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Published August 18, 2012, 11:30 PM

Documenting life in loss: Photographer provides bereavement pictures, healing in the valley

FARGO - When Brandi Spray walks into a delivery room, camera in hand, she’s there to capture a family’s greatest blessing and worst loss.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO - When Brandi Spray walks into a delivery room, camera in hand, she’s there to capture a family’s greatest blessing and worst loss.

The hospital room is usually somber, Spray says. Some parents are in shock. Others are excited to celebrate the life of their baby who won’t come home from the hospital.

Depending on gestational age, she may need to focus her lens on the details – tiny fingernails, a footprint. Other times Spray can pose baby cradled in mom’s arms, at peace on dad’s chest, wearing sweet outfits.

Either way, Spray provides a keepsake, and healing. Her volunteer work acknowledges that this death was also a life.

“This baby is just as worthy of a newborn session as any other baby,” says Spray, who owns her own photography business.

Spray, of West Fargo, is area coordinator for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an international organization that provides free professional photography services to families who have lost a baby.

When an infant dies in the hospital, the nursing staff can call Spray, who sends a message to other local volunteer photographers. But Spray takes on most of the sessions herself, others say.

“Without her, I don’t know if there would be much of a program,” says Tara Scherling, a Fargo photographer and fellow volunteer.

‘Best gift’ in time of loss

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep started in 2005 in Colorado, and now has a worldwide network of 11,000 volunteer photographers, says Executive Director Gina Harris. It’s a rigorous process to be selected as a volunteer. The photographer doesn’t need to work in the industry, but must have professional skills.

“Having these images of your baby is the best gift that you can be given during the time of a loss,” says Harris, who has experienced two infant losses. “There’s not much you can be given, because you’re going home from the hospital empty-handed. You not only have photographs of your baby, but these are professional photos.”

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep’s website currently lists 15 volunteers within 100 miles of Fargo-Moorhead, including four in the metro area.

Spray has been a volunteer since September 2006, Harris says.

Spray says she had talked with Scherling about different photography-based volunteer opportunities, but hadn’t gotten involved. Then, a family from her church lost a baby born too early.

“I remember at his funeral there weren’t many nice pictures of him, just cell phone pictures,” Spray says.

Around the time she started looking into the program, she says, the previous area coordinator was being deployed. So Spray stepped into that role.

Soon after, she says, she was sent to Denver to go through training, allowing her to train others in bereavement photography.

Spray says she receives on average three to six calls a month. They seem to come in clusters, for some reason.

Also a labor doula, Spray says she can be in the delivery room with high-risk families.

Pauline Savageau, part of Essentia’s birthing center staff, says she’s worked closely with Spray through the hospital’s Caring Hearts Perinatal Program, which helps parents who know their baby won’t survive. Caring Hearts provides parents with physical and emotional support, helps them establish a birth plan and arrange funeral services, and connects them with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

Photographers are also called in for families who don’t know in advance that there’s a problem, Savageau says.

Savageau describes Spray as professional and compassionate.

“She’s just phenomenal. She’s very sincere, very engaging. She takes the time. You don’t ever feel rushed. She will spend hours with these parents, whatever time it takes. She will come any hour of the day,” Savageau says.

“It helps the healing process,” she adds.

‘I realized I wasn’t alone’

Tami Norgard is also a volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. In October 2008, however, she was a client. Her son Beck’s umbilical cord knotted at 36 weeks. He was delivered stillborn. Spray was their photographer.

“I felt some comfort when Brandi came in. I think I realized I wasn’t alone … the fact that there’s a need for so much infant loss photography,” Norgard says. “It brings the message to the mom that their baby was a person and worth remembering.”

At first, Norgard says her husband didn’t want the photos taken. Norgard says it may seem like a strange concept or even distasteful, like taking pictures of a corpse in a coffin. “Yet in this case, you don’t have any other option,” she says.

Their memories of Beck are confined to the hospital room. “The further you get from it, the memories fade,” she says.

Pictures Spray took are displayed with photos of Norgard’s other children, now ages 13, 10 and 2. There’s also one on her dresser.

Norgard says Spray has a gift for bereavement photography. Her portraits are beautiful, and she’s able to put people at ease with a calm presence, she says.

“As a photographer, she’s willing to help families, morning, noon and night. She’s somebody that is just reaching out to help people in need,” Norgard says. “She’s willing to put her business and family aside as needed.”

Spray, mom of an 8- and 5-year-old, says she’s always amazed at the strength the mothers display when she walks into that delivery room.

“You wouldn’t guess how strong a mother can be in a very difficult time like that,” she says. “More often than not they are the strongest one in the room.”

For Spray, the work is an opportunity to witness to others.

“I don’t do anything religious, but I do try to share God’s love through the service I’m offering,” she says. “It’s something I know I’m able to do. And it’s something a lot of people can’t.”