Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep offers free professional photos
Briella Gonsalves’s life was very brief. But it was a life full of love.
Born on Jan. 16, 2013, she suffered from Trisomy 13, a genetic disorder. Unsure how long their daughter would survive, Briella’s parents arranged for a Catholic baptism and confirmation ceremony to be held in the operating room.
She was later introduced to her grandparents and uncle, and to Tobie, her 18-month old sister. Seventeen hours after her birth, Briella passed away peacefully in her mother’s arms.
Her parents, Rock Gonsalves and Heidi Schmaltz say that they take comfort in having accomplished all the goals they had for their daughter’s short life — namely that Briella was kept comfortable and felt surrounded by the love of her family.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cranmer
Gonsalves and Schmaltz had a professional photographer record their daughter’s brief life.
The photographer was from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep — a non-profit organization that offers parents facing the loss of an infant the opportunity to receive free professional portraits of their child.
Schmaltz says that the photographs are a “gift” that her family will cherish forever.
Photographs a ‘blessing’
Twelve weeks into Schmaltz’s pregnancy, she and Gonsalves were told there was a high possibility that Briella would be stillborn.
Given their daughter’s prognosis, they began working with a pediatric palliative care team, who provide care for children, including those not yet born, with life-threatening conditions.
It was through the team’s grief counsellor that they first heard of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
Photographer Elizabeth Crammer, one of 11 local photographers who volunteer with the organization, spent six hours with the family to help capture their time with Briella.
Schmaltz says that Crammer’s photographs — as well as her presence — proved to be “a blessing.”
“Elizabeth was amazing,” Schmaltz says. “She was willing to be there the entire day. She’s just a very loving person.”
The family knew ahead of time that Briella’s condition would affect her face and her appearance. She was also very tiny, weighing less than four pounds. Schmaltz says that Crammer’s kind and gentle manner with Briella helped the family throughout the day.
“Even though I had already had a baby, it kind of surprised me how different it was and how awkward I felt,” Schmaltz says. “But Elizabeth was just so easy and comfortable and loving with Brie.
“She helped me feel more comfortable.”
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep began with the birth of Cheryl Haggard’s fourth child, Maddux, on Feb. 4, 2005. Born with a condition called myotubular myopathy, he was unable to breathe, swallow or move. Six days after his birth, Haggard and her husband made the difficult decision to disconnect Maddux from life support.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cranmer
With their Colorado home decorated with portraits of their older children, Haggard says she and her husband wanted to ensure that Maddux would have a place among the photos of his siblings.
After initially taking photographs of Maddux herself, Haggard eventually called in professional photographer Sandy Puc — a specialist in infant and family photography.
“I wanted photos while he was on his life support — how we knew him for those six days,” Haggard says. “But I also wanted more intimate pictures where I could hold him skin-on-skin.”
Haggard asked Puc if she would be willing to take more photos after Maddux had been disconnected from the life support equipment.
“And bless her heart, Sandy agreed to,” Haggard says. “Those images mean everything to me.”
Touched by the tenderness that Puc had shown in photographing Maddux — and realizing the impact that the photographs had on her family during their grieving process — Haggard says that she wanted to share her story to let all parents facing a similar loss know that it was “Okay ” to have portraits done. Puc agreed to offer her services free-of-charge to other bereaved parents in the Denver area.
Within a month of Maddux’s passing, approval for a non-profit organization was secured and Haggard, along with four others, started Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
The organization’s first official photography session took place two months later.
Within two years, almost 3,000 professional photographers had signed on as volunteers and the organization was able to hire an executive director and office staff.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cranmer
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep currently has nearly 13,000 volunteer photographers in about 40 countries worldwide, including about 125 in Canada.
Haggard wanted to ensure that parents facing the loss of an infant who wanted professional photographs of their child are not hindered by financial circumstances. Parents are provided with a disc of touched-up images free-of-charge.
“I never wanted a parent to think, ‘I can’t afford to hire a professional photographer,’” she says. “Sadly there is a need for this service — there is only one chance to capture, on film, the connection between the parents and their child.
