Windsor

This photographer captures the moment that parents say 'hello and goodbye' to their baby

An Essex photographer volunteers to be on call for when families or a parent want pictures of their stillborn.

Heather Brooks says she's been photographing stillborns for about 6 years

A woman looks at a computer screen where a mom is holding a baby.
Heather Brooks is a photographer in Windsor-Essex. She voluntarily goes to Windsor Regional Hospital to photograph stillborns. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

WARNING: This story includes details about infant death and an image of a stillborn baby. 


At 2 a.m., Heather Brooks has gotten in her car and driven from Essex, Ont., to Windsor Regional Hospital to photograph a baby that has died. 

Since she first started taking pictures of stillborns about six years ago, Brooks has made this same trip about 50 times. 

"Every situation is slightly different, but very emotional," said Brooks, who provides the service free of charge. 

"These families, they're not going through what they expected so, yeah, I just feel I guess very honoured to be allowed into that space."

She was motivated to capture the moment that a family is "saying hello and goodbye" because she knows from personal experience just how valuable pictures can later be. 

More than 30 years ago, Brooks went into labour a day before her expected due date, but her baby boy died during delivery due to a true knot in the umbilical chord. She has some film photos from that day, but says they aren't great.

"From that moment, I don't have good photos to remember, his little feet, his hands, all that kind of stuff, it's something that I feel is important to have, 'cause it helps you to remember," she said. 

WARNING: This video contains pictures of a stillborn. 

WATCH | Photographer captures families that are grieving the loss of a baby: 

Photographer captures the moment a family says 'hello and goodbye' to a baby

4 months ago
Duration 1:30
Photographer Heather Brooks says she's honoured that people allow her in when they are grieving. More than five years ago, Brooks photographed Amanda Levesque's baby. Today, Levesque says the photos are some of her most cherished.

When going in to photograph a family or parent, Brooks says she tries to blend into the background — for example, if the room is dark when she enters, she works with the minimal lighting.

Sometimes, says Brooks, families want to dress the baby in the clothes that they were supposed to go home in, but other times, she says people don't want photos of them holding the baby. No matter what, Brooks says she just wants everyone to feel comfortable. 

Some of the most important photos for Brooks, are the closeups of the baby's features, like their hands or feet. As the family grieves and processes what has happened, she says years later it can be hard to remember what the baby looked like. 

But she believes the photos also serve a bigger purpose.  

"[The pictures] bring the existence of that baby's life to reality — that baby was really here," she said. 

A baby's foot is shown in black and white.
This is one of the photos Heather Brooks took of Caleb's foot. Brooks says she thinks it's important to take closeups of the baby's features, as she believes that's what the family will want to look back on and remember. (Submitted by: Heather Brooks Photography)

'He's still the one that made me a mom' 

For 34-year-old Amanda Levesque, it's the closeup photo of her baby's face that she cherishes the most. 

As she looks over the black-and-white picture of her son Caleb, she chuckles at how the only feature he got of hers is her lower lip. 

"As time goes by, you kind of forget the little things," she said.

"So it's kind of a nice reminder to see all the little features of him that time kind of makes you forget." 

A black and white photo shows a woman in a hospital gown holding a tiny baby in a blanket.
This is one of the photos that Heather Brooks took of Amanda Levesque and her son Caleb, who arrived as a stillborn at 20 weeks and four days old. (Submitted by: Heather Brooks Photography)

Levesque was only 20 weeks and four days into her pregnancy when things went wrong, leading her to have a stillborn on June 24, 2018, at Windsor Regional Hospital. 

It wasn't what the east Windsor resident had expected to go through, and even though she was hesitant about capturing the moment, she says they are now some of her most cherished pictures. 

And while there is an emotional heaviness associated with the days leading up to, and the moment of, Caleb's arrival, looking at the photos Levesque is reminded that her son was at peace. 

"At first, it was very hard to see the pictures, like it would make me teary eyed," she said. 

"But now, it kind of brings a smile to my face. He's still my son and he's still the one that made me a mom." 

And Levesque says she thinks the pictures serve as a reminder to others that she is still a mother, even though her child is no longer alive. 

"You want to take [the pictures] and if you don't look at them, that's fine," she said. 

"But if in 20 years, you want to look back at them, you have them." 

A woman sits smiling on a couch.
Amanda Levesque, 34, had a stillbirth more than five years ago. At the time, she wasn't sure she would want photos of that moment, but now she says they are some of her most cherished. She's able to be reminded of her son's features. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

Brooks acknowledges there aren't many photographers in Windsor who take these sort of pictures. She thinks it's because it can be such an emotionally challenging moment to step into. 

Despite how hard it is, Brooks knows the reward is much greater. 

"When you're expecting a baby and that doesn't turn out the way you're expecting, you're losing all of that future," she said. 

"So I think the photos just bring existence to that life right then and there." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer La Grassa

Videojournalist

Jennifer La Grassa is a videojournalist at CBC Windsor. She is particularly interested in reporting on healthcare stories. Have a news tip? Email jennifer.lagrassa@cbc.ca

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