I get a lot of messages from people asking me to edit photos of their children. They want an infusion of magic and whimsy, but they don’t understand that these moments have to be lived to exist in my images. I cannot create magic that was not there in the first place. But, one particular lazy weekend morning, I opened up my messages and found a request from a fellow mama. This one was different.
She asked me if it was possible to edit a photo of her stillborn daughter, Tinh Nhi (Dharma is her Western name). She so desperately wanted to share photos of her daughter with her rainbow baby, Mochi, and her family, but she did not want them to be distressed by Tinh Nhi’s appearance. She asked if I could make her look more alive.
Parents of stillborn babies have an unspoken kinship. There is a golden thread that weaves its way in and out of all of us and connects us for eternity. We see each other in our truest and purest forms, with all of the cracks and broken pieces, and all of the light that our angel babies shine through those cracks to illuminate the world. There is a sort of nakedness that we have…. a vulnerability with one another.
We don’t let just anyone in. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse if you ask us how many children we have. We tend to pause for a moment and look into your eyes wondering for a split second which answer we should give you. We question if we can trust that you are able to receive the true answer without dismissing our sacred experience, and we ask ourselves if we have the mental and emotional energy to explain ourselves after the dreaded follow up question… ”How old are they?”
Fellow bereaved mothers and fathers are different. The walls come down. We see right through each other without saying a word. On that lazy Saturday morning, I told this mama to send me the photos and did so with nothing but love and gratitude for her and her bravery. I proceeded to open images of the most precious and sacred moments of their lives and breathe love into them. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I thought of their immense loss and how incredibly special it was to be let into their world.
This April, I hugged this beautiful family for the first time and photographed their family while I was in Victoria. They traveled in from the United States for the much-anticipated occasion after over a year of pandemic-related delays.
When I first walked up to their car to introduce myself, mama handed me a bouquet of the prettiest, daintiest tulips I have ever held, and said, “Jim wanted to get these for you for Ava’s birthday.” For anyone who doesn’t know my story already, my little Ava was born sleeping 11 years ago. I thanked Jim for his thoughtfulness and he said, “How are you doing? How is your husband? I read what you wrote about your daughter.” I was immediately struck by his kindness…. and his pain.
Mama is bright. She shines. Her email name is “Happy Kat”. She has experienced soul-crushing sorrow and loss; the most unbearable kind. Yet, her smile is bright enough to light up the world. She soaks in every minute and lives her life cracked wide open.
Dad is deep. I saw longing in him, a pure sorrow, and a desire to be understood and seen. He has a tenderness with his daughter that reminds me of my husband with my own children. The sort of tenderness that propels a person to do whatever it takes to protect that child from harm. The sort of raw tenderness that is simply not capable of surviving another tragic loss.
They were so incredibly beautiful, I cannot put the experience into words. I can only give you a glimpse into their souls and into their light, through these images.
I delivered the gallery to mom and dad and mom wistfully mentioned that she wishes Tinh Nhi was in the photos. I told her that she absolutely is. She is the light that shines out of them like moon beams, the sparkle in their eyes, and the tenderness in their touch. She may not be able to cuddle up in the lap of her parents, but she has changed their whole world and created a ripple effect of love and empathy in doing so. Love doesn’t ever leave us. It doesn’t die. With each revolution around the sun, it continues to change the world. Love plants roots and grows like a mother tree.
May we all honour the short and beautiful life of Tinh Nhi and the perfect and beautiful blessings she has brought to our imperfect world. If you have the opportunity, say her name out loud. Send her and this family your love. Whisper to the wind that the world will never be the same again because Tinh Nhi changed it forever, and let the wind carry your words to the trees and the rivers so it becomes a part of our collective memory… The place where all of the truest beauty and wisdom goes.
My absolute favourite quote is by Lord Byron and it reads, “Sorrow is knowledge, those that know the most must mourn the deepest, the tree of knowledge is not the tree of life.”
I feel deeply that those who mourn the deepest are the ones who have truly lived.They hold the secrets of the universe in their DNA.
Much love, Cass