Lake Oswego woman takes remembrance photos of babies who died at birth

by: VERN UYETAKE - Jamie Forsythe volunteers with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep to take remembrance photos for families whose babies have died. Jamie Forsythe meets parents on perhaps the worst day of their lives and gives them a gift that no one else can — photos of the babies they just lost.

The Lake Oswego photographer is a volunteer and coordinator for the national nonprofit Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. The program provides free remembrance photos to parents who suffered the loss of a baby.

Forsythe, who has been a professional photographer for 12 years, first heard of the program in 2007 while at a conference. At the time, the mother of two thought, “I don’t know if I could do that,” even though her previous career in the corporate world put her working in hospitals for 16 years.

“I had been around doctors, nurses and hospitals, but I didn’t know if I could deal with that because grief was involved,” she said.

Then, Forsythe experienced her own grief. In 2009, while scuba diving with family, Forsythe’s brother’s equipment failed and he JAMIE FORSYTHE - 'My son's life was a good thing, and though short here, it has continued to impact many people and that blesses our hearts.' - Natalee Duffy

“It was tough. It was really tough,” she said. “After that I started to understand grief, that you do live through it.”

One thing that helped her work through the grieving process was looking at photos of her brother.

“We cherished all those pictures so much of my brother,” she JAMIE FORSYTHE - The Duffys talked openly to their children about the loss of their baby brother, Sawyer, as captured by Lake Oswego photographer Jamie Forsythe.

A year later, she took a leap of faith and signed up to volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

The program works in different ways depending on the situation. The majority of the calls Forsythe receives are from area hospitals alerting her of parents’ loss or pending loss and desire for photographs. As a coordinator, Forsythe will allocate one of her volunteer photographers and he or she will go to the hospital and take photos of the baby or the baby and the family. Forsythe still makes two to three calls a month because there are not enough volunteers.

“I pack up my gear and head to the hospital. I first offer the family my condolences on their loss or impending loss, and then I get to work, knowing that the images I capture will be their only connection to that child once they have said goodbye,” Forsythe JAMIE FORSYTHE - Jesse Duffy and Charlotte, then 5, comforst each other in the hospital room after suffering the loss of baby Sawyer.

After the digital photos are taken, they are touched up, turned black and white, and put on a CD for the family to keep and remember their child. They also receive a DVD with a slideshow of the photos set to music.

For Natalee Duffy and her husband, Jesse, those discs are irreplaceable. On May 25, 2012, their son, Sawyer, was stillborn at one week overdue.

“In the moment, when you are realizing that is all you are going to get, obviously it means the world,” Duffy said of the photographs.

The Duffys, who live in Happy Valley, were allowed to stay in the hospital their full 36 hours, and they spent that time with Sawyer, soaking up every detail they could.

“You are trying to memorize all those features,” she said.

At the time, the Duffys had four other children (they have since welcomed a baby girl into their family). While Forsythe was there, the siblings came into the room to see their baby brother. Forsythe was snapping pictures the entire time.

“We didn’t even notice the photographer. She captured moments I remember in my heart,” Duffy said. As she explained to the children that Sawyer’s heart had stopped beating, Forsythe was there JAMIE FORSYTHE - Sawyer Duffy was born May 25, 2012, weighing 8 pounds, 6 ounces, one week past his due date. Pictured are, from left, Lincoln, then 3, Charlotte, then 5, Jesse, Natalee and Sawyer, Emelia, then 8, and Hans, then 7. 

“She was there hearing all of it and capturing those images. To see a picture of that moment means the world to us,” Duffy said. “It’s just amazing what she did.”

Before Forsythe could set out on her own taking bereavement photos, she shadowed another volunteer.

“I thought that I would be emotional, that I would cry, that I would be overwhelmed,” Forsythe said. But, while watching her mentor work quietly and quickly, she realized she just “needed to be there.”

“You have to make a connection with the parents. If you don’t, you can’t shoot,” she said.

Sometimes parents just want photos of the baby. And sometimes parents are reluctant to touch or hold the baby; however, Forsythe finds those are the most treasured moments and JAMIE FORSYTHE - Emelia, then 8, gives her baby brother, Sawyer, a kiss as family members look on.

Forsythe has done 40 sessions herself now, but each time is different. For her, the best cases are when parents know ahead of time they are going to lose their child. Then Forsythe can plan and get to know them the days prior to the birth. Some babies pass away at birth, some are on life support. The worst cases are the full-term deaths.

“For me, those are the saddest,” she said. “And they are all heartbreaking, every single one of them.”

Taking the remembrance photos takes a gentle touch, as handling and positioning the baby can be tricky. But Forsythe finds the job gratifying.

“It’s never convenient when we get the call ... but I always just feel good that I was able to do something to help them,” Forsythe said. “The raw emotions are there. It’s the most beautiful work I’ve ever done and I’m a better photographer because of it.”

Though Forsythe keeps her emotions in check while taking photos, sometimes she finds herself crying while editing them.

“It’s deep. It’s very, very deep,” she said. “I take a photograph and tell their story. This is all just part of life. ... It’s powerful stuff.”

For the Duffys, those photos and those moments will be held precious forever. They are starting a program, Sawyer’s Light, that will provide headstones for families who have gone through a similar JAMIE FORSYTHE - 'We love God with all of our hearts and we lost a child. It can happen to anyone. No matter your position, your lifestyle or where you are in your faith, your walk is with God.'- Natalee Duffy

“You have a baby and instead of bringing them home, you plan this service and are buying a casket,” said Duffy, who aspires to become a photographer and volunteer like Forsythe. “I wish more people would get involved.”

Currently, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep serves 12 hospitals in the Portland metro area, including Legacy Meridian Park and Providence Willamette Falls.

However, there are only 15 photographers on the volunteer list. Of those, only about five to seven take calls in the Portland area.

Forsythe said there is a strong need for more volunteer photographers.

“The older I get, the more it means to me. If (photographers) can do this kind of work, it’s a gift very few can give.”

To learn more about or to donate to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, visit Jamie Forsythe Photography (soon to be Red Sofa Studios) is located at 17642 SW 63rd Ave., Lake Oswego.

by: JAMIE FORSYTHE - 'I wake up, I live my day and I go to sleep with an aching heart and deep longing for my son, but I do that with hope. My heart will be healed on that day when I see him running to me in heaven.' - Natalee Duffy

by: JAMIE FORSYTHE - Sometimes, Jamie Forsythe has to encourage parents to touch and hold their babies after losing them. Not only does it create a new experience and bonding for them, it makes the most powerful photos.

by: JAMIE FORSYTHE - 'Our family believes that Sawyer's life began at conception, and that God ordained those days in my belly before one of them even came to be, that he knew it would be us who cried at Sawyer's birth and not our sweet son. But we are loved by a God who knows and understands all, sees the whole picture and who will never leave us.' - Natalee Duffy

by: JAMIE FORSYTHE - 'These photos that Jamie took tell our story. We are smiling through our pain because we know our son is with Jesus in heaven and that we get to see him again. That is our true hope.'- Natalee Duffy
Pictured are, from left, Charlotte, Jesse, Natalee holding Sawyer, Emelia, Hans and Lincoln Duffy

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