‘I wanted his spirit in the photos’: Son who died of cancer included in family photos

One month shy of his ninth birthday, Jodi Parent’s son, Cole, passed away after a year-long fight with brain cancer. Three years later, Parent and an Edmonton photographer have found a unique way to honour his memory, while celebrating the birth of a new child.

“He passed away December 27th of 2012…so we thought we were done having kids,” said Parent, whose daughter, Makenna, was born a few years after Cole.

“We had a perfect family–boy, girl—then this happened. It’s still emotional.”

Parent said she and husband, Ted, felt for Makenna, who no longer had her brother in her life. They decided to try to have another baby to “bring some joy back.” Parent said it took three rounds of IVF (in vitro fertilization) in Calgary for her to get pregnant. Then, Isla was born in Edmonton just over two weeks ago.

The family wanted to do a newborn photo shoot, and Parent asked local photographer Natalie D’Aoust about incorporating Cole.

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“I took an old photo they had taken shortly before he died, and just basically took him from that photo, and placed it inside the new photo of the family when they came to get their newborn photos taken,” said D’Aoust. “They wanted a picture of all three children together—the way they’re meant to be.”

Makenna, baby Isla, and the spirit of Cole featured in the work of Edmonton photographer Natalie D’Aoust.

Parent said the family is “amazed” by the photos, and couldn’t put into words what it’s meant to her. D’Aoust said the response to her Facebook post of the photos has been powerful, with families in similar situations reaching out to her.

Dr. Leeat Granek is a health psychologist in the department of public health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who studies grief. She said photography of the dead is not a new phenomenon: in the Victorian era, people used to photograph the dead and wear the photos in lockets.

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“What is different today is that the photograph is being passed around on Facebook. But that is just the medium—it’s not the message,” Granek said. “Even today, many people photograph their dead—stillborn babies, for example, are often photographed in hospitals before they are buried.”

D’Aoust said she didn’t want Cole to look exactly like the other family members in the portrait.

“He is gone, but I wanted his spirit to be in the photos, so I changed the way Cole looks…more like a spirit.”

Granek said these photos seem to reflect the experience of this family’s grief, that their son is still with them “in some capacity, even if in the background.”

“If those photos are displayed on Facebook or inside the home, it also gives the family a chance to talk about their loved one and to share in memories of their child,” she said.

Granek noted there is no right or wrong way to grieve on social media or otherwise.

“Grieving rituals are what they are: ways to commemorate the dead, cope with the painful feelings of grief, ways to keep memories alive, and a way to seek connection and social support from others. It seems the photos achieve all of these aims and for this particular family, that is helpful.”

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She noted grieving is an intensely painful experience, and that people do the best they can to live with the pain.

“Losing a child in particular, is one of the most painful and difficult experiences a person can go through,” Granek said. “Whatever helps them live with that pain and works for them should not be judged.”

Parent said everyone who knows her knows how much the photos have meant to her, and have been very supportive.

“You never get over something like this, but it helps me move on. So to have him on my wall again like that, it’s going to be–for everybody–therapeutic.”

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