Pippa has four children. Three of them you can see, cuddle, and talk to. One of them you can’t. One of them is an angel baby.
Angel babies are children who die during the course of pregnancy or shortly after birth as a result of miscarriage from various causes. In the developed world, the statistics on infant loss have remained strangely consistent over the past few decades, even despite all the advances in medicine, midwifery, and obstetrics that we have witnessed. As a result, pregnancy loss and stillbirth are by no means fringe events. One in three women suffers a miscarriage at some point in her life. Yet Pippa, having already born three healthy children, was dumbstruck with grief and disbelief when her son Noah was stillborn at 18-weeks gestation.
Little did she suspect, the well-intentioned but grossly misguided comments that would befall her from friends, family members, and strangers as they tried to sympathize or cheer her up. “It wasn’t a real baby yet, just a fetus!” “You and Mark can always try again. Better luck next time.” “You have three healthy children already. You can be a mom to them!”
Such well-meaning but entirely ignorant statements do not only provoke incredulity in and are painful for bereaved parents to hear, but they also attest to a wider problem in society.
Stillbirth, and death as related to pregnancy in general, are taboo topics. We don’t really know how to talk about this subject.
Perhaps there is something so inconceivably cruel and unfair about it that we feel an urge to look the other way. Perhaps we feel strangely guilty that another person must carry a burden we have never had to face, and how unbelievably gut-wrenching a burden it must be. There is something so primal and earth-shattering about grief and loss that we—cocooned in the artificial, well-functioning, and civilized societies we have built to shield ourselves from nature—can hardly bear to witness it.
The more immediate problem for Pippa however, was that she had three children asking her when they would be meeting their baby brother.
Pippa had a photo of her son, which was taken by a nurse at the hospital. In it, Noah’s skin looked red-raw, and his tiny chest was sunken with the pull of gravity on a body that was supposed to be suspended in protective amniotic fluid. He was resting on a white muslin cloth that had faint smudges of blood on it, and the light in his photo was somehow stark and eerily clinical.
There was no way she was going to show this picture to her children. It was difficult enough for an adult to look at.
She struggled to find a way to make the event comprehensible, to make what had happened graspable for her children, and she hoped that her eventual solution might achieve the same magic for herself, too. That is when Pippa got in touch with me.
I’m a professional illustrator, and I have been drawing infant loss portraits for three years. Pippa sent me the photo of Noah and explained that she needed a picture fit for children’s eyes.
I asked whether she had a soft toy or a blanket, perhaps one she had bought in anticipation of Noah’s birth or one her other kids had had as babies. She did have such a memento. So I set about drawing Noah, tucked into the folds of a beloved, patterned snuggle blanket, in which every one of her previous children had slept as babies.
When her children unwrapped the portrait, the blanket immediately identified Noah as a family member and her children recognized him as such.
She told me they could suddenly make sense of how tiny he was and that, for all his non-existence, he was also somehow right there with them, where he belonged. She put Noah’s portrait up on the wall next to all the other baby photos of his siblings. They are now able to talk about him naturally, peacefully, and with less and less pain as the days go by.
Pippa has four children. Now you can see all of them.