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Parents express the grief of losing a child through photographs

A photography class gives moms a space to grieve in their own way and honor the child they have lost from behind a camera lens.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Be gentle with yourself.

That's what a therapist said to me as I choked back heaving sobs, wiping tears that had been building up for the two months since we lost her. The week she died, I thought the well had run dry of tears and I'd be able to return to my regularly scheduled life — stoic and unfaltering.

I thought wrong. I was more like an iceberg, slowly melting and breaking off in tiny pieces until months later, when I fully cracked upon realizing the gravity of what had happened.

I birthed our much wanted, much loved, much wished for first daughter, Bella Rose, when I was 20 weeks pregnant — and she died before seeing the light of day. I never looked into her eyes. I never saw her face. I never held her in my arms. I never showered her with kisses and told her how much I loved her.

Self-portrait of Beryl Ayn Young. "Imagery became the language of my grief when words failed to describe the feelings on my heart."Courtesy of Beryl Ayn Young

In therapy, I discovered how to grieve through creativity. More specifically, photography. I realized if my body couldn’t create new life, I could create life behind the camera lens instead. Imagery became the language of my grief when words failed to describe the feelings in my heart. Photography became a safe place to hide from the world, a way to process heavy emotions, an invitation to re-discover beauty in a broken world, and an opportunity to reflect on who I was if I was not a mom.

Combining my creative passion and my background in psychology and education, I created something for moms who experience the same kind of loss I did: Illuminate is a free class that gives moms who are suffering from the loss of a child a space to grieve in their own ways and to honor their children from behind the camera lens.

Bella Rose taught me so many things, but most of all, she taught me to honor my full range of emotions, to be gentle with myself by documenting life's little blessings, and to teach others that even in the midst of intense pain and heartache, they are infinitely capable of doing the same.

The following are images taken by myself and some of my Illuminate students, along with their words on why their photos symbolize the dear children they so deeply miss.

Aline Muzinga, of Lafayette, LA lost her son Tristan at 20 week gestation.Aline Muzinga

"Through my grief, photography helped me express my feelings freely. Each picture is an image of what was going on in my head. This one is my favorite. I was finally at peace with myself, my faith, and my body and ready to let our little angel fly to the sky where, I am sure, he is watching over us." — Aline Muzinga

Beryl Ayn Young lost her first daughter, Bella Rose, at 20 weeks gestation on September 11th, 2009.Courtesy of Beryl Ayn Young

"All the days after loss are hard. Some days are harder than others. This photo was taken on one of the hardest days, Bella's due date. We closed her nursery door after she died, and this was the first time we chose to open it again. In the months following the loss of a child, you feel like the world is nudging you to move on or forget it happened. But it's hard to move forward in grief when there's a space in your home that constantly reminds you of what's missing." — Beryl Ayn Young

Cynthia Baker of Roosevelt, Minnesota, lost her daughter Nara Olivia at 25 weeks gestation after 8 weeks of strict bedrest. Nara lived in the NICU for over a day. She should be 6 years old now. Courtesy of Cynthia Baker

“This photo shows Nara's hat, a bit big for her tiny, perfect head. I like to carry her hat in my purse when we take special family outings to include her. It helps me feel like I'm doing something about the constant awareness I have of the space in our family where she should be. In this photo, I am holding her hat above my favorite tree in our yard and letting the sun rays shine through her hat and down on to me, filtering her love for me down from heaven. This photo reminds me that joy and grief can exist at the same time.” — Cynthia Baker

Dianna Castellanos, of Los Angeles, CA , suddenly lost her 15 month old son, Joshua C. Menendez of natural causes. Courtesy of Dianna Castellanos

"The image portrays a time of raw and intense grief over the loss on my first and only son at that time. Capturing my grief through photography allowed me to process a time of intense darkness that eventually allowed me to notice the light surrounding me." — Dianna Castellanos

Hope Wood of Pensacola, FL, lost her daughters Zoe and Addie to stillbirth and miscarriage. Courtesy of Hope Wood

"This image is an Isabel Bloom figurine called, "Hugs", given by a friend to support me in my grief. It symbolizes my two girls being together, and the sunset in the background is a reminder of beauty in the ordinary. Chasing beauty helps ease the grief." — Hope Wood

Kristin Cook of Minneapolis, MN, lost her daughter Stevie at 26 weeks gestation. Courtesy of Kristin Cook

"I took this image a couple weeks after getting a tattoo in honor of my daughter, who was stillborn. I have since gone on to have 3 other children, but every time I glance down at my wrist I am reminded of the one who started our family tree and helped shape me into the person and mother I am today." — Kristin Cook

Kristin Cornely of Ashburn, VA lost her daughter, Callie Marie, at two days old due to complications from Neonatal Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting the connective tissue in the body. Courtesy of Kristin Cornely

"After losing my daughter at two days old, my postpartum body was still healing, and I unfortunately had many well-meaning strangers ask me if I was pregnant — which was like a knife through the heart and a blow to my confidence in those early days of grief. I took this image as a way to remember that my body had done an incredibly beautiful thing and that every line, stretch mark, and scar told my daughter's story and in that way, I would carry her with me forever." — Kristin Cornley

Laura Beck, of Lubbock Texas, lost her 4 day old son while he was being cared for in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Courtesy of Laura Beck

"The period of time right after our only son at the time died was heavy with longing, isolation, and darkness. All we could see were the places and spaces where he was missing and should be. Expression of grief through photography was movement. The only movement that we had at the time when everything else stood still." — Laura Beck

Laura Kralovetz, of Omro, Wisconsin lost her baby after she was born prematurely at 23 weeks in 2011. Courtesy of Laura Kralovetz

"The Japanese cherry blossom is the tree we chose to plant for our baby because it is actually associated with mortality. The trees blossom quickly, and with such an intense beauty, and yet they only last for a very brief moment." — Laura Kralovetz

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October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. If you or someone you know has experienced the loss of a child during pregnancy, infancy, or beyond, the free Illuminate Online Photography Class is here.

Beryl Ayn Young is the founder of Recapture Self — a community dedicated to supporting moms in unlocking their creativity and finding an identity, beyond mom. Find her podcast, articles and upcoming class information here.