In November 2022, Nikki and Cody Hawkins threw a party for the birth of their first daughter, Skylar Rose. It was the 34th week of Nikki’s pregnancy, and they gathered 40 of their closest friends and family to decorate their home in Puyallup, Washington, in the colors of a sunset, make bracelets with Skylar’s name and paint rocks that would soon adorn her grave.
Just a few months earlier, during their 20-week scan, the Hawkinses had learned their daughter had a genetic disorder that meant she would not survive birth. As they mourned, they decided to carry Skylar to term for as long as they could and savor every moment they had with her.
“We knew that nothing would change the outcome, so we just wanted to focus the rest of the pregnancy on cherishing that time,” Nikki says. “Rather than dreading this moment, dreading this day, dreading what she might look like, I think our heart posture shifted to trying to capture and be intentional about every single moment we did have.”
Skylar was born on the morning of November 6 and, despite the odds, lived for 70 minutes. During that time, she squeezed her parents’ fingers, opened her eyes and was showered with kisses before passing peacefully in Cody’s arms.
A few hours later, the Hawkinses received a visit from Halé Adams, a Ranier-based photographer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. The volunteer organization connects parents experiencing the loss of a newborn or stillborn child with professional-level photographers who offer remembrance portraits of them and their child, free of charge.
When the Hawkinses first heard about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, Nikki admits they felt some uncertainty. What would they look like? What would their daughter look like? Did they really want to document their worst moments? But as the day came closer, the Hawkinses decided they would fully embrace every moment with their daughter.
“Even if we showed no one else the pictures, we could have them,” Nikki says. “After having her and getting the photos back, they’re incredibly beautiful and very special to us. Even the raw moments and really hard moments where it’s difficult to look at the pictures, it tells such a story of our love for our daughter in that moment. They’re our everything.”
Halé is just one of more than 2,500 Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographers across the United States and beyond. The organization was established in 2005 after Cheryl Haggard lost her own son, Maddux, and fellow co-founder Sandy Puc’ took black-and-white photos of them in the style used today by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
Volunteers can serve by taking photos themselves, acting as dispatchers to connect photographers with local parents, or retouching photos submitted by volunteers and families. Roxanne Baggot joined the organization in 2021 as a photographer in Orlando before serving as a retoucher and eventually an area coordinator for the city. Like many volunteers, she has her own history with infant loss.
“I never lost a child or grandchild, but I did work in the NICU for 30 years,” Roxanne says. “When I lost a baby that I was taking care of, sometimes I would watch a volunteer photographer quietly work around the room to get those pictures and be in that sacred spot with that family. I just vowed that when I retired I would do that.”
For those who are not professional photographers, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep provides extensive training—from videos on basic photography, working with hospital lighting and positioning the baby to providing mentors for new volunteers to shadow. Even with all that coaching, there is little that can prepare volunteers for their first solo sessions.
“No matter which room you’re walking into, it’s never the same,” says Halé, who has photographed more than 60 sessions for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. “As a photographer, you definitely go into work mode. But the processing after was definitely the hardest for me. I just sat in my car and cried.”
The organization has chaplains that volunteers can speak with, as well as a private Facebook page where they can talk through their experiences. But Roxanne has also found that many parents appreciate those moments when they can see volunteers care enough to feel their pain. She recalls one of her early sessions when a father had promised his newborn son they would watch the Super Bowl together. Before she left the room, he set up his iPad and turned on the game.
“He said, ‘I told you we were going to watch the Super Bowl together, and we’re going to watch it,’” Roxanne says. “And here I have to get pictures of it, and my eyes are all blurred up from tears. But I heard back from that dad, and he said that picture meant the most to him.”
A Lasting Gift
Each volunteer finds their own personal way to mark these moments. Madison Brown-Elliot in Clackamas outside of Portland, Oregon, brings forget-me-not flowers to each family she works with. Halé likes to snap a quick photo of the hospital hallway or a sunset through the window that she can share to Facebook with a brief, nameless remembrance message.
“It allows all the people in my life to see what I’m experiencing but also how often other people have experienced the same thing,” Halé says. “If you have never been exposed to miscarriage or the loss of a baby, you just don’t hear about it, and it’s kind of taboo to talk about it. I want to bridge that gap so it’s more socially acceptable to talk about.”
It was ultimately that personal investment and compassion that dispelled any discomfort the Hawkinses might have felt during their session. One of their favorite photos shows the arms of all their family and friends cradling Skylar. It’s one they never would have thought to take on their own.
“We were so in the emotions and the rawness of it,” Nikki says. “In those moments you’re just trying to survive. We felt so seen to have someone say, ‘Don’t worry about anything but soaking up these few moments with your daughter. I’ll capture the things you can have for a lifetime.’”
Despite the heartbreak of their loss, the Hawkinses hope to have another child one day, whether through adoption or fostering. Now, with these photos of Skylar that they can proudly display, Nikki and Cody can ensure their first daughter will always be a part of their family.
“I think forward to when we do have kids and our family does grow,” Nikki says. “We’ll be able to hold Skylar’s photo and have her visually represented in our family for big moments or Christmas cards. She won’t just be an invisible child, an invisible moment in time.”
Find a Photographer
If you or a family you know would like to schedule a session with a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographer, visit nowilaymedowntosleep.org and go to the “Find a Photographer” tab. There, you can search your area for photographers and find your local dispatch line.
If no photographers are available, hospital staff may be able to take photos through the Medical Affiliate Program. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep can also provide professional retouching for photos taken by family and friends.
Taking and retouching photos isn’t the only way to help parents grieving the loss of an infant. The Angel Gowns program, part of the nonprofit charity Rest in His Arms, accepts donated wedding dresses that can be repurposed into burial gowns for hospitals, funeral homes, bereavement ministers and individual families.
Rest in His Arms was founded in 2005 when Susan Walker-Schulenberg organized a burial for an abandoned infant in Grayslake, Illinois. In the years since, Rest in His Arms and Angel Gowns have helped bury more than 50 babies in Illinois and many more across the country.
Angel Gowns hosts monthly Sewing Saturday workshops in Chicago to convert donated dresses into burial gowns, but the program also accepts donated dresses from anywhere in the country. To learn more, visit angelgowns.us.