Bereaved Parents and The Question of Photographs

Pictures are everywhere today–much different than when I was a child and you had to go down to the local studio to get a decent family photo. Poloroids were fun and fast, but the number of shots you could take was limited to the film in the packet.

And how many rolls of 110 or 35 mm are still rattling around somewhere in drawers or boxes, undeveloped and forgotten?

But now our phones make us instant and eager chroniclers of the everyday.

And social media gives us the opportunity to splatter our work across the Internet–all over the country and around the world.

One of the challenges facing bereaved parents is what to do about photographs–both the ones that exist and the ones yet to be taken.

I remember everything about the first formal family photograph after Dominic died.

It was two months to the day since we buried him, and his older brother was getting married.  A day we had planned for and looked forward to for a long time.  

It marked a new beginning, a new life, but the specter of death veiled my eyes and whispered in my ears.

Standing there, smiling and holding back the tears, my heart cried,”One of us is missing!” and I wanted to shout, “Don’t take the photo.  Don’t memorialize the absence of my son.”

I swallowed the words and have an album full of evidence that he wasn’t there.

Our family usually sends New Year’s cards instead of Christmas cards but I haven’t sent one in years because they always included a family picture.  I don’t know how to send them if Dominic isn’t in the frame.

And what to do with all the pictures that already exist?

We had a video montage at his funeral and I have it tucked safely away. There are hundreds of snapshots, digital photos on computers and phones, all the images on his Facebook page and the pages of friends…

C.S. Lewis notes in A Grief Observed:

“Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years.  And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well–how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said.  The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely.  Not that he had changed.  On the contrary…I had known all these things once and recognized them the moment I met them again.  But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years.  How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.[his wife]?  That it is not happening already?”

And that’s the thing–the pictures aren’t my son.  

They were a moment in time, and bring a smile of remembrance, but they are only a shallow representation of the vibrant life that was Dominic.  As the months progress and his siblings and friends age, the pictures document that he is further and further out of step with our current reality.  

We are leaving him behind.

I decided early on that our walls would not become a shrine to the one child missing.  So I have incorporated photos of Dominic with those of his siblings and other family members. I do have more pictures on display than I used to–they are all I have left of my son.

It’s easy to honor his memory but I want to honor him.  

Who he was, what he represents and who he remains as part of who I am.

I don’t know how to combat the slow fade of the experience of my living, breathing son in all his complexity to the two-dimensional representation hanging on my wall.

I wish I did.

Author: Melanie

I am a shepherd, wife and mother of four amazing children, three that walk the earth with me and one who lives with Jesus. This is a record of my grief journey and a look into the life I didn't choose. If you are interested in joining a community of bereaved parents leaning on the promises of God in Christ, please like the public Facebook page, "Heartache and Hope: Life After Losing a Child" and join the conversation.

21 thoughts on “Bereaved Parents and The Question of Photographs”

  1. I had a double whammy type situation. My youngest daughter passed unexpectedly at age 25, in November. The next April, my house burned down. I lost everything I had, pictures, baby books, everything! Six years ago, my youngest son also passed away unexpectedly. Granted, by then I had a few more pictures of him, but still had lost all baby pics, etc. all the little Christmas ornaments all the kids had made me, everything. I do still miss it all. I understand your point of view, but having those things are better than nothing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have put powerpoint files together with photos of our lost son. Each file looks at a different aspect of his life. I used these in his memorial services: the one emphasizing his youth for his family members, the one emphasizing his adolescence for his friends, and the one of his career for his associates. Many have asked for copies, and when I compress them into pdf files, I can send by email.

    It was difficult for me to put these together – I had to take my time and lots of breaks. But I did it to honor our son and to give to his family and friends some wonderful memories of their time with him. It is still difficult for me to look at them, but they sometimes help me to get through some of the many grief attacks as them come on.

    Thank you, everyone, for sharing with me! Your words help me the most of all to bear our loss.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is what I like about photographs. They’re proof that once, even if just for a heartbeat, everything was perfect.
    Jodi Picoult, Lone Wolf

    We just don’t realize how valuable a photo
    Can be until the opportunity is gone. Our youngest son died almost four years ago at 28. Cleaning out a drawer I found a note he’d written me when he was in school. “ I need lunch money” who would have every thought how valuable that little note would become!

