This blog post has weighed heavy on my heart for many months now, and for so many reasons. At it’s core it is a heartbreaking story and one that I really wanted to tell well, because in the end I want it to be a story that tells of Zara’s life and one that honors her memory, and that in itself is a pretty large endeavor. There are so many directions I could go with this story, but in the end what I want to portray is that this sweet little girl lived and was loved, was vibrant and full of life, and her story deserves being told. So, I shall start from the beginning.
Zara Antoinette Shiel was born on July 26, 2013. I had just started streamlining Little Loo Photography into specializing in newborns and had began actively advertising for newborn clients. I was on a much needed vacation in Hawaii with my husband and we had agreed I would not bring work along with us, that we would just relax and enjoy each other’ s company. Towards the end of our trip I received a message from a mom looking for newborn portraits for her new baby. I, as well as many newborn photographers prefer photographing newborns in the first two weeks of life for many reasons, and her baby girl was right on the verge of that time frame when she called. I could have done as I had with a few of the other inquiries I had received and referred them out, but there something in this mama’s voice that just made me want to call her back. So, I called her, we chatted, and we settled on the day after I was to arrive home from our trip. At this point in my photography career I did not have a designated studio (which I have since built out as an extension of our home), and this meant I wouldn’t have time to prep my home and space as well as I usually had in advance of my sessions, and would have to shoot on a weekend when my family was home and risk them coming in and out of the house, but something told me go ahead and just do it!
From the time this beautiful family showed up at my door, we just hit it off. They are just as beautiful on the inside as on the out. We photographed the entire family first, then sibling shots, and then Matt took the boys to the park to play while we continued on with Zara’s newborn session. I love hearing stories of how couples met, and as usual I asked this question of Carla. As she told about how she and Matt had met and started dating her eyes just lit up and a smile spread across her face, it just said so much about their relationship and really stuck in my memory. It has to be one of my favorite couple’s stories, not because of the particulars, but because of Carla's glow as she told the story.
It wasn’t until later that I found out that Carla had not had newborn portraits done of her boys, but something about Zara just really urged her to do so. She also later shared with me that she had chosen me as their newborn photographer because during our initial conversation we also talked about me being a labor and delivery nurse. She felt that Zara would be in safe hands with me! We both shared in subsequent conversations the belief that we were meant to meet and there were too many coincidences in our coming together.
This family is one that makes you just want to be their friend and share in their lives, they just have a way of drawing you in. After their session we became friends on Facebook and kept in contact. I truly enjoyed seeing Zara grow and change in images and brief video clips on their FB page, and seeing the adventures of their adorable little family.
Early last fall Carla contacted me about photographing Zara for her one year session. Of course I was excited! She was a bit behind after a busy summer, but really didn’t want to miss out on a one-year session. Unfortunately, I was booked out for a couple of months and so we settled on the end of October as she really wanted to include the whole family, and wanted to capture some family portraits as well. She already knew the location she wanted to use because it held some sentimentality for her and Matt; a location in Lake Las Vegas where her and Matt had been married. Carla verbalized that she wanted to use this location because she felt this is where her family began and now she felt her family was complete.
I truly love seeing my newborn clients throughout their first year. Seeing their unique little personalities, how much they have changed, and continuing that relationship with their families, just means so much to me. Being a part of such an intimate moment in people’s lives really does make me feel like one of the most privileged and blessed people I know! I get to be a labor and delivery nurse and watch babies come into this world, I get to see big strong men break down as tears stream down their faces with pride watching their child enter this world. I get to watch moms hold their new baby for the first time, and just breathe them in as the most beautiful of love affairs we will ever experience begins. It truly is beautiful. Being a newborn photographer just carries that on even further as families trust me to properly care for their baby and document this stage of life, one that comes and goes and can’t be redone. One that sadly passes all too quickly! Both areas of my professional life are ones that I can’t ever imagine not thoroughly enjoying and being intensely grateful for.
As Zara’s one year session approached my personal life became a bit chaotic. I was involved in a major motor vehicle accident and was left bruised, a bit beaten up, and a whole lot sore the week of their session, but I didn’t want to cancel as I was headed into the busiest time of year for photographers, and coming together with our schedules would be tough. I borrowed my husband’s beat up pick up truck and met them at our location in Lake Las Vegas. It was such a beautiful day and they were already there waiting for me when I arrived. The kids all ran and played and we decided to start with their formal family portraits. I had just finished a few one-year sessions and knew that at this age sessions can go any number of ways. One year olds are busy, easily distracted, and do not particularly like being posed! By the time we were done with the family portraits this is pretty much where Zara was. She wanted to explore, she wanted to play, she wanted to change her shoes (mom told me she was fascinated with shoes), she wanted to carry around a shopping bag with a big bold logo, and just wanted to be busy. After a couple of attempts to sit her on a blanket or in a designated area, it was clear that the best thing to do would be to just capture her being her! So we let her do her thing, and I just did my best to capture her little personality. The funny thing about one year olds is that they tend to be very attached to moms and dads and have developed that ‘stranger danger’ fear. I had just previously photographed a little one year old that didn’t even want me to look at her! Zara on the other hand kept reaching out to me, wanted me to hold her, and was just fascinated with me. It totally melted my heart, and boy was I in heaven! Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have an image of her in my arms that day. Eventually she got a bit fussy and it was clear we were done, we were happy with what we had captured, and so off we went!
