Everything felt sacred.

The night was warm and dark as we pulled out from downtown Northampton, heading up the highway. It was just past 2 in the morning, less than 30 minutes since I’d gotten the call from the hospital. A baby had been born still, and they wanted photographs as soon as possible. I made the only call I needed to make, and within minutes both Erin and I were heading to a meeting spot in Northampton, ready to do the work that needed to be done.

Erin and I have known each other for more than eight years, our friendship having been born with the birth and death of Erin’s first daughter, Birdie. That March of 2007 Erin called for support not quite three weeks after Birdie’s passing, as I was decorating my own living daughter’s first birthday cake. She was among the first mothers that I sat with in early grief. I was instantly drawn to Erin’s passion, her intimate, gentle love for her daughter, and her fierce understanding that she would somehow honor Birdie’s memory. We were drawn together by our first daughters, shadow girls who would somehow live with us forever, even when they had left us physically. A quiet, wise friendship was born. For each, the other possessed an experience and understanding that every other loving, caring person in our lives fortunately lacked. We knew what it was like to fall in love, give birth, and say goodbye. We knew what it meant to rebuild piece by piece, day by day, tear by tear. We both knew the joy, euphoria, and incredible risk of the subsequent children we were both fortunate enough to welcome.

When the idea began to percolate to incorporate our own team of photographers for Empty Arms, modeled after the incredible work of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I knew that Erin would be a critical player on our team. It was not for many years after Birdie’s birth that I learned of Erin’s incredible skill as an artist, and at that same time she began to muse that eventually, when she was ready, she knew that photography was the way she would transform her love for Birdie into a gift for someone else. Erin herself had been given the gift of gorgeous photographs of Birdie, taken by a NILMDTS photographer who drove in from Worcester. Knowing how difficult it can be to access photographers in our area, she knew this would be her calling. And indeed, it is.

Pictured here is Emma Elizabeth Dias, daughter of Jon and Kate Dias.  Emma was also photographed by Erin Long during a companion visit last December. We thank Jon and Kate for allowing us to share Emma's photograph here so that you can see the power of a beautifully taken photograph and appreciate for yourself what a gift a photo like this is to a bereaved family. 

Pictured here is Emma Elizabeth Dias, daughter of Jon and Kate Dias.  Emma was also photographed by Erin Long during a companion visit last December. We thank Jon and Kate for allowing us to share Emma's photograph here so that you can see the power of a beautifully taken photograph and appreciate for yourself what a gift a photo like this is to a bereaved family. 

While our photography program is still in its infancy and development, what we can accomplish for a family is already life changing. And so it was, that on a dark, wet, warm Tuesday morning, Erin and I drove up the highway to meet a newborn baby. We entered his room, and his family’s life, at just past three. The lights were low, and everyone’s voices were quiet as we entered and introduced ourselves. It was late, and everyone was exhausted, overwhelmed, and in shock. Our goal was to capture this moment, to photograph this tiny piece of time that would live forever in this mother and father’s memory, that would become the most tangible piece of their son’s life story.

Entering into this space is different every time. When a person’s life falls apart so catastrophically in such a short period of time, there is a feeling of being lifted from the earth as we know it. Time stops, and there is a lull as one reconsiders their past, present and future. The past, when they expected so much. Their present, where they are faced with this beautiful, breathtaking, agonizing love for a child who cannot stay. And their future, which they cannot bear to face. For each person, they are reduced to the core of who they are: they follow base instincts and are guided by those around them to create an interaction. They are in shock, in this strange, timeless void, and there is a wide range of reactions. Some people are so frozen with terror and grief, they can hardly interact with their baby. They are limited by the intensity of this moment, and everything feels too overwhelming and sad. Some people are full of pragmatic questions and thoughts, their minds racing with memories of the pregnancies, what-ifs from the past few days or weeks, and fears and anxieties about what the future might hold. And then there are the others, who are somehow able to sit quietly right in the moment and experience their baby for who he is, what he is, right now. This was what we found that night.

