I only have a few photos of my daughter, Eden. And they were taken with a cell phone. The irony is not lost on me... a professional photographer with nothing more than 5 pixelated cell phone images that will forever preserve the memory of my stillborn daughter. It certainly isn't how I saw things unfolding and so I was ill-prepared to document the happenings. I was under the impression that I would have my whole life, her whole life, our whole lives, to create memories and to capture them together. Life throws you unexpected curve balls. We all experience them.
On December 2nd, 2021, at 38 weeks pregnant, my life changed forever.
An experience that is difficult to put into words. One that brings a deep ache to my diaphragm, making it hard to breathe. The experience of stillbirth is not something that I had even remotely considered as a possibility before it happened to me. I thought I had done everything right throughout my pregnancy and the natural progression of things was to go through labor & delivery and end up with a healthy, happy baby at the end. Perhaps someday I will share the entirety of the experience, but for now, know that I went into labor believing that in a matter of hours I would be holding an alive baby in my arms and just a little while later, my husband and I learned that our baby no longer had a heartbeat inside my womb. We do not know precisely when Eden's heart stopped beating.
We arrived to our midwife's office so that she could determine the position of our baby. Our midwife propped me up on the bed, lifted my shirt and doused my belly with jelly for the doppler. As she moved the device around different parts of my belly, she found no movement, no resistance from the baby or any indication of a heartbeat. She got me into a standing position to try again…still no sound.
My own heart froze in between beats and I felt like I was floating outside of my body as my husband spoke the words, "Our baby has no heartbeat."
Our midwife meekly looked at him and neither confirmed nor denied his statement. She asked me when the last time was that I had felt the baby move. I racked my brain, trying to remember specifics. I was certain it had been recently.
No one prepares you for this exchange.
In between intense contractions I tried to wrap my mind around the reality of the situation. No heartbeat. Stillborn.
We later learned that our midwife was incorrect about the position of the baby, stating that she was not in a proper vertex position and would likely need to be delivered via c-section.
The thought of going through a c-section only sent me into a deeper emotional tailspin. An emergency surgery on top of a stillborn baby was just too much for me to bear at the time. I went numb and retreated within. Chris, my husband, leapt to action - he's always been wonderful in a crisis situation.
He promptly escorted me to Mt. Sinai, downtown Milwaukee, and I was greeted by a flurry of commotion. Nurses, midwives, doctors, all surrounding me. An ultrasound was conducted and it was determined that our baby, indeed, no longer had a heartbeat. It was also confirmed that she was in a vertex position, meaning that I would be responsible for delivering her in the traditional way, rather than by c-section. A bittersweet mix of emotions washed over me. Grateful to not be put under the knife, but now facing the agony of birthing my lifeless child into the world. There would be no cry or joyful exclamation of "It's a boy!" or It's a girl!". We had waited to find out the gender until delivery so we were still unaware of whether we would be welcoming a son or daughter into our life.
I was wheeled up to the delivery room. Contractions becoming more and more intense. I had wanted a natural birth, so resisted an epidural.
Not much later, our stillborn child emerged. There was silence as the nurse cut the umbilical cord. Another ache, this time because I had so wanted my husband to experience the joy of cutting the cord of our firstborn. I quietly asked the nurse what our baby was... a boy or a girl.. and she softly replied that we had had a girl.
I looked at Chris, we had our Eden Luna.
There's more to the story but the reason I'm sharing this today is because this life-changing experience set me on a journey through grief and into healing. Not only healing the parts of me that were shattered after the loss of our daughter, but also putting shards of myself back together that had been broken long before. We all walk through life carrying so much. And there often isn't an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we've experienced...the joys, the trials, the deepest pains, the exhilarating moments...the life encounters that imprint on us and form our perspectives and mindsets.
The traumatic experience surrounding Eden was the catalyst that set me off on a deep healing journey. One that I am grateful for. It has been a long road of self-discovery, reflection and acceptance and I anticipate that the past 17 months are really only the beginning. In fact, today marks 17 months to the day of losing Eden and I didn't even realize that as I began writing this article. This essay was initially going to be a very surface level explanation of why photography helps those on the journey through grief and it turned into me sharing vulnerable parts of myself. I wouldn't have it any other way, though. It truly seems like Eden led me here today, to share more, to tell more parts of the story that have been kept hidden away since December 2, 2021.