Shortly after their session we received word that my father–in-law was hospitalized and kidney cancer was suspected. Over the time period of two weeks of finding out he was sick, he passed away and our world was rocked to its core. We were not prepared to say goodbye. It threw my editing schedule off and there were families that I had to contact to let them know that things would be later than promised, and Zara’s family was one of them. Of course, Carla was super understanding. A week after my father-in-law passed away I was home catching up on work and settling things there. I had just sent Zara’s gallery off to Carla and we talked back and forth a few times. There were a few images of Zara where she really wanted to carry around a shopping bag, and another with food in her mouth (and of course the bag had a big bold logo on it!), they were both adorable but a bit flawed in being perfect portraits. We settled on me removing the logo the best I could and then I re-sent my edits the next morning.
On November 19, 2014 in the early AM, I sent my final version of Zara’s gallery to her family. About midday I awoke from a nap to a voice mail from Matt saying that Zara had passed away. He desperately asked that I send all images I had of Zara, that they really wanted them, needed them, and just needed everything of her that they could hold on to. As Matt told his story his voice remained steady and calm, and I could tell he was just in auto pilot mode. I asked how Carla was and at this point in the conversation his voice broke.
Matt went on to tell me that Zara had a doctor’s appointment the day before, just her normal well baby visit and had received her scheduled 15 month immunizations. The next morning she was found dead in her crib. It was unimaginable, unthinkable and heart-wrenching. I couldn’t even fathom it. Of course I sent everything that I had to them right away.
After sitting with my own family before my father-in-law’s funeral going through boxes of pictures grasping them for comfort, for something physical to remember him by, I knew exactly where they were coming from. I have always known that if there were a catastrophe, my images of my children and family would be the first things I grabbed (after my own kiddos and pets, of course). This all just drove this home. Life is unpredictable, life is tragically short, and it is not always fair. The small moments, the captured connections, those personality traits, and details, those are the things that matter. These are the things that cannot be replaced with work hours, money, or maybe-laters.
I lay awake at night wondering how this family was navigating through this horrible nightmare, how do you go on living after a tragic event like this? How do you put your healthy baby girl to bed at night and wake up the next day to life without her?
My usual workflow includes documenting all sessions on my blog and I really wanted to do whatever honored and helped this family in any way. I wanted Zara’s memory to live on, I wanted everyone to know what a beautiful, vibrant, loved, and full of life little girl Zara was. I knew I needed to talk to Carla, and I finally had a one on one conversation with her over the phone. She told the story of holding Zara on her lap after her doctor’s appointment as she experienced symptoms so many parents see after immunizations. Sweet little Zara had a fever and was a bit fussy. Carla checked her injection sites and noticed nothing odd or off, and so held her as she looked through the images that I had sent her, we texted back and forth about her images. She put her to bed as she normally does and the family settled in for the night. Little did they know that life would never be the same for them. When they awoke in the morning, they awoke to every parent’s worst nightmare, Zara had passed away during the night. I have served as our hospital’s bereavement coordinator for the past 9 years, but at the time we spoke, I felt I needed to just listen, to just let her tell her story and there would be time to share that later. It was later that I shared my role in the bereavement community, and we once again both felt it was much more than coincidence that brought us together.
As Carla talked I could hear the agony in her voice, the questions she so desperately needed answered. She clung to the hope that Zara’s autopsy would shed light on the cause of her death. She expressed her greatest fear being that they would rule it SUDC (Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood). We decided to wait until autopsy results were obtained before sharing her story on my blog, so that we could link my post to whatever organization they wanted to donate to. She wondered how a healthy, happy baby girl could pass away less than 24 hours of receiving vaccinations without there being some sort of link or underlying health condition.
Unfortunately, it took more than 3 months to receive Zara’s autopsy results. They navigated their way through their first Christmas and holiday season without a member of their family, they focused on their boys and making sure they were receiving the help they needed. They called and checked in with the coroner frequently in hopes that they would receive the official autopsy results soon. Finally those results came and their worst nightmare had come true. The official cause of death for Zara was listed as ‘undetermined’. It came as a huge blow for this family. There was not a cardiac condition or underlying health problem that could explain Zara’s death. From the early days of Zara’s passing a fund was created to help with whatever cause or organization would help prevent this from happening to another family. From the beginning this was a desire of this family, to help another family never have to live a life without their child, from never having to endure the pain they are feeling. To this date this family believes the death of their baby girl was caused by these vaccinations, and will continue to pursue the path of discovering and working as hard as they can to bring awareness, and prevent cases like this in the future. The organization that the Shiel family would like to support is NVIC.org (National Vaccine Information Center). Their hope is that increased awareness could save another child's life.
As I struggled coming up with a theme or title for this post the word ‘shift’ just kept coming to my mind. I have discovered throughout my own life that no matter how much you plan and desire a certain path in life, there are events that shake you to your core and these life paths can be shifted in a whole new and unexpected direction. There are many people in my life that I believe were placed there for reason, whose lives have become interwoven with mine. I feel this way about Zara and her family. I believe I need to be a part of telling her story, I need to help her memory live on, and hopefully help ensure that this does not happen to another family. I feel blessed and privileged that I got to be a part of Zara’s life while here on this earth.