take beautiful, gentle photos and videos of daughter Alexandra, including some with big brother Harry.

But he also gained an insight into the often starkly contrasting experience of other grieving couples.

"The hospital photographer came and did some photos, and they were just horrific," Blue says.

"Hospital staff photographers often have a more scientific background geared towards supporting research teams and documenting different medical conditions, rather than taking beautiful photos for the parents to have gentle memories of their child.

"There are things you can do which soften the impact. But the lighting was harsh, the processing was harsh, the treatment was harsh.

"It was like a secondary shock when the photos arrived. My wife wanted to rip them up.

"In contrast, the ones we had were gentle and capturing more of a feeling, rather than information, and they were just beautiful."

The need for a service like Heartfelt became even more obvious when the couple attended a counselling session for bereaved parents.

They met some parents who had only a single Polaroid of their child.

One mother was "in a state" because she had none at all. She was so worried she would forget what her baby looked like she had commissioned an artist to create a drawing from her description.

"She just wanted to have something that she could hold onto," Blue says.

It was then he realised he could make a tangible difference by giving grieving families the gift of photography to keep the memories of the child alive. After initially working with another organisation that no longer exists, Blue founded Heartfelt in 2010.

 

Heartfelt founder Gavin Blue with his wife Kelly and three boys Felix, 10, Archie, 12 and Harry, 14. Picture: Nicki Connolly
Heartfelt founder Gavin Blue with his wife Kelly and three boys Felix, 10, Archie, 12 and Harry, 14. Picture: Nicki Connolly

When a child is stillborn, a hospital social worker or midwife will gently suggest Heartfelt's services to the family, and a request is sent out to Heartfelt's volunteer network.

"We've had plenty of occasions when we've had someone on site within the hour," Blue says.

"But then there are times - like school holidays are especially tough - when we can't get someone there for two days, or we miss the window, which is really sad.

"In Victoria, sometimes we can miss two or three sessions a month."

For those circumstances, Heartfelt also offers a retouching service, to improve any photos taken by families or hospital staff.

Despite the vast network of volunteers, Blue says he is probably the second or third busiest photographer with Heartfelt, and does more than 40 sessions a year.

"I just think it's a really beautiful way to help people," says Blue, who was honoured with a Medal of the Order of Australia in January for his work as founder and president of Heartfelt.

"I like just being there knowing over time this is most likely making a big difference for them.

"It's a real honour to be in that horrible, horrible situation with them, and be able to do something that can make a difference.

"And as parents, you worry about forgetting your own child and the grief, and it just keeps me in contact with what a big thing it is to lose a child."

Heartfelt photographers make a point of taking some less confronting, gentle photos that can be readily shared, to open up a conversation and enable family and friends to understand what's happened and rally around the parents in their time of need.

Among the volunteer group, some have experienced stillbirth or pregnancy loss, and most have had it happen to someone close.

For one, the volunteer role is both a cause close to the heart and the realisation of a long-held dream.

Joanne McGarry, from Seabrook in Melbourne's west, experienced the heartbreaking loss of her daughter, Grace, who was stillborn in 2003.

For McGarry, a former accountant who turned her photography hobby into a profession about four years ago, the loss motivates her desire to help others in the same position.

 

The Heartfelt photo kit given to each family.
The Heartfelt photo kit given to each family.

"Seven or eight years ago I met a Heartfelt photographer, and when she told me about Heartfelt, it planted a seed in my head," says McGarry, who also has a son, 13, and two adult stepdaughters.

"When I started getting into photography, I thought one day, when I feel I'm good enough, I'm going to apply, because I want to be a Heartfelt photographer."

McGarry, who runs a business specialising in newborn and family photography, has been
a Heartfelt volunteer for almost two years and has done close to 50 sessions.

"Knowing what I went through, and knowing what my photos mean to me, that's what has connected me to Heartfelt," she says.

"I want to help provide a physical memory for other families who have suffered a loss or who have a critically ill child.

"Usually with people at this critical time, they don't think, 'Let's call a photographer.' That's the last thing on their mind. So being able to create some physical memories, that's my motivation. Having those photos helps keep the memory of the child alive."

One of the most memorable Heartfelt sessions for McGarry was with a family whose baby was taken off life support while she was there.

"There was a lot of family there, and there was so much love in that room for that baby," she says.