A mother lay holding her newborn son. He had died the day before, and she had labored all afternoon and into the night. He was beautiful, fair, with blond hair and soft, perfect skin. She cradled him in her arms, and her thumb stroked his cheek. The light was low, and her eyes barely lifted from her son’s face upon our arrival. She was here, in this moment, taking in this little boy in the time she would have. We introduced ourselves and our role, and our work, but it soon became easily apparent what this evening would bring. We were but witnesses to a mother’s love, and we would drink in this time.

Pictured here is Emma Elizabeth Dias, daughter of Jon and Kate Dias.  Emma was also photographed by Erin Long during a companion visit last December. We thank Jon and Kate for allowing us to share Emma's photograph here so that you can see the power of a beautifully taken photograph and appreciate for yourself what a gift a photo like this is to a bereaved family. 

Pictured here is Emma Elizabeth Dias, daughter of Jon and Kate Dias.  Emma was also photographed by Erin Long during a companion visit last December. We thank Jon and Kate for allowing us to share Emma's photograph here so that you can see the power of a beautifully taken photograph and appreciate for yourself what a gift a photo like this is to a bereaved family. 

We moved silently, quietly. Erin had her camera, and I helped the mother find the perfect angles, the perfect experiences with her son. We unwrapped him from his blankets and laid him on her bare chest, her skin warming his newborn self as her cheek rested on his tiny, soft cap of hair. We focused on hands, ears, toes, and knees. His father, who had been sleeping, awoke and joined mother and son in the bed. They created a perfect triangle, two heads together gazing down at their baby boy. Erin captured the mother’s fingers on the baby’s, the dad’s hand on baby’s tiny back. When we spoke, it was quiet and direct. The baby was diapered, dressed, and held some more. He was swaddled, and unswaddled, kissed, cuddled, and stroked. The two parents surrounded their child with their love. We admired each and every part of him, as any people would in the presence of a newborn. Our voices were mesmerized, quiet, and slow. Everything felt sacred.

For every time I have done this work, there is a crystal-clear moment when I realize our work is done. That this family needs the room to themselves, that it’s time for us to go. Certainly hundreds upon hundreds of photographs had been taken. We had captured everything that this mother and father hoped to capture. At just before five, it was time. I spoke, and told them we would take a few more shots of the three of them together, and leave them to be a family. They nodded, and we did just that.

In the end, Erin and I arrived back in Northampton at first light. Our car ride back was quiet and thoughtful, but infused with one strong knowledge: what we could give this family, in that moment, was beyond value. Here, in the dark of night, two mothers who knew this grief had entered their world. We had affirmed their son’s perfection, his reality, we had witnessed his life and existence. We had called him by name, touched his smooth skin, stroked his downy hair. We had quietly respected the beauty of this moment, of this tiny child and his two parents, and Erin had captured what she could with her art.

A photographer who works for NILMDTS once told me, “People always ask me, ‘How can you do that work?’ And I tell them, ‘After you’ve done it, the question becomes how could you NOT?’” This is the feeling I am left with. Whenever I am blessed to enter a family’s space in this situation, to meet their child, and help them say hello and goodbye, I feel an overwhelming sense of privilege. Is it difficult? Of course. Is it sad? Without doubt, every single time. But each time, I am filled to the brim with a sense of having offered something truly from my heart. There is nothing like it. I am so grateful to Erin Long for giving herself and her work to these families. I know she will smile quietly reading this, knowing that what she gives to others comes truly from her heart and feels like the most important work on earth. And for each family, in each moment that she captures, it actually is.

Empty Arms Annual Fall 2015 Photo Fundraiser

For the third year in a row, Empty Arms is proud to partner with Erin Long Photography for our fall family photo fundraiser. Erin is the mother of Birdie Amiina Ruby Newman-Long, who was born still on March 3, 2008. She has been a cherished member of our community since the beginning of Empty Arms’ existence, and we’re so grateful that she is generously supporting Empty Arms again with a mini photo shoot opportunity. Photos will be delivered to you well in time for holiday presents and cards.