    Thank you for sharing your mother’s heart ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally understand this post and all your post. As I sit on the 5 year anniversary of my son passing I am having so many of these thoughts. My daughters wedding was recently as I brought up her brother was with her that day. She gave me a look do not say anything. Crying in a corner that day so blissfully happy for my daughter, and thinking about the pictures that will always be around without him in them. I hate this! As I get older with the grief and age I fear my memory is failing me. I can not remember as much of his beautiful wonderful living self.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my goodness! Family pictures are a huge struggle for me! My son got married 6 months after my Christopher died. I.did.not.want.a.picture I still cannot look at it. I also can’t send a Christmas card. Thank you for putting words to feelings I have not been able to express. People keep saying I will regret not having more family pictures…and they may be right but it my mind it is more moving away from a time he was here. I don’t want to. What you said about how we won’t know what they would’ve looked like as they aged puts words to feelings I couldn’t describe. Nearly a year after, I still know…but someday I will not. I.hate.that. your words are such a balm to all the complicated feelings I do not understand about myself. Thank you from the bottom of my heart


  5. I’m making a photo book of my son’s life and writing short stories to go with the pictures. I am doing a series of 20 page books instead of 1 large book. Shutterfly will give you a bulk price on books plus a free book. It would be too easy to get overwhelmed with an entire book. I’m a photographer and teach Adobe Photoshop (along with Forensic Science) and often used my son to practice new techniques. I probably have close to 1000 photos of him. I have put the photos in order by year to make it easier. I also have a few dozen videos from his phone and enjoy listening to his voice and watching him. Oh, please back up everything. I put videos on YouTube and back everything else up to Google photos. I pay $20 each year to back up full size pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I started my Patrick’s scrapbook about 6 months after he died. I had lots of photos in an old album and many, many, many on slides from when he was a baby. I bought a slide/negative to digital converter and spent hours looking at them and crying as I worked on them. I downloaded photos from Facebook accounts and other family members and friends. Then I sat down at a big folding table my husband set up for me in the living room (so I wouldn’t hide) and went through them all. It took me weeks to finish, some days I got numerous pages done and other days I didn’t last 5 minutes but I remembered so many special things and special moments with my Patrick. He was a sweet child, a joy as a teen and a well loved and wonderful man.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. One of my first thoughts this morning (before reading your post), was that I haven’t looked at the photo album for a while. Kind of neat we are sharing the same thoughts at the same time. Anyway, a while ago, I stopped my daily perusal of the photo album because I found that I was carrying around memories of photographs instead of the real memories – the pictures were actually making me forget. So now, I spend more time looking out and around and remembering things that happened in certain spots around the house or around town. I think I want to use the photos as a supplement to memory and not as a substitute.

    “We are leaving him behind.” I hate those words as I know you do. The fading of the experience of my boy is a reality I do not like. But, I am trying to discipline myself to think about this differently: The separation is temporary. The physical body our son occupied was confining, a snapshot, if you will, of all he truly is. Much as a photograph is just an image, the material physical presence of our son along with his will, emotion, and personality as we experienced him, was just a temporary place for him to be. The real, perfected version, with all his potential fulfilled is currently and actually present with the Lord and I will seem him again. He is not gone. He is not even a fading memory because each day brings me closer to seeing my son, my real and actual son, again. And that truth is better and more real than any memory, photo, video or voice recording that I weep over.

    Sorry for the long philosophical ramble. Blessings to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kim ,
      Please don’t apologize for a lengthy comment-you are helping to fulfill my dream for this site. I never wanted it to be a one-way conversation but instead an invitation for discussion and community.

      I always appreciate your wisdom and insight-you never fail to help turn my heart toward things eternal. Thank you, friend.

      I love how you describe our sons’ earthly bodies. That is such a helpful image.

      I can’t wait to see our children in all their eternal glory-what they were here perfected and perfectly redeemed!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you for this beautiful perspective, I miss my sweet baby but every day is one day closer to him and our eternity. Forever in my heart and always on my mind.
      -Donovan Curtis Howard 4/26/2018

      Liked by 2 people

  8. This spoke to my hurting heart. I have the same horrified feeling of leaving Mikal behind in Oct of 2016. His pictures are wonderful but I find myself zooming in to look in his eyes. ….
    I don’t want to create a shrine either, but I can’t put them away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Arlene, You don’t have to put them away. I didn’t. I try to incorporate them into the larger tableau. He does have more photos on the wall than the other kids but they are mixed in. Do the best you can. Blessings, dear one.


    1. Thank you for the encouragement–I have lots of pictures for a photo album but haven’t yet decided how to put them together. I hope one day to write about his life as well. He was an amazing man–did so very much before he died at 23 and impacted so many people. I am honored to be his mama.


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