"It really, really touched me, because it was such an intimate time. I think being trusted to be there at that time, capturing that time of their family history, was such an honour.

"It still gives me goosebumps."

On another unforgettable occasion, McGarry was photographing a baby alone because the parents were too distressed to be in the photos.

The father came to watch and the nurse asked if he wanted to touch his daughter.

"He was really frightened to do so as he was worried how she would feel to touch," McGarry says.

Photos of Gavin and Kelly Blue's four children, including stillborn daughter Alexandra, in their home. Picture: Gavin Blue.
Photos of Gavin and Kelly Blue's four children, including stillborn daughter Alexandra, in their home. Picture: Gavin Blue.

"The midwife explained how she might feel and then I also told him about how I was also scared to touch my daughter, too, but that once I did, it felt OK and I was glad I did it.

"His hands were shaking as he touched his daughter for the first time and we took some beautiful photos of him touching and holding his daughter's hands and feet.

"I don't know how he felt about it afterwards, but they are really beautiful images of him connecting with his baby girl."

In February, Heartfelt passed a remarkable milestone, taking photos for its 10,000th family.

Blue says: "It's just incredible, and you can't digest the grief in those numbers."

Heartfelt receives no government funding, and relies on donations to cover the $65 cost for each family, including a set of prints and a USB of digital photos packaged in a presentation box.

For Blue, the work with Heartfelt is another way of keeping the memory of his daughter alive.

In their home, Blue and his wife have birth photos of their three sons and one daughter displayed in birth order in the hallway, and Alexandra remains very much a part of their lives.

"Those photos of Alexandra are very precious, and it normalises it for the boys and people who visit," Blue says.

"It's just a reminder that we've had four kids, not three."

Adrian and Lina Wong with son Jaxon and a photo of their stillborn baby Mason. Picture: Adrienne Myszka.
Adrian and Lina Wong with son Jaxon and a photo of their stillborn baby Mason. Picture: Adrienne Myszka.

PICTURES HELP THE HEALING PROCESS

When Lina and Adrian Wong look at the precious photos of their son Mason, it's not with a sense of grief, but great pride.

Having tangible, photographic keepsakes has meant Mason's existence feels better recognised and "more real" for the couple from Wantirna South.

"Mason's birth, and passing, while traumatic, is a big part of our lives, and one we wish to acknowledge," Lina says.

"We look at our photographs with great pride. Rather than mourn his passing or what would have been, we were able to celebrate the baby whose heartbeats we heard, and whose kicks

we felt, and whose body we held."

IT manager Adrian, 33, and marketing manager Lina, 32, spent months preparing for the birth of their first child; choosing a cot, buying tiny clothes.

So they were devastated when Mason was stillborn at 21 weeks in January 2016.

"It was bittersweet," Lina says.

"While I knew we would have to let him go, I still felt the joy of becoming a first-time parent, after birthing the most beautiful little being.

"We tried our best to enjoy the short time we had with him."

Adrian and Lina Wong look down at their stillborn son, Mason, born in January 2016. Picture: Adrienne Myszka.
Adrian and Lina Wong look down at their stillborn son, Mason, born in January 2016. Picture: Adrienne Myszka.

A volunteer photographer sent by Heartfelt, Adrienne Myszka, was "warm, empathetic and compassionate", and her photos of Mason are soft and gentle.

"They are not confrontational, so enable us to share our experience with others, including our boys, who will one day learn about their brother through those images," Lina says.

"We look back at them, reflect on the situation, and by being able to talk about it among ourselves and with others, have been able to make peace."

For Adrian, the session with Myszka was much more than a photo shoot.

"It was awesome," he says. "She not only took photos, she supported us through that situation, which was not something we expected."

The couple's second son, Jaxon, 2, was born in December the same year they lost Mason, and their third son, Knox, arrived two months ago.

The Wongs were so happy with the Heartfelt photos, they later sought out Myszka to take more family photos, including a powerful image with Jaxon holding a photo of Mason.

While Lina says they would definitely have tried for more children regardless, it may have taken them longer to heal if not for the Heartfelt experience.

"Not only did Heartfelt's photos help us to remember our first born, but they played a big part in enabling us to move forward, knowing we will always have his memory with us," she says.

"Their service really helped us get through the toughest time of our lives."

For miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death support contact Sands on 1300 072 637 or Bears of Hope on 1300 11 4673

 

If you or someone you know is in need of someone to talk to, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14