Mini-Shoot Fundraiser Details

DATE: Saturday, October 17, 2015

TIME: A 10-minute slot between 9am and 4pm.
(Email bethpellettieri@gmail.com with a 1-hour time block during which you’d be available.)

WHERE: 85 Easthampton Road in Westhampton (backyard of Carol McMurrich, Empty Arms’ founder)

COST: $75 (which includes a significant donation by Erin to Empty Arms)

The Photo Shoot - What to Expect

During your mini photo shoot, Erin will work with you to find a spot with perfect light and a great background for your family. There are rustic wooden outbuildings and wooded backgrounds, as well as green lawns and plantings. You are welcome to bring pets or other things that feel important for your family photograph. (Here’s some family photo inspiration.)

**Please note that there will likely be babies and young children in attendance throughout the day. If you’d like to reserve a child-free time, we will do our very best to accommodate this. Please let us know when signing up.

At the shoot, you will be tempted by an amazing bake sale, hot coffee and tea, cider and cider donuts. You can bribe your kids and stay for a while and chat. The event is always a lovely day for participants, and we certainly hope for equally great weather. If the forecast is uncertain the week leading up to the photo shoot, we will email a lengthy contingency plan.

The Photos - What to Expect

Erin will transform your family’s 10-minute shoot into five beautiful, highly edited final images that you will cherish forever. Erin’s work is truly a labor of love: We can’t say enough about the care that she puts into her craft, and the final products are breathtaking. The families who have participated throughout the years have been thrilled with the results.

Ten days after the photo shoot, your images will be available for you to view at an online gallery. There, you will be able to do several things:

  • Purchase professional, archival-quality prints: These are of much higher quality than something you’d print online or at a kiosk. When you purchase professional prints, Erin will kick back another cut to Empty Arms from all the prints ordered.

  • Order discounted press-printed cards: You can choose from 4 different styles and customize your own message. These cards can be used as invitations, announcements, and much more, and include your choice of white or parchment envelopes. Erin will offer yet another donation to our organization with each card order. (Thanks, Erin!!)

  • Download the images to work with yourself: If you’ve had photos printed professionally, you understand the difference in quality between them and those offered via discount printing sites. While it’s Erin’s hope that folks will take advantage of her excellent pricing and further donations towards Empty Arms, she also knows that this option makes it possible for people to share and work with images down the road.

Sign Up!

To participate, please email board president Beth at bethpellettieri@gmail.com and indicate a 1-hour time block during which you’d be available. We will do our best to sign you up for a 10 minute shoot within that block, and will get back to you with a final time for your family’s shoot.

Thanks, and we look forward to seeing you on the 17th!

Carol, Erin, Lexi and Beth

Fall Newsletter!

Fall can be one of the hardest times. The start of September is always a time of transition, the weather shifts, the smell of wetness on the earth, and the beginning of the seasons changing again. For many of us, September is a constant reminder of the child who is not here with us, not heading to their first day of school, or riding on the big yellow school bus.

If you find yourself faltering, or in need of support, please remember that you are not alone. Our support groups are at the ready to be there for you, and Carol, Lexi and our other companions, are always here.

Support Groups
Here’s a reminder of our regular, monthly support groups.

  • Miscarriage Support Group meets the second Wednesday of the month from 7-9 pm at Owl and Raven in Northampton, MA.
  • Bereavement Support Group meets the fourth Wednesday of the month from 7-9 pm at the Baystate Outpatient Center Community Room in Northampton, MA.
  • Subsequent Choices Support Group is on hiatus at the moment. Carol and Lexi will facilitate a new group starting in November.

    * Please stay tuned to scheduling changes in November and December due to the winter holidays. Changes will be posted on our Facebook page, and blog.

Events and Fundraising
Alexandria's Ice Cream Social
In July, Krystal and Larry Barnes hosted an ice cream social in honor of their daughter, Alexandria. The event was a huge success, and raised over $500 to support Empty Arms’ program and services. Thank you, Krystal and Larry -- and thank you to our community!

Empty Arms is hosting two fundraising events in October. Please mark your calendars!

