When Susana Butterworth, 23, a student at Washington State University Tri-Cities, and her husband Dallin discovered that the son she was carrying had trisomy 18, they decided to do everything they could to celebrate him.
Genetic testing and a highly detailed ultrasound identified physical markers of trisomy 18, which included clenched fists, rocker bottom feet, a strawberry-shaped head, brain cysts, and a congenital diaphragmatic hernia that pushed his stomach into his chest cavity and displaced his heart to the right side. Knowing his medical challenges, Butterworth dedicated herself to her son and borrowed a home doppler from a friend so she and her husband could listen to their son’s heartbeat every night.
“I wanted all of the memories I had with my son to be good ones,” Butterworth says.
Around 35½ weeks, Butterworth noticed that her son had stopped moving as much. She and her midwife decided to induce within the next few days to give the parents a chance to meet their son alive and share precious moments with him. “I could just tell that he wasn’t going to make it to full-term,” she explains.
Sadly, they did not get that chance. The following day, the expectant mother could no longer find her son’s heartbeat. They were given the news at the hospital that their son had passed away. The experience of getting an ultrasound — something Butterworth had looked forward to during her whole pregnancy as a way to see her baby boy — became an entirely different experience, as the screen revealed her son was not moving. Butterworth and her husband were heartbroken and made the decision to deliver immediately.
Their son, Walter Thomas Butterworth, was born still at 11:52PM on March 8, 2017.
“[He was] more perfect than I had imagined,” says Butterworth. “He had lots of hair and this cute button nose that I loved to look at in the ultrasounds. He was laid to rest next to his great-grandma Sue on March 11, 2017.”
After her son’s death, Butterworth channeled her grief into a special photo series she developed, called the Empty Photo Project. Her photos feature parents who have experienced a child loss, displaying their sorrow with powerful images that show the emptiness their loss has left behind.
“As a photographer and artist, I naturally wanted to turn my experience in losing my son into something meaningful,” Butterworth explains. “I noticed after the funeral, a lot of my friends and even some family members didn’t know how to address my grief and pain. In short, they didn’t know how to face child loss.”
The photos, which she features on both her Instagram and website, aim to put a spotlight on loss and to be shocking in a way that forces the viewer to recognize it, rather than shy away from it. Loss is a part of so many people’s lives that means different things to different people. The most important lesson Butterworth hopes to convey through her images is that it’s OK to talk about it.
Her photos feature stories of those who have experienced loss, describing what “empty” means to them. Images of the empty space left behind are then captured by a special circular mirror Butterworth uses. Butterworth herself takes the photos and visits each subject to hear their story and help them choose a location that is meaningful to them.
The process of taking the photo is a deeply intense and personal one. Butterworth encourages the participant to talk about their loss, describe their loved one, and not shy away from any emotion they are feeling. Each subject is encouraged to hold the mirror as they may have held their loved one. At the height of that emotional process is when Butterworth snaps the photo.
The stories Butterworth has featured include everything from mothers of babies born still, infants born with terminal conditions, miscarriage, and the loss that can occur with adoption. Each story is different and conveys the participant’s personal definition of what “empty” can look like on the outside.
For Butterworth, the meaning of “empty” has evolved as she continues her own grief journey through this photo project.
“‘Empty’ means so much more to me [now] than it did when I first started this project,” she says. “‘Empty’ means filling the void of loss with connection and people that I love. ‘Empty’ means remembering that my wounds of losing my son aren’t covered up and forgotten; they are praised, loved, and worthy of showing. ‘Empty’ means that I have the knowledge and experience to be a caring and compassionate woman to others who know what empty feels like.”
Butterworth hopes that her photo project will allow those who have experienced loss to be able to share their stories. Additionally, she hopes to help educate those who have not experienced loss to learn to listen, even when it’s hard.
“I wish that people would just listen and not speak when someone is grieving,” she says. “Grieving individuals want to be heard, they want to heal and most importantly they want their deceased loved one to be remembered. If we learn to listen and be present, those around us who have lost a loved one would feel connected and learn to heal without feeling like they are alone.”
Butterworth will be giving a TEDx talk at TEDxRichland on September 16, 2017. Her talk will be livestreamed and made available following the event.
Follow Susana’s Empty Photo Project on Instagram for more information.