Every family that I photograph has a special place in my heart. Many of them are friends or acquaintances, and every session is a chance to catch up on their lives and see how they are doing. I look forward to getting to know my clients, and really do enjoy my time with them. But every now and then, there is a special family that pulls at my emotions and charges the air around me with the depth of their devotion.

The Hortons were referred to me by a friend of mine who is also a photographer, but doesn't shoot people! (Thanks, Brian!) I didn't know a lot about them before our session, but by the time we finished with our shoot, I felt such a connection with this beautiful family.

When Sheena and Josh arrived with their four (5) children for our session, I felt like I had been transported to a J. Crew catalog shoot. They looked amazing in their black and white outfits - so sophisticated and picture-perfect. I couldn't wait to get them in front of my camera! They are a photographer's dream.

As we were walking to our location, I noticed that the kids carried a very well-loved teddy bear.

Sheena smiled at me and said, "This is Bear. He goes with us to every photo session. We lost one of our sons, and Bear takes his place in pictures."

I'm a mom. And I had to work really hard not to get too emotional to be able to do my job right then.

While I didn't know Cade's story at the time I wrapped up their session, Sheena and I corresponded back and forth afterward. With her permission, here is their story:

Cade died suddenly - unexpectedly - at 2 years of age. As Sheena said, "Cade was here one day, gone the next." Sheena and Josh were suddenly confronted with the ravaging loss of their firstborn child while caring for his twin Drew and their baby brother Gage. Statistics say that couples who experience the death of a child have a steep divorce rate - as much as 90%. Sheena told me that if it hadn't been for the advice of a wise friend who had gone through what they had, they may have fallen victim to that statistic as well. They didn't want Cade's life to become defined as the reason that their family had fallen apart, so they were gentle with one another, and allowed each other to grieve in the ways that they needed to.

You can see that Sheena and Josh are so in love. Love emanates from them in a way that only two people who have gone through something incredibly painful can experience. While they emerged scarred and weary from the pain, and they know that the pain will always be with them, they also radiate hope and happiness.

Sheena and Josh went on to have two more children, and they are the kind of parents we all need to be - involved, caring, and so loving. Their little ones are incredibly close - they held hands without prompting during most of our session, and each one of them hugged me and thanked me after we were done. This family doesn't take anything for granted. 

Sheena had some insight for friends and family who are trying to be there for someone who has lost a child:

"We definitely had those people who suddenly went missing in our lives. Most of them were friends of ours that also had children and they reacted as if losing a child might be contagious.  We had those people who couldn't let there just be silence...... they had to give a reason for why it happened, try to console us and say Drew wouldn't even remember, they would say Cade was better off in heaven and that we wouldn't want him back here on this imperfect earth. WRONG! I did.... I wanted him back!

But, then there were those friends that just showed up and let us talk about Cade as much or as little as we wanted to. (We wanted to tell stories about him ALL the time. We were afraid people would start to forget our special boy) These friends told us they were sorry, hugged us and just offered us their love and presence."

"Now, when I deal with someone who has dealt with a loss of a loved one I tell them I'm TRULY sorry and make myself available for whenever they do want to talk or share stories about their loved one and let them know that I  love them and that person will NEVER be forgotten. Also, that there is never ONE right way to grieve and thoughts you might have during that time are rarely that rational and that does not make them crazy. Grief itself is not rational....... its grief!"

While the Hortons have experienced such deep sadness, their family is also a testament to the enduring power of love and faith. A little tattered teddy-bear passed among the gentle hands of Cade's siblings told me this story - Love is truly stronger than death.

Thank you Josh, Sheena, Drew, Gage, Nash and Gentry (and Bear) for sharing so much of your life with me. You do honor to Cade's memory through your devotion to your family, and I'll be your photographer for as long as you'll have me.