1. Trivia Night 2015!
We’ll be having our first ever Trivia Night at the Holyoke Canoe Club on Saturday, October 10th starting at 6:30 pm. 

How it works: You rally your friends and family, and sign up for a table for ten. (Or, you can sign up individually, and we can find a fabulous table for you). Each table brings its own lavish feast (including adult beverages) to enjoy. Your table attempts to answer as many questions as possible. You win more honor and glory than you can possibly imagine (if you win, that is).

If you’re local, please join us! We promise it will be a wonderful evening of fun. For more information, email our event coordinator and Charlotte Amelia’s dad, Greg Reynolds at gregreynolds99@gmail.com.

2. Family Portrait Fundraiser
We’ll be hosting our THIRD annual Family Photo Day on Saturday, October 17th. This is always a favorite event, and we’re incredibly grateful to the talented and amazing, Erin Long (mama of baby Birdie) of Erin Long Photography.  Erin will be offering 10 minute mini-shoots, and will donate a significant portion of her discounted price to Empty Arms. If you are interested, please email Beth at bethpellettieri@gmail.com, and she will send you more information.

New Blog Posts
Over the summer, we started two monthly blog series, and the response has been incredible. We’re continually grateful that Sara Barry (Henry’s mama; writing about early infant loss) and Charlotte Capogna-Amias (Mummy to her dear child, due August 24, 2015; writing about miscarriage, and challenges conceiving) share their stories, reflections and inner thoughts with us each month.

We are also opening up our blog to our community through our “Meet the Family” blog series. If you are interested in participating, or just simply find yourself wanting to share a poem, a story, a moment, please reach out. We want the blog to be an open space for our community. If you’d like to share a post or just have more questions, please email Beth at bethpellettieri@gmail.com.

Upcoming Fall Training
We’re hosting our two fall trainings for health care providers on November 17th and 18th.  Please save the dates!

November 17th from 4 pm - 8 pm (light supper will be served) 
November 18th from 8 am - 12 pm (breakfast snacks will be served)

Holyoke Medical Center, 575 Beech Street, Holyoke,  MA 01040 (Auxiliary Conference Room)

To register, or for any questions, email Carol at emptyarmsbereavement@gmail.com.

About the Training
As healthcare providers, we often struggle with the “right” way to interact with families when their babies have died or are expected to die. Our apprehension can be our greatest stumbling block entering into situations of loss.           

In this training, we will look closely at the grief journey a family walks after the death of a baby and the ways in which the birth experience and the time a family spends with their baby shapes the road that will follow.

In this presentation, our speaker will look to spin our perspective on working with the bereaved to see that we hold a unique power to turn a very negative event into what can ultimately be a cherished memory. We will discuss the ways in which we present information and options to families at the time of loss and learn a myriad of strategies for helping families make the choices that are best for them at that time.      

The presentation will offer space for audience participation and will feature a panel of bereaved parents to offer their own unique perspectives.        

About our Speaker
Carol McMurrich, BA, EdM, founded Empty Arms Bereavement Support in 2007, nearly four years after the death during labor of her daughter Charlotte. A sociologist and educator by training, after her loss Ms McMurrich became passionate about the creation of community surrounding pregnancy and infant loss in a society that marginalizes death to an astounding degree. Empty Arms Bereavement Support was founded on the principles of first and foremost serving the families of the Pioneer Valley whose babies have died during pregnancy or after birth, and secondly providing the support to caregivers who will be instrumental in those families experiences of loss.

Says McMurrich, “Grief is a constant evolution for all people, but for parents whose babies have died their grief rests on a foundation which is the brief window of opportunity they have to experience their pregnancy, their birth, and their baby. Care providers are often the only knowledgeable people present who are able to carefully help families shape this foundation, at a time when families are often deeply in shock and unaware of the lasting effects of the decisions they will make.”

McMurrich’s professional trainings are based upon her own extensive training with Share, Pregnancy and Infant Loss, Inc, her own research, and her eight years of work with hundreds of bereaved families across Western Massachusetts and beyond.

As always, check our Facebook page for current updates and support group information.