Now Or Never

Photographer helps grieving families remember lost babies

Photographer Elisha Weger volunteers her time to take photos of stillborns and babies who have died in utero or shortly after birth. Despite the toll this kind of work takes, she does it to support families who say having a photo helps in their healing.

'This is the only memory that their family will ever have of them'

Photographer Elisha Weger volunteers with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep to take photos of babies who have died, and give parents something to hold on to. (Heidi Atter, CBC)

Elisha Weger can get the call at any time.

When it comes, the professional photographer packs up her gear, heads to the Regina General Hospital, and walks into a new family's nightmare.

For the past five years, Weger has volunteered with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, an international group of volunteers who offer professional portrait services of babies who were stillborn or died shortly after birth.

"My goal in these sessions is to capture every possible detail of these babies, because this is the only memory that their family will ever have of them," said Weger.

The sessions always take place at the hospital, where Weger works carefully with the delicate babies to produce an image for their families. 

High demand

According to Statistics Canada, there were 2,184 perinatal deaths across the country in 2017.  There were 103 in the province of Saskatchewan, where Weger is based.  Perinatal refers to babies who are stillborn from 28 weeks gestation or later, to a child who less than a week old.

While not all families who lose a baby want the service, Weger says the demand is higher than she can handle.  

Weger never knows when she's going to get the call, or exactly what she's walking into when she goes to the hospital. (Heidi Atter, CBC)

"It's a challenge in my local community to find photographers that will volunteer their time to do this", said Weger.  

In the past five years, Weger has taken photos for more than 30 families who have suffered perinatal loss.

She remembers the first photo session vividly.

Eva was born at 33 weeks gestation. At 20 weeks, Eva's parents had been told that she had genetic defects and wouldn't survive.  

"That first session, just seeing that strength in that mom was absolutely so inspiring for me," said Weger. "She thanked me repeatedly for being there."

Emotional toll

Jennifer Buchko and her daughter Gabby pose with photos of the babies Buchko lost, Annabelle and Zachary. (Heidi Atter)

Weger still cries as she remembers taking photos of Zachary Buchko, who was stillborn at 32 weeks in August of 2016. He was the second baby the family had lost, and Weger had taken memorial photos of his sister, Annabelle, the year before.

"I just remember thinking to myself how unfair this was for this family," said Weger.  

Weger will often break down in her car after she leaves a photo shoot at the hospital. She has had nightmares and has taken time away from her volunteer work to do self care.  

Determined to continue

Despite these challenges, Weger is determined to keep going. Her own mother lost her baby sister at six months gestation when Weger was 11.  

"They didn't acknowledge the baby back then," said Weger. "It was just, 'This isn't meant to be, now go home and have another child."

Weger wants to normalize conversations about perinatal loss, to help families feel less alone. (Heidi Atter)

"I have seen so many moms that developed mental health issues because society doesn't want to hear about perinatal loss," said Weger. "They feel lost and alone."

Weger wants to normalize talking about and remembering the babies who don't survive.  She has heard from moms who say her photographs have made a difference.

"The tell me that it has helped them immensely in their healing process," said Weger. "Just to have something tangible so that they can always remember their baby."

There are services available across Canada for people dealing with the grief of perinatal loss. To find peer support in your area visit Baby's Breath Canada.