It’s strange to feel that this project is like a baby for me: to begin this documentary photography work makes me feel as protective, cautious, curious, frightened, committed, passionate, nervous, and exhilarated as I felt when I chose to pursue parenthood on my own via IVF and the surgery actually worked. I hadn’t expected it to work after more than one pregnancy loss and many years of attempting every other option. Life throws us many curves, though, on the journey. Some are joyful. And some are devastating…
When I promoted Womb on my Facebook photography page, the first person to contact me was Beth. Still in her early 30s, Beth is far too young to have gone through the many curves Life has already thrown her. She reached out, she says, because she feels it is important not to bury the griefs we go through in our lives. She believes to open up about them is integral to one’s health and to the grieving process itself. Beth is a widow, now happily remarried. Her husband, Jamie, remains a constant source of strength and love to her. They’ve been together for three years now and they’ve been through a lot in such a brief time. The reason Beth felt compelled to contact me about my project was to share the story of the death of their firstborn, Elliot. Their son was full term when Beth went into labour, just 4 days past her due date. Everything during the birth appeared to be going okay. Until it wasn’t. Elliot was stillborn; he passed away at some point during the birth.
A year later, Beth and Jamie are still at a loss over this tragic loss: why or how it happened. They have some hints, bits of information, but no real, concrete answers. That’s scary, because Beth is now about 16 weeks away from delivering their second child; a girl this time. Beth tells me she and Jamie use the word ‘hopefully’ a lot when they speak, especially about future plans. For the most part, life feels safer just focusing on the day-to-day. “One day at a time,” she says, has become her motto right now.
Having known loss myself, though not at so late a stage of pregnancy, I ask Beth whether it’s a challenge to feel the joy of this second pregnancy. “It’s definitely a different kind of joy,” she says. In this scenario, ‘cautiously optimistic’ becomes an understatement. But I love that they choose to gently couch every phrase with the word ‘hopefully’ as they speak to others about the coming baby or any mention of down the road. It’s good to have hope so prevalent as they open up to myself and to others. Some days, Beth admits, she can’t go there and spill the details; she and Jamie have worked out a way to signal whether they’ll divulge to a stranger or even someone they know who may not have seen them in a while and who might make the wrong assumptions about this being their first pregnancy. Certain days, the hope they attach to their sentences is best whispered internally. “You pick and choose whom you’re going to correct,” Beth confides.
What impresses me about Beth, besides her immediate willingness to share and interest in reaching out to participate in my project, is her energy. She keeps busy. She reads a lot. She raves to me about a book she really identified with: Three Minus One (later made into a film, Return to Zero). She also knits in what spare time she finds because she’s still working. She says she has processed the deep grief over the loss of her son in a similar approach to how she reacted to the death of her first husband: by throwing herself almost immediately back into her work. “Not for everyone,” is my initial reaction to that approach. But Beth’s work is unique. She’s a professional Soprano who teaches music and performs from time to time. Song comes from one’s physical core and because such work is so physical, singing and literally “working out” via her voice has helped the grieving process immensely, as has the support of family, work colleagues and her students.
I’m further wowed by Beth sharing the fact that, almost immediately after her loss, she wrote out a list of everything that could have been worse as a way to try to cushion the devastating blow of her son’s passing. It was a deliberate exercise in counting one’s blessings while in the throes of the deepest grief a human can suffer. Beth says she has always been an optimist. She still feels the need to hang onto that. Even in small, shredded bits.
But there are limits and there are still bad days. She has yet to sort through the closet of baby gifts and clothing that she’d asked Jamie to ‘hide away’ in the immediate aftermath of Elliot’s passing. I ask if she might feel ready to show me the nursery and we climb the stairs. The curtains are closed against the brightness of the day. The nursery itself is a neutral off-white. It is spacious and quite sparse. A few photographs on the wall and shelf, some books, a basket of toys are all that is visible. The tiny, clay imprints of Elliot’s feet are protected by a wee lion. Two song sheets are framed near the doorway. Beth tells me she made adjustments with her students in terms of song sheet choices for lessons: no lullabies for now. She opens the closet briefly to show me some items, but closes it almost as quickly. I have no desire to trespass further.
Beth moves to the window and draws open the drapes in the nursery. A patch of sunlight hits the wall with a tiny circle of light attached to it. And I can’t help thinking this sunlight is due her and her husband Jamie. Brighter days ahead after such sorrow.
Cloudless and only the bluest of blue skies.
My thanks to Beth and Jamie (and their patient, penned up pooches) for allowing me to begin to document a bit of their story here. I’d like to add that they both additionally credit Bereaved Families of Ontario and the close-knit group of families they bonded with, all facing similar stages of grief over the loss of a child, for also pulling them through this time. Others in that group (five families in total) have become pregnant again, as well, since the loss they are grieving. Hopefully (I borrow the term from Beth and Jamie), there is sunshine enough for everyone.
Follow the blog for more about Beth and Jamie as their own journey unfolds.