In the immediate aftermath, friends and family poured in with love, condolences and support. We greatly appreciated the intense outpouring of encouragement as we faced our new reality. To be confronting such a traumatic experience during the "most wonderful time of the year" is a battle in itself, but after the holiday festivities fizzled out, Chris and I entered the deep winter cold navigating the valleys of grief mostly on our own.
By Spring, the wedding photography season was budding and I was mentally preparing to come out of hibernation and face the world after what was the worst interval of my life. I felt so nervous about being with people, about being seen and about having to confront the inevitable questions and conversations that so commonly arise. "Do you have any kids?" "How many kids do you have?" I had no idea how I was supposed to answer these questions. I had no idea how I was going to extract the energy it takes to prance through a 10 hour wedding day when I could barely get off of our living room floor bed to brush my teeth at 3 in the afternoon.
But, something unexpected happened. Instead of being riddled with sadness and anxiety, holding my camera and focusing on subjects other than myself and my current situation brought about a sense of intense calm and relief from the burden of grief that I had been carrying for months. The art of photography is powerful. It brings us into the present moment which allows the chatter and stories that run through our mind to pause. Concentrating on creating beautiful images decluttered my mind and alleviated the gnawing sadness that had become a constant companion during the first 6 months after Eden was taken from us.
In action at a wedding, I got lost in the energetic buzz of excitement, love and joy being experienced around me. Celebrating with the bride, groom and their wedding guests was a major reprieve from the anxiety and depression that had enveloped me in the wake of trauma.
The light began to shine through as I stepped into the role as wedding and family photographer time after time. Each occasion I picked up my camera to create, I left feeling happier than before. I left feeling more ease than before. I left feeling more capable of making my way through another day of living my reality.
Photography is one of those practices that elicits a convergence of the mind, body & spirit; the amazing trifecta that impacts how we feel in our physical bodies and how we experience life.
Photography is an amazing therapeutic tool. I didn't always see it this way, but I certainly do now. I have been a photographer for a decade at this point and I've always appreciated the idea that it is an art form that can still frame the best moments, the ordinary moments, the moments that transport us to way back when, the moments that jog our memories so we can remember who we are and who means the most to us. But it's so much more than that.
It is a form of connection in itself. An energetic exchange. A willingness to be vulnerable in front of the camera and behind the camera.
The word photography derives from the Greek root words photo - meaning light, and graph meaning to write or draw. In essence, photography means to write or draw with light. By using light to create photographs for others, I was coming out of my own darkness.
Photography has been a passion and profitable business venture for me for 10 years but moving forward, it feels more like a lifeline and a healing balm.
If you are suffering from mental strife... anxiety, depression, grief, loss, overwhelm... first, give yourself grace, second, consider picking up a camera and going outside into nature to play. Take the pressure off. Create for the sake of creating and see how you feel afterwards. My guess is that you will feel just a little bit lighter, a little bit happier and a little bit more hopeful.
I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to use my talents to create memories for others. I am grateful to all of my clients who have have trusted me to document some of the most important moments in their lives. I am here for all of it... I am here to capture the joyful times but, I am also here to memorialize the ending of a life journey...whether that be for a close family member or your beloved family pet... death is a reality of life and I am willing to be there for you as you navigate what it means to let a loved one go. Capturing those last moments in photos before they move onto the other side is a gift.
Pain and loss can be the greatest life teachers. On my quest for healing I've encountered many remedies that soften the devastating blow of grief. Living in the present moment is one of the best practices to alleviate pain and suffering...where energy goes, energy flows. It is my hope that I have inspired you to create, to pick up a camera, see life right in front of you and begin clicking the shutter. Express what is within you; release the pent up emotions from the past and let go of the anxiety surrounding the future. Relief is on the other side.
Andrea Hall of Whimsical Roots Photography is a Wisconsin wedding and family photographer. She is based out of Hartford but frequently travels throughout the region. Milwaukee, Madison, Wisconsin Dells, Chicago, Illinois, Door County, Appleton, Green Bay, Oshkosh, La Crosse, the driftless region, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Iowa.
She is passionate about documenting life as it unfolds. She is best known for her candid wedding photography and lifestyle family photography. With minimal posing, a focus on prompting and a desire to capture genuine emotions, Andrea puts her clients at ease so that they can let the real feelings flow, resulting in authentic photography.