The call could come in at any time — the middle of the night or even right before Christmas — but Lizzy McMillan always tries her best to be there.
As a volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, at a moment's notice, Lizzy will pack up her camera bag, rush to the hospital, and wheel her gear down the delivery floor's halls. When she reaches the isolation room, she is welcomed to capture every parent's worst nightmare: the loss of his or her child.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is an organization of professional photographers who volunteer their time and talent to photograph infant bereavement sessions. Its mission is to introduce remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with the free gift of photos. Lizzy is just one of 1,700 active photographers around the world who volunteer their time to help complete strangers preserve the memory of their cherished baby. Once the hospital contacts an area coordinator, a message is dispatched to all of the photographers and a volunteer typically arrives within one or two hours.
In the eight years since she first learned that she could use photography to give back, Lizzy has worked with nearly 30 families. Despite the unimaginable circumstances that prompt these sessions, Lizzy's goal as a photographer during this time is no different than when she is working on a traditional newborn shoot: to capture and preserve that history for future generations.
"In a traditional newborn session, I incorporate any sentimental items but also focus on preserving the minute details like eyelashes, fingers, and toes," Lizzy told POPSUGAR. "In a NILMDTS session, I try to capture the same details, as I know the images I create will be the only professional portraits each family has of their child."
As Lizzy photographs the deceased child, she gently asks family members present if they would like her to capture a moment of them with their baby. "I am incredibly humbled to be invited into these families' lives during one of their most tender and difficult chapters," Lizzy said. "I know that I am one of the few people that will ever hold and know their baby, and that is an honor I cannot put into words."
Understandably, there's a certain weight that accompanies each of Lizzy's NILMDTS sessions because there are no reshoots.
"I have one chance to get it right and to help each family," she explained. "Knowing that the portraits I capture will serve as the family's only visual documentation of their baby is an assignment I take very seriously. While I try to focus on the very important job at hand, oftentimes I cry throughout the session. I cry when I get to my car. When I get home and see my healthy children tucked in their beds, the gravity of each loss truly hits me."
Some of the parents Lizzy has served knew for several months that their child would be born with a terminal condition or abnormalities preventing them from taking their baby home. These families that have had months to prepare are often in a much more peaceful stage of grieving when she arrives. However, the majority of her families have just experienced a sudden or unexplained loss late in the pregnancy and are understandably in shock.
"Many families are so overwhelmed with grief and are trying to process everything that has happened that they initially decline our services when the nurses first offer," Lizzy said. "It truly is the most vulnerable and emotion-filled experience most people have encountered, so the idea of inviting a stranger in to photograph their loss can seem unfathomable."
However, families who change their minds are later grateful for the private session and the photographers who documented their love. "The images we deliver serve as a tangible reminder that their son or daughter was here, and they were loved and are missed and remembered every day," she said. "The images we create are not morbid — as many think — but are artfully and professionally composed to the best of the photographer's ability within the hospital environment."
Just like every parent processes grief differently, each family does something different with the photos once they receive them. While some display them throughout their home or create memory books or boxes, others store them away until they are ready for that first look.
Months after serving one family, Lizzy ran into the parents at a party. After a meaningful embrace, she learned that they had just recently viewed the portraits — and doing so finally allowed the mom to truly begin to heal. "She said, 'Please, please don't ever stop doing this. Because of you, I have my daughter.'"