“There is no tomorrow with that child.”
The need for the service is not uncommon, says Krista Fuller, the organization’s parent co-ordinator for Calgary. Fuller says that she takes an average of two calls per month requesting a photographer.
The exact number of Calgary-area families requesting the service is difficult to measure because sometimes parents or hospital staff will contact photographers directly, but Fuller says, on rare occasions she has had up to three calls in one day.
Photographs comfort parents
Like Haggard, the organization’s Colorado-based CEO Gina Harris knows first-hand the importance the photographs have for grieving parents. Harris first learned about the service in 2007 when she was faced with losing her unborn son David to a rare condition called Potter’s syndrome.
David passed away at birth. Sandy Puc took photographs of him with his parents. Told that she could go on and have a healthy baby, Harris became pregnant again less than a year later.
Her second son — whom the Harrises had named Ethan — developed a condition called hydrops and cystic hygromas, which is severe swelling and fluid buildup around the organs.
Harris carried Ethan for 24 weeks before losing him. Given the severity of his condition, his parents decided not to have photographs done.
“Going through the loss of two babies, having photographs of one of our sons and not the other really made a difference in our grieving process,” Harris says. “Having photographs of David, there is more of a memory of him. The pictures say ‘he was real, he was my baby and I held him.’
“We didn’t get that with Ethan.”
Photographers called heros
Haggard says the volunteer photographers are the “heart and soul” of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
“They are angels with cameras,” she says. “They go into situations not knowing what to expect.
“No situation or family is exactly the same — every family’s grief process is totally different.”
Harris says that the photographers are her heroes and that the organization would not exist without them.
“Any type of volunteer service is commendable,” Harris says. “But to be a volunteer photographer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is one of the most difficult volunteer positions that I know about.
“Walking into a hospital room with a family who is in immense grief and who has just lost a baby is a very emotional thing.
“They are able to use their talent and their passion for photography to give the only gift they can to a parent who is losing an infant,” Harris says.
Photographers aim to help others
Calgary photographer Jody Crane says she became involved with the organization as a way to offer community service through her photography.
Crane works with the families to ensure that the photos will be personal and intimate.
“Sometimes we will take pictures with a special blanket that was knit for the infant, or with a special bracelet that both mom and baby have — the little touches like that can help,” Crane says.
There is also a personal motivation behind Crane’s involvement. Her own sister lost a baby girl.
“It was quite difficult because it was also my loved one — but it really showed me what effect the photos can have for a family,” says Crane.
Keeping memorials alive
“It’s a little bit of Brie,” Schmaltz says. “She was here such a short time. Sometimes it seems like it was just a dream.
“We can now look back on those photos and that will help keep her with us for a lot longer.”
Schmaltz treasures the links the photos provide between Tobie and her sister.
“At 18 months old, Tobie will have an emotional imprint of this time, but the concrete memories will probably fade,” Schmaltz says.
“We will be able to let her see that she met her sister, and that she got to hold Brie.”
Schmaltz adds that the photographs were a particular comfort for Gonsalves, who had less time with his daughter and was not present when she passed away.
“One of the gifts of those photos was, looking back on them, he didn’t even remember some of the photos that were taken with him holding Brie,” Schmaltz says.
“It was a real comfort for him because he was able to look at those photos and say, ‘Yeah, she really did know that I loved her.’”
At a celebration of Briella’s life — held a week after she passed away — her parents showed a slideshow of the photographs taken by Crammer and reflected upon what their daughter’s brief life had meant to them.
Schmaltz says that an email, written by the family and containing a brief story about Briella and a handful of Crammer’s photographs, drew numerous responses — including many from strangers who had received it second- or third-hand.
The family has been inspired by stories of people doing things in Briella’s name, such as making charitable donations to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
The ripple effect has been kind of amazing,” Schmaltz says. “I don’t totally understand it, but it’s also a gift to see the effect that Brie has on people.”