family photo

It’s been three years since we’ve taken a family picture and no, I didn’t just forget to take one.

The truth is, I really didn’t want to take one.

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Our last family picture was August 2012, three months before my son unexpectedly died from Leigh’s Disease, a progressive genetic disease that is terminal.

We had no idea our son was so close to dying. But three months later, after an infection that weakened him severely, his little body gave out on October 5, 2012.

After that, I could not bring myself to take another family picture.  A new picture would remind me of the painful truth: He was not here anymore.

Though I know my son is in heaven, finally healed, it does not take away the pain that we are separated.

This separation is what grieves me. A new picture, without my son, would only remind me of that fact.

People forget that family pictures are supposed to represent the people we love the most, gathered together in a moment of time.

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Grief and the Family Photo

From the time we were kids, we planned what our families looked like. We planned how many children we would have and what kind of house we would live in. As a child, my imagined family picture always looked like a photo shoot from the JC Penney catalog. Perfect. Happy. Beautiful.

But what happens when our family picture doesn’t look like we planned?  What do we do when we are a single mom, or a grief stricken parent, or a family caught in the midst of cancer?

What happens when we don’t look like the happy, perfect family?

If you’ve been in the trenches, like our family, you know what I’m talking about.

We mourn the family we don’t have.  We’re grief stricken over the loss of what our family picture should have looked like.

So we avoid dealing with the real problem: Accepting the picture of our family as it is now, because it will never live up to the imagined family picture we had planned.  

Documenting our journey through the valley makes us uncomfortable. So we avoid a picture of how our family has been changed by grief, loss, brokenness or disease.

And if you’re like me, you’ve avoided the family picture because it’s hard to look at a picture without intensely missing your loved one. This void is a huge problem for you. A picture only reminds you of this every time you look at it.   

If you’ve felt the same way–if you’ve been in the valley and faced suffering–it’s okay not to take a family picture.  

It’s okay to say, “My family is incomplete and I can’t face a new family picture without my loved one.”

It’s okay to wait.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

As you can tell, I’m not real sympathetic towards advice-givers who advocate a “get back in the saddle” attitude when it comes to loss. You don’t need to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” either (another metaphor I detest).  You need to heal.

There’s no way to rush that process. You’ll know when you’re ready.

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So after three years of no family pictures, I hit a turning point: Our adoption process required a family photo book with–you’ve guessed it–family pictures.

Around the same time, I received a message from our family photographer who took the last pictures of Silas before he died saying,

“Would you like some current photos to put in your family photo album for your adoptive process? I’d be glad to meet you guys somewhere and get some beautiful, candid shots that tell the story of how tangible the love is between you guys.”

I knew this was the nudge I needed.

So we went to the park just down from our house on a bright, sunny Saturday. Our photographer, Heather, was so sensitive about the whole situation. She encouraged us to bring a memento of Silas for the pictures.

Because we are, apparently, not willing to compromise on mementos, we ended up bringing a bunch. You know those senior portraits with a dozen achievements, including the letter jacket, staged around the smiling graduate?  Yeah, that almost was us. But we narrowed it down to  three and only one was noticeably visible. The hidden memories are for us, but here are all three.

The obvious one; His sweet face, captured at our last photo shoot.

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Although you can’t see it, I’m wearing a necklace with a picture of my children.  Here’s a peek.

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And finally, my son’s train, hidden in my daughter’s hand. family photo 9Though it will never be the same as having my son there, the photo shoot wasn’t nearly as hard as I imagined.  I had given myself time to heal, and we honored our son’s memory in the process. Those two things are key in the first pictures after loss.

Our family picture will always be missing our son.  But in the end, we learned to live with our new, if incomplete, family picture. 

Part of healing is realizing your not-how-you-imagined family picture is a snapshot of life now.  

It’s incomplete and broken, but underneath, there’s a hope that perseveres despite the deepest of griefs. Someday we’ll be together again. The greatest family reunion ever.


None of these pictures would be possible without the beautiful work of Heather Bleeke at Handpainted Photography by Heather. She has been so wonderful to work with and her photos are a treasure to us. Don’t underestimate the power of a good photographer who is able to capture your spirit and situation so sensitively.  We are so grateful for her gift.


15 Comments on Grief and the Family Photo: The story behind our first family pictures since our son died

  1. Sarah, this was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your heart. I have felt some of the same emotions and feelings. I will forever imagine our daughter in our pictures and still struggle internally with the question of “how many kids do you have?”

    Praying for you and your family on this journey!
    Shannon (Wilson) hartman

    • Shannon, it’s good to hear from you. I have struggled with this question too. It’s so awkward and so cathartic to say I have two kids. If it makes that person feel uncomfortable, so be it. But there are times it just makes things more complex too, like in brief conversations with strangers you know you might never see again. I like acknowledging he is my son and always will be. So I try not to avoid it. But there’s no way to get around the awkwardness.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Sara, God is healing you and in the process you are helping to heal others! I thought of two key passages when I read this that have meant a lot to me in the last few years: 2 Cor. 1:3-5 and Isaiah 43:18-19. Christ is restoring everything and everyone to Himself!

  3. Our oldest daughter, age 15, died suddenly last month from an unknown heart condition. We have a family picture from vacation just a week or so before that, and I’ve wondered how we will face the next one. I love the idea of holding a picture. Thanks for that visual. She was a 5’9″ ballerina, taller than me or my husband, so out pictures will be VERY visually different since our other four children are all shorter. We may have to hold her picture up high! Lots of deep breaths and resting in our Savior. 🙂

    • I’m so sorry Laurena for your loss! The grief is so fresh where you are at now. Your daughter’s picture, held high, would be a great way to honor her memory. Many hugs your way as you journey through this. Please stay in touch.

  4. First let me say I am sorry for your loss. I know it has been some time since this post but grief comes and goes like waves.

    I lost my daughter on March 15, 2015 and i have finally gotten the strength to do a family photo without her. I want to thank your and your family’s for your inspiration. And my prayers are with you all! ❤️

  5. Thank you Nikesha! I am so sorry for the loss of your daughter. It is hard to do that first family picture. I think everyone is ready at a different time. Even so, we did another family picture last year, our second without our son, and I was still aware that he was gone. I guess you never forget that someone is missing from your family. Thank you so much for sharing a little piece of your story. It is good to know we are not alone.

  6. Thank you, Sara, for sharing your heart and story. Grieving is a process and a journey. It brings a smile to my face and tears to my eyes when I think of Jeff and Silas dancing together in Heaven.

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