While you’re browsing through Facebook posts on your news feed about hangovers and the latest viral YouTube videos, you’ll no doubt find a few photos of your friends’ babies in the mix.
It’s an annoyance to some – endless pics of babies in new outfits, with banana smooshed over their faces, every milestone marked and shared from baby’s first steps to their first projectile vomit. Mostly, though, people will be happy and excited to see the first few photos of a friend’s gorgeous new bub.
But what if that baby photo was of your friend’s stillborn? How would you feel about seeing a gallery of photos dedicated to a dead little boy or girl? A couple of friends of mine have experienced this. One of my friends explained how she felt when a girl she knew from school shared a gallery of photos taken of her stillborn girl. While she understood it was her friend’s way of coping, she also admitted it was confronting.
"It was just unexpected, seeing the images, as they were publically viewable," she explained."A lot of people, especially those inexperienced in this awful situation, don’t understand why it wasn’t more private. Most people assume you grieve privately but social media has made those boundaries blurrier."
But it is becoming more common to photograph stillborn children and share those photos. Gavin Blue is the national president of the charity Heartfelt, a network of volunteer photographers from around Australia who specialise in stillborn and premature photography. They also take photos of children with terminal illnesses and all of their work is done for free.
"The demand for our work has doubled in the past year, we average 70 shoots a month across Australia and have just expanded into the UK," Mr Blue said.
"Everyone is different in how they share those photos, some families have them on display in homes and others may choose to share them through social media.
"The way we shoot the children is done in a way so they are not too confronting to share."
Mr Blue began the charity in 2006 after he and his wife had a stillborn girl. It was important to his family to have birth photos of all their children in their home. "We want people to know there are four children, not three," he said.
There are people who question the work of his photographers. Mr Blue believes the topic of miscarriage and stillbirths are still taboo, though believes the stigma is lessening. He sees raising awareness as part of the job of Heartfelt.
"There will always be an ongoing conversation about it," he said.
"I was at a dinner party just last night where I explained what I did, and an 18-year-old I was speaking with couldn’t fathom why people would want it. What people so often misunderstand is that when people are expecting, they plan a whole future in their minds with this baby. They should be able to remember and acknowledge their stillborn child. I was very open about our own experience and the amount of older people who whispered to me that the same thing happened to them but they never spoke about it and they never got over it is amazing."
The Heartfelt photographers are on call at all hours to be there for parents going through stillbirth and miscarriage.
"When I’m shooting I feel remarkably peaceful and at home with the parents," Mr Blue said.
"We’re often the first non-medical people the parents see after it happens, and they’re usually touched that when their whole world is crumbling that a total stranger would come in the middle of night and do this for them."
The founder of the Stillbirth Foundation, Emma McLeod, said people were much more open about sharing their experiences with miscarriage and that it was very healthy for them to do so.
"I can appreciate sharing photos is an individual choice not everyone is going to make, but if someone feels comfortable sharing they absolutely should," she said.
"They’re proud of that baby it is a way of demonstrating how important their baby is to them.
"It’s incredibly important for people to be able to talk about it stillbirth because it is a life changing, enduring part of your life."
Only a few decades ago, stillborn children were whisked away from parents on almost immediately, Ms McLeod said, with some parents not allowed to see their baby or even told where they ended up.
"They never get over it," she said.
"Now, people are encouraged to spend time with their baby, people are willing to put photos up and talk about it. Personally, I am happy to post on Facebook my daughter's anniversary and am keeping her alive in that way. Another woman I work with posted a photo on the 12th anniversary of her son Callum’s death, of her family at his gravesite. It was a very important thing for her to do."
Every day in Australia, six babies are stillborn, while one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. Death was still something western society did not handle well, Ms McLeod said, but she said making judgements about how people chose to deal with grief was the wrong thing to do.
"We all have our personal opinions about what should and shouldn’t be posted on social media but they are an individual’s post and it is ultimately up to them."
Melissa Davey is a health/medical journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald. You can follow her on Twitter.
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