Like many parents, my favourite moments are when I get to share photos of my daughter, Violet, who was born two years ago. You could call it ‘sharenting’ (using social media to rave about your own children), but it makes me so happy to show people photos of her face and her tiny body in a hand-made outfit.
However, for me, posting a photo on social media isn’t simple — because the only photos I have of Violet were taken on the day she was born, still but perfect. I gave birth when I was 23 weeks pregnant after learning that our daughter had a life-limiting condition. Our first (and last) photos of Violet are not like other parents with their firstborn; the love is there but so is the grief, of welcoming a child who isn’t breathing.
When I returned home from the hospital, only one person asked me if they could see a photograph of Violet. For everyone else, I had to ask them first if it was okay to share her photos with them. I could see how uncomfortable it made them to have to even process that question as if sharing my love of my beautiful little girl should also come with a trigger warning.
I’ll never forget one person — a family friend — saying she wasn’t “as scary-looking” as they thought she would be. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just awkwardly smiled. I don’t want to upset people but I also want to acknowledge my daughter, just like any other mother.
I remember the first time I saw a photo of another person’s stillborn baby on social media. At the time (pre-Violet), part of me judged them: it seemed morbid and I wondered why they wanted to share something so private, publicly.
Fast forward a few years and add in my own experiences, and I have a completely different perspective. Now when I see a photo of someone else’s stillborn baby I feel honoured that they are allowing me to see their baby, that they are sharing some of their most treasured and only memories with me and the world.
Four months ago, I gave birth to our second child, born through IVF. It’s only now that I realise the different attitudes to ‘sharenting’ when it comes to a living and a lost child. I have exactly 108 photos of my daughter Violet and only one person ever asked me if they could see a photo of her.
In my son’s four months of life, not a week has gone by without someone asking me to see a picture of him. They are quick to tell me how beautiful he is, and whether he looks like me or my husband. It is a stark reminder that sharing photos of my daughter isn’t as socially acceptable. We do not live in a society that is very comfortable with death, even though so many of us are dealing with some kind of grief.
When my son was born I hesitated to share his images on social media too but for a different reason. I didn’t think anyone would judge me but I questioned whether I wanted to share him with the world when I wasn’t comfortable to share his sister. I was also incredibly conscious of not upsetting those who have experienced their own loss or those who are struggling with infertility. All thoughts I have no doubt wouldn’t have existed if my first baby was born alive.
So, what is my advice for how to respond to a friend or family members’ pictures of their stillborn baby? I can only speak from my own experience and personal preference. But I would ask the person who has lost a baby if they are sharing their pictures and if they are let them know you would love to see them. Most parents will get sore fingers from scrolling to find you the most adorable one.
If you find yourself privileged enough to be shown an image of someone’s stillborn baby, my best piece of advice is to react like you would if they showed you their living children. Acknowledge how cute their little mouth is; comment on who they look like; let their parents know that you also think they are beautiful.
I still remember the first time someone told me they loved Violet’s button nose, I felt like my entire body lit up with pride.
Meagan Donaldson is the author of Still a Mum: a Story of Modern Grief and Life after Loss. Follow her @Violets_gift.