Dana Brennan Duffney walks into the hospital room and introduces herself to the new parents. She asks their baby's name, remarks on the shape of his lips and his tiny, perfect hands. Then she quietly begins the work she's there to do: capture images of the first — and also the last — day his parents will hold him. Duffney's photos will be among the few keepsakes they will have of their son, a beautiful testament to his brief but precious life. "The least we can give families suffering a loss like this is pictures," she says.
Over the past dozen years, Duffney has taken bereavement photos for countless families who have lost children. "If I can do anything to make their healing a little smoother, if I can help in any way to lighten their burden, I want to do it," she tells us. "I want to capture a story and give them something to cherish."
She's not alone. Two years ago, Duffney, a desk operations specialist at Mayo Clinic, launched Gentle Wings, a nonprofit dedicated to providing free bereavement photography sessions to families who have lost infants. The organization has grown to include nine additional volunteer photographers, all of whom share a quality Duffney considers essential to the job: "I want gentle people to come in as photographers," she tells us. Other volunteers work behind the scenes, creating angel gowns out of donated wedding dresses and promoting Gentle Wings at community events.
In addition to bereavement sessions, the organization provides photos to families who have children in the neonatal intensive care unit, those who are facing life-threatening illnesses, and those receiving hospice care. It's a labor of love for Duffney and the other shutterbugs, all of whom share a commitment to honoring difficult but important milestones through photos. "We capture the emotions, the tears and hugs that show how much a child was loved," she says. "I get goosebumps every time I enter a room."
That was the case when she photographed Avery and Ainsley Reps in the NICU at Mayo Clinic Children's Hospital. "I didn't think we'd be able to get newborn pictures," their mother, Rachel Reps, says. She had expected to have to wait until the twins were released from the hospital to have professional photos taken. Then a nurse told Rachel that Gentle Wings would be offering photo shoots. She immediately signed up for a session.
The twins, born 12 weeks before their due date, were 10 days old the day Duffney photographed them. The session marked the first time the infants were taken out of their incubators and placed together since they were in the womb. "It was really emotional," Rachel says. "These were our first family pictures. Avery and Ainsley got to be reunited. Both of them happened to be awake. It was very sweet and really special to us."
It was special to Duffney as well. "It was so heartwarming to see," she says. Moments like that come frequently in her work with Gentle Wings, and have profoundly impacted her perspective. "Taking these photos has taught me the value of life," Duffney tells us. "It's reminded me to be grateful. Every day is a gift."
You can learn more about Gentle Wings, including how to request services or become a volunteer, on their website. You can also follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Then give us a gift by leaving a comment below before using the social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.