© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

Stillbirth photography helps grieving process

Jordan Oppert

Heartfelt, an organisation run completely by volunteers, is providing memorial photography for families who have lost a child.

Can taking photos of still born babies moments after the delivery or procedure be the way forward for grieving families?

Heartfelt’s an organisation run completely from volunteers providing memorial photography for families who have lost a child. Although they capture moments of children up to 16 years of age with a terminal illness, most of their work surrounds still borns; babies from 22 weeks up to full term and neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

The organisation originated in Australia and moved to New Zealand about two years ago. Heartfelt does its best to cover the whole country, and South Island co-ordinator Sharon Thompson said they are always looking for more volunteers to help cover the widest range possible. She said they do their best to ensure the service is offered and accessible for everyone.

Heartfelt is doing a recruitment drive for someone on the West Coast and in Nelson along with other remote locations, however there is always the option of families being flown in by helicopter.

Sharon Thompson said 75% of people use the service offered through social workers and support for women who've lost a baby. There are exceptions for various reasons including babies lost early through foetal abnormalities, cultural beliefs and the simple fact that families are struggling to come to terms with the loss themselves.

In an extended interview with Dianne Leishman a co-ordinator at the Christchurch Women’s Hospital, she said it’s important not to just focus on still births as there are a large proportion of neonatal deaths and termination of pregnancies for abnormalities. In that case babies are between 20 and 24 weeks and whilst some families may want photos taken many will choose not to and that depends on individual scenarios.

Still birth support person: Dianne Leishman

Dianne Leishman is a coordinator at the Christchurch Women's hospital's birthing suite. She provides education and support for all those involved with a still birth.

Both Heartfelt, the educated team at the Christchurch Women’s Hospital and users alike say the photography service helps the grieving process.

Amy Symmers of the West Coast lost her baby Mackenzie two years ago and said the photos were the best thing she has ever done. A photo is permanently visible in her lounge along with her framed hand and foot prints. Amy said she encourages everyone faced with the devastating situation to get the photos taken. They are free and it is easy to get rid of them if you don’t want them.

She said personally she would’ve regretted not getting them done now, should she have turned them down.

Another Heartfelt user and now volunteer Renita Stuart said it has helped her grieving immensely. If ever she is sad or crying thinking about her baby Ace who died six years ago, she looks back on the photo album and remembers the perfect baby she so tragically lost.

In 2015 there were 77 losses recorded. That is any baby delivered after 20 weeks and or weighing more than 400gms. The graph below shows the losses over the last five years in Canterbury.

Dianne Leishman says there is one still birth on the birthing suite most weeks and on a bad week there might be three with each baby having different circumstances.

“Circumstance vary from termination for foetal abnormality to someone whose presented with no movements at 36 weeks when the whole pregnancy has been perfect leading up to that point. Often there might also be someone who knows there’s a problem where the placenta isn't working so well and we've been monitoring them closely and all of sudden something has happened”.

On the birthing suite at Christchurch Women’s there is a room dedicated to these families called the ‘Garden room’ and Dianne says there is someone in there most weeks.

However in January and February 2016, the hospital recorded one loss. Dianne says over the year it goes up and down as does the birth rate depending on statistics. “Some months are busier September, October, November, December the rate for the hospital goes higher so therefore proportionally you are going to get a few more losses”. She also said as a result of the busier months having higher birth rates, in May, June, July they expect premature babies which can often result in more losses.

Heartfelt volunteers are always on call as still births are often unexpected. Sharon Thompson finds out as much information about the cause of death, family status and any complications from the hospital before sending a message out on their databases to find the best suitable volunteer for the job.

Renita Stuart said in her time as a volunteer, the hardest part is always walking into the room and facing a familiy's worst nightmare. In her time as a volunteer she has done around 20 photo shoots.

Sharon Thompson has been in the industry before Heartfelt became known in New Zealand and has done hundreds of photoshoots over the years. She said she no longer finds this work a challenge, more a rewarding experience and one she is greatful to share with those families.

Heartfelt’s service has been welcomed and accepted by hundreds of families since the concept was first brought to fruition. Dianne Leishman said because it’s a time of severe shock and grief, sometimes it is one extra thing families don’t want to cope with. “If a family doesn’t want someone to come in like Heartfelt, we will take the photos anyway and keep them in the clinical notes so if in two, 10 or 20 years they want those photos there is a record of their baby”.

Heartfelt is a secret club no-one knows about unless you’ve lost a child and then, the support is endless. The organisation is run completely on donations which go towards the printing of discs and photo albums for the families. The cost you may ask? Free.