Founder and Director of Possum Portraits Larissa Reinboth talks about loss, her reasons for starting this project and the extraordinary turn her career has taken by specialising in infant loss portraiture.
by Larissa Reinboth
When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I'm an illustrator. The response I get usually goes something like, "Cool! What sort of illustrations?"
I used to reply almost apologetically that I portray angel babies. I didn't want to confront other people with the topic of loss, and especially not as part of a casual conversation. I thought, how can I just spring such a potentially distressing subject on somebody out of the blue?
When my sister Annika, then a midwife in training in Heilbronn, Germany, suggested in 2018 that I use my artistic talents to draw angel baby portraits for bereaved parents, I was gobsmacked. It's quite the unusual job description, to say the least.
My sister found the existing bereavement care structure in Germany wanting in several ways. For one, she felt that the care offering available to parents should include access to a tender, appropriate and meaningful keepsake.
"There is such a thing as bereavement care?" was my first thought. I myself had suffered a miscarriage in late 2013. Never, from the moment I was told that the foetus was not developing properly and would have to be surgically removed to the moment I was discharged from hospital a few days later had anybody, nurse, support staff or doctor, even so much as asked me how I felt.
My pregnancy was unplanned, and at 25 I didn't feel quite ready for motherhood. Still; something clicked into place as I sat on a hospital bench with my mother after surgery. I had been pregnant an hour ago: and now I wasn't.
I couldn't help the flurry of images that suddenly raced across my mind, as if they all had to quickly pop into being to account for the reality that might have been: all with a nameless baby whose face I could not see.
I recalled spontaneously that my mother, too, had had a miscarriage in between her pregnancies with myself and my brother. All of a sudden, I burst out crying. While I was sobbing into my mother's shoulder, the doctor who had performed my operation happened to walk past us.
He stopped and looked at me with great surprise.
"But what's the matter?!" he said.
"It's all right," my mum told him. "She is sad."
"Oh," replied the doctor and, still looking astonished, simply walked on.
So much for bereavement care.
My mum turned to me and said, "Some people won't understand that one can be sad about these things." As she hugged me, I did not yet have an inkling of how right she was.
Mine was an early-term pregnancy loss, and there would not have been a body to photograph or draw. Even so, I could attest to my sister's intuition that the standard of care was not exemplary. I had myself undergone pregnancy loss and had received not an iota of support from the healthcare system. I had not the faintest idea that any of the emotions I was having were in any way legitimate.
I remember waking up in the recovery room with white compression stockings pulled all the way up to my butt and looking blearily around a bare room. Next to me was a young black woman, who said that she had just lost her twins at 10 weeks. She told me this quite calmly and went back to doing what she was doing.
I remember thinking how strange a coincidence it was that two women who had both just lost their pregnancies should find themselves side by side in the same recovery ward. But of course it wasn't strange.
It happens all the time. In fact I should have inferred the 'normalcy' of pregnancy loss by the complete lack of alarm on the ward: by the sense that for the nurses and doctors, nothing at all out of the ordinary had just happened.
The treatment I had just undergone was no more extraordinary or deserving of specialist care and attention than having a plaster cast put on a broken leg. No one came to ask how I felt, let alone to inform me about existing support services.
But of course pregnancy loss isn't ordinary for the people who experience it.
A New Beginning
After my sister's suggestion and the epiphany that women much, much further along than I must be losing their babies in a climate of similarly lacklustre empathy and concern, I began to research ways of commemorating pregnancy loss. I guessed that portrait drawings would surely be right up there.
Instead I found that hardly anyone offered this service. People who did were few and far between and could often be hard to find. It seemed I had found my niche.
The more babies I drew, and the more heartfelt and sincere gratitude I received from parents, the more I realised how important my work was to them. If a portrait drawing could really alleviate someone's grief and suffering in the way that I was coming to realise it could, it followed that loss portraits should really be viewed as a grief support service with true therapeutic potential. Nowhere I looked could I see any organisation or institution that took this approach.
When my Australian partner and I moved to Melbourne with our 7-month-old daughter in early 2020, I knew I didn't want to carry on my work here in the way I had structured my approach in Germany. I came to feel strongly that loss portraits were a genuine bereavement care offering, and therefore wanted to make the service freely available. This decision was the beginning of Possum Portraits.
The Case for Grief Keepsakes
Grief is a singularly personal matter. A drawing is hence not the keepsake of choice for every parent. Some turn to poetry, music, or value their baby's photographs above all other keepsakes. Some have the need to talk about their feelings frequently, others prefer not to.
Yet enriching the choices available to parents seemed to me an unambiguously positive development.
Photography is not the only commemorative medium available to bereaved parents. It's just that other forms of remembrance are less well known.
If you had asked me 5 years ago what I thought I would be doing today, my answer would certainly not have been, "Drawing angel babies.' But once I started, I became more and more engrossed in the subject matter. Now that I know how much of a difference a portrait can make to a parent, drawing angel babies has become one of the most rewarding endeavours I can think of.
When people now ask me what I do for a living, I say I draw infant loss portraits. It surprised me how, far from being turned off, people engage willingly and with sincere interest into our subsequent conversations. But by being open about what I do I discovered just how many people had personally suffered a loss, or were close to someone who had. This is the power of communication. If we do not discuss loss in the open, we condemn ourselves to suffer silently and in isolation.
The numbers around #pregnancyloss, #stillbirth and #neonataldeath speak for themselves, and are freely available. The thing is, you have to come across the information at some point to be aware of it. Most people do not until they are themselves affected. Who googles 'perinatal death rates' on the off-chance that they find out something incredibly meaningful and socially relevant? Exactly.
If we can manage to converse more openly and freely on the topics of death, loss, and grief, all of society will be better off for our new-found confidence and sense of community. I often think that people who are affected by loss don't talk about it because they don't want to make others feel awkward - and because it hurts too much, especially if your interlocutor is ignorant in handling the topic. People who have not suffered loss avoid the issue for similar reasons: they don't want to make us feel uncomfortable, and don't know what to say.
It is on us to educate them as to the contrary. That it's ok for them not to know what to say: we don't either. In this spirit of opening up conversation and gently increasing visibility of pregnancy loss, I hope that your Possum Portrait can help reclaim the place that is rightfully your baby's: a place in the open, amongst the pictures of all your other treasured memories, and reside in spirit in the warmth and safety of your family home.
If Possum Portraits has helped you on your grief journey and you would like to share your story on our blog, please get in touch by writing us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org