Trigger warning: this post discusses infant loss.
Melanie Rodger was a 20-year-old soon-to-be mom living on a military base in Japan with her husband, as excited as anyone would be when they're expecting. She had enjoyed a textbook pregnancy for 32 weeks, imagining all the future memories she would make as a mom to a newborn son. Then, during a routine OB-GYN appointment, her doctor started to show concern: at 35 weeks pregnant her belly was measuring about the same as it was at 32 weeks. Something was wrong.
"The OB called me on a Friday night, and we had tickets to see the new Harry Potter movie out in town at a Japanese theater," Rodger tells Woman's Day. "I remember the phone ringing right before we left and I thought, 'Who would be calling on six o’clock on a Friday night?' So I answered the phone and it was the OB I had seen that day and he had told me that they were more concerned than they’d ever been my entire pregnancy."
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Rodger had been diagnosed with "intrauterine growth restriction" — a condition in which a fetus grows smaller than it should be and, as a result, is at higher risk of low birth rate, decreased oxygen levels post-birth, problems handling the stress of labor and delivery, trouble maintaining body temperature, and high red blood cell count. Her doctor told her they would likely induce her at 37 weeks, but not to worry: at most an induction would require a week's stay at the hospital and some steroid injections for her son so that his lungs could develop. The following Monday, Rodger was induced.
"I remember this rush of excitement, like 'OMG it’s finally that time to have a baby and he’s going to be here. He’s going to be our baby,'" Rodger says.
After 32 hours of labor, baby Bennett was born at 2:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. Rodger wasn't able to hold him, as he was rushed to the warming table and then quickly to the nursery. But still, she wasn't worried. “When he was born alive and crying I didn’t think there was going to be any situation when he wasn’t coming home with us," she says.
30 hours later, baby Bennett died.
So when Rodger saw the pictures Chrissy Teigen posted of her pregnancy and infant loss, she instantly knew how Teigen felt. The helplessness that follows the realization that there's nothing more the doctors can do. The pain of having all your future plans — all the family outings, birthday parties, and lazy Sundays spent cuddling on the family couch — that you've conjured up in your brain suddenly vanish. The devastating emptiness and overwhelming sense of longing that leaves you almost breathless the moment you walk out of the hospital without a baby.
"I saw the first picture she posted, just looking down at her feet and crying, and I knew that feeling immediately," Rodger says. "I mean, I [had] brought the boppy pillow and his coming home outfit and his car seat and we had it all installed and we had everything ready for him to come home with us. We had [to ask] a friend go to our car and take the car seat out because I couldn't imagine driving all the way home with an empty car seat in the car. Still, to this day, it gets me really chocked up just thinking about that."
Rodger also knows the importance of the photos Teigen shared, both for Teigen and her family, as well as bereaved parents everywhere. Rodger never got to hold Bennett while he was alive; only for about five minutes after he already passed — something a nurse and her best friend had to talk her into. She only has seven pictures of her son; quick snapshots her husband took while Bennett was on the warming table so she could at least see her baby's face before he was whisked away to the nursery. She often wishes she had more pictures of her son, especially pictures of her holding him. So to see another loss mom take those pictures and share them with the world resonated with Rodger on a deep, meaningful level.
"I just felt so proud of her for being vulnerable enough to share in the face of the world and the backlash that you get from being open about things that people are uncomfortable with," Rodger explains. "People are uncomfortable with babies dying, and for her to put herself out there was really inspiring to me, as a loss mom. I just hope that when people are faced with this loss in the future, that they remember what she did and that they can do that, too."
In an essay, published on Medium, Teigen addressed the backlash she received for posting those pictures, writing, "I cannot express how little I care that you hate the photos. How little I care that it’s something you wouldn’t have done. I lived it, I chose to do it, and more than anything, these photos aren’t for anyone but the people who have lived this or are curious enough to wonder what something like this is like. These photos are only for the people who need them. The thoughts of others do not matter to me.”
The resolute statement that bereavement photos are only for those who need them also resonates with Rodger, who now volunteers with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, taking photos of loss parents with their babies who have passed so they have something to cherish in the future and use as part of their ongoing healing process. When someone wants pictures with the baby they lost before, during, or after birth, Rodger gets a call from the hospital and comes running.
"For me, it's that desire to give people what I don't have," Rodger says. "And I know that even in those moments that don't feel like this is something they should do, years from now they have the opportunity to look at pictures that I don't have the opportunity [to look at]. So when I walk into a hospital room and I take pictures I don't think about Bennett. I don't think about myself. I think about this family and their story and I'm there for them."
Healing from something as traumatic as losing a baby is ongoing. But Rodger does find comfort and strength when she talks about Bennett, what she wishes she had done in the moments after his death, as well as what she is thankful for, like her soon-to-be 3-year-old son Lachlan.
"When you leave the hospital without your baby, all you have left is the memories that you carry with you and those of the people who were physically there," Rodger says. "Having family and friends, or even strangers, remember and honor the life of your baby with you, helps you hang on to those memories and tells the world that their lives are and will forever be a part of who you are. They are loved, they were wanted, and they will forever be a part of our lives."
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) offers the gift of healing, hope and honor to parents experiencing the death of a baby through the overwhelming power of remembrance portraits. Professional-level volunteer photographers are always needed to make this important impact in their local communities. For more information visit, nowilaymedowntosleep.org.