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Mourning Baby With a Snapshot in Death

Many hospitals routinely take pictures of dead infants and give them to parents to help overcome loss. But some say the practice only makes the pain worse.

July 05, 1999|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Among Kathy Messner's many family photo albums, the one most cherished is the thickest and saddest. It contains dozens of images of her twin baby boys, Kyle and Brian, bundled in crocheted blankets and dressed warmly in baby suits and matching caps. The twins appear to be sleeping, but they are not.

Both had been dead a few hours from a rare placental disorder when the photos were taken by hospital staff. For Messner and thousands of other parents, such photos preserve memories of brief lives and help them heal from the pain of losing a child.

For others, however, the pictures have had the opposite effect--horrifying instead of comforting.

Scott Thornton and his wife were trying to get over the death of their baby girl, Hannah, last year when they were handed a large envelope from a nurse at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center. Inside were several pictures of Hannah taken shortly after her death from a respiratory ailment.

"I was shocked at what I saw," said Thornton, who recently filed a lawsuit against the hospital, seeking damages for the emotional distress the photos allegedly caused. "They're haunting to look at. She's posed as a doll or a puppet. It's spooky."

The Huntington Beach couple's case, one of a handful across the country, illustrates the delicate line hospitals walk in providing such sensitive services for parents. It also sheds light on a little-known aspect of the maternity process.

Providing grieving parents with such portraits has become a routine practice at hospitals across the country and is part of a "bereavement" movement that over the last three decades has changed the way people cope with the death of a child.

"Society often says that it is morbid," said Sister Jane Marie Lamb, a nurse and founder of Share, a bereavement support group that popularized the practice. "Most of the parents, however, will tell you: 'My baby is beautiful.' They see with their hearts."

Begun in the 1970s by a group of nurses, grief counselors and clergy, post-mortem baby photography is now practiced at many Southland hospitals and thousands across the country. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends it in "Guidelines for Perinatal Care."

A generation ago, grieving parents were often told by medical professionals to quickly accept a child's death and "move on." By immediately trying to cut emotional ties to a dead infant, the logic went, parents could focus their energies on other children, or on having another baby.

Today, however, many hospitals and counselors tell parents that remembering the baby is healthy as well as therapeutic.

The memory of the infant should be integrated into a family's everyday life and made more tangible, they say, through photographs--images that can be shared with siblings and other relatives.

"People do not detach from those they love. They preserve the relationship with their loved ones on a symbolic or spiritual level," said Robert Neimeyer, a professor of psychology at Memphis State University and the editor of the professional journal Death Studies.

Bereavement photography dates to the 19th century, when families with the financial means commonly kept pictures of their dead children and sent them to relatives who couldn't attend the funerals. The practice faded, however, as more births took place in hospitals instead of homes.

It reemerged nearly three decades ago as part of a larger effort to provide parents with certain "rights" when a baby dies. In addition to photography, the bereavement movement urges parents to hold deceased babies and bring home mementos such as locks of hair and hand and foot prints.

In some homes, pictures of deceased babies are now as common as images of other loved ones. They appear in collages that hang in hallways, or encased in memorial plaques over fireplaces. Sometimes, parents commission artists to paint portraits based on the snapshots.

To supporters, encouraging parents to bond emotionally with their deceased children is a major advance from the past, when heavily sedated mothers sometimes never even saw the babies to whom they gave birth. In cases of stillborn deaths, especially, babies were often whisked away to hospital morgues within minutes.

Sonya Palacio, a social worker at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, said her 75-year-old mother, Adeline Sazueta, still mourns the stillborn baby girl she lost 50 years ago. A photograph, she said, could have provided the all-important visual record that her baby did exist, and was "whole" and "beautiful."

The nurses "put a warm, wet towel over her eyes. She never saw the baby," said Palacio. "She still grieves on her birthday."

Bereavement services are now available to most of the nation's roughly 45,000 mothers a year whose babies are either stillborn or die within a few days.

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