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The Story of Three Little Birds - Creating community from loss

Pictured (left to right) Three Little Birds Co-Founders Brent & Kristen Samuelson and Desiree Miller at the 2021 Wave of Light ceremony honoring Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Day.

As we enter our 7th year of providing support to families experiencing pregnancy and infant loss, we want to share with you the story of our founding and friendship. Our goal is to build a safe community for families to explore their grief, connect with others, create a legacy in their baby's memory while helping us #shatterhtestigma of pregnancy and infant loss. Below is our story.

When Kristen met Desireeby Kristen Samuelson

After emerging from the dense fog of grief six months after my loss, I knew I needed to find something or someone (ANYONE!) who had been through this god-awful, life-altering, tragic experience. I came across a staggering statistic that I, myself, had become. I was the one-in-four women who lose a much-wanted baby. No matter how alone I felt, I now knew that I wasn’t. Before my experience, I had only heard about this happening to a handful of family members and friends…and none of them spoke openly about it.

After working through that initial heavy grief, which made even the easiest of tasks super complicated, I finally felt like I had part of my brain back. That’s when my path to healing, and finding Desiree, started via Google. I sat at my laptop for hours, searching terms like “pregnancy and infant loss Philadelphia or South Jersey”. Unfortunately, very little came up in the way of support. I knew I wasn’t ready for an actual support group at that point, but I sure as hell knew I needed a friend.

Through my searching, I came across a website for a national organization that dispatches volunteer photographers to capture memory making and bonding when babies pass away. I was immediately overwhelmed, and stunned, that neither I nor the hospital was aware of this service. Looking back, my heart tells me that at the time, I probably would have rejected the offer. However, through my three-day ordeal losing my daughter to stillbirth, I know my family would have talked me into it. It would have been the best gift we could have been given. My husband and I would have tangible memories of our family, even if surrounded by tragedy. I cried, realizing what could have been, and what I could never have. Next, I got angry!

I reached out to the organization and immediately signed up to be a volunteer. With my professional experience, they named me the Area Coordinator for the Philadelphia/South Jersey region. My volunteer responsibilities included coordinating coverage from regional hospitals, as well as recruiting and training photographers. Since I was so eager to make sure every family was offered the service I so desperately wish I had. I felt that even if they declined, it was ok, just knowing they had been given the opportunity. I quickly emailed every photographer in the area, begging them to consider training to volunteer their time helping families like mine.

Out of 75+ emails, I only received three responses. The first person told me politely to buzz off, the second replied they were excited about the volunteer position, but knew it wasn’t for them. The third response was from Desiree Miller.

Hi, I’ve been doing these sessions for almost 10 years now. I need help. Let’s meet up!”, she replied.

I remember that warm spring afternoon when we first met for lunch. My heart was racing, wondering if I would fall into a ball of tears when talking about my babies. Yet, I was also excited to finally connect with someone who could help fill my mind, time and heart in the aftermath of my stillbirth and ectopic pregnancy, which both nearly took my life.

And there we were at Panera, sitting outside having lunch on that lovely spring day. I was ready with my notebooks, pens and print outs. I had questions, plans, and so many ideas. I wanted to know everything about the work she had been doing and how I could help her. As soon as we set our plates down, I immediately opened my notes to start asking her a plethora of questions. That’s precisely the time she closed my notes, looked me in the eyes and said…

“No, stop. We will get to that. Tell me about Jimmie and Chloe.”

And then the part I was worried about, happened, and I fell into a puddle of the tears. But the tears weren’t because I was afraid of sharing, but rather because I was being asked about my babies. It was something no one else had done before.

“Tell me about your baby.” Unless you are a loss parent, you probably have no idea what a GIFT that is. And here it was, coming from a stranger.

I don’t remember what I said or shared, but I know she listened, not just with her ears, but with her eyes and heart. She knew when to listen, when to ask questions and when to touch my hand in support. Then she probably made an inappropriate joke, which is what made me fall in love with her. And after that, we laughed; something I hadn’t done in so long!

We discussed her volunteer work and what she had done for nearly 175 families like mine. I was in awe of her. I knew what it was like being in that bed. Traumatized. Exhausted. I didn’t know how she could go into a room like mine and keep herself together.

“Yes, you can, and I’ll teach you!” she said. “I’ll let you know when there is another session request and if you are available, you can come and assist me.”

I left feeling so…..seen, heard and validated. For the first time since losing our babies, I felt SOMETHING. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I could ever do what she did. But I liked the thought of helping others more than just coordinating their photography sessions. And then, a few weeks later, she reached out. “There is a family that needs us. Are you ready?”

I remember the adrenaline kicking in. I jumped in the car and rushed to the hospital to meet her. I had no idea what I was going to do to help. I didn’t know if seeing another baby who passed away, would trigger me. I just….went. I remember walking through the door, it was so surreal.

Watching Desiree work with this family….so gentle, so confident and everyone was responding so well to her! It was so sad to see the parents hold their first born differently than they had imagined, but the love in the room was the feeling that I left with. Grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles all surrounded this family, doing what Desiree was guiding them to do. I watched as Desiree held, talking to and loved on this baby, allowing the family to naturally follow suit. I remember being so paralyzed in fear through my personal experience but seeing this was…amazing. I don’t remember what I did that day, other than help Desiree with posing and props. It all happened so fast and before I knew it, we were walking out. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I couldn’t believe how the family was so open to her. Would I have reacted the same?

“How was that for you?”, she questioned after we left. I honestly didn’t have the words. I was so humbled yet so amazed. I was incredibly sad for the family, yet happy they took the services. I was also sad for myself that I never got that opportunity for my family. But it was the closest I had felt to my babies since I lost them. The feeling was indescribable. I thought I would be triggered but instead, I was completely inspired and empowered.

And from there, we worked as a team, covering sessions at nearly a dozen regional facilities. We focused on recruiting photographers who would also be able to give this amazing gift to families like mine. For about two years, we served nearly 75 family’s bedside. This experience afforded us a network of professionals who also saw the value of these services and contacting us several times a month for support.

One day, I texted Desiree and asked, “What if we started our own organization? One that was specific to the needs of our community here in Philadelphia/South Jersey.” I knew we could do more if we were working by our own rules and providing bona fide updated resources. Our plan would ensure families had immediate access to peer-led support and a person to reach out to, so they don’t feel alone. To this day, there continues to be a lack of peer-led support within most healthcare systems. Many of the families we had served were reaching out to us for the support they needed, but couldn’t find.

After hearing the plans, she said “Sure!” And just like that, Three Little Birds was born.

With my marketing background and her role as a professional photographer/small business owner, we made a plan. We had no idea what we were doing but we knew there was a need, and we could fill it.

Our goal was to create a nest of support within the pregnancy and infant loss community. It all starts by simply asking bereaved parents one question…” Tell me about your baby”. And while our original plan looks NOTHING like it did when we started, it’s because we are so much more than we ever dreamed.

Providing the gifts of validation and support has also paved the way for other loss families to find inspiration and healing, in their baby’s memory. We met several of our families at a time they felt the most broken, vulnerable and hopeless. Now, these same families are hosting fundraisers, going bedside to support others or running support groups specific to their interests or personal journey. They are healing their hearts through helping others. Three Little Birds is a nest of support, created by a community of strangers who connect through the deepest wounds in their heart…and what has grown from that is something that has been beyond our wildest dreams. The upcoming year is looking even more exciting.

When I met Desiree that fateful afternoon, she was a complete and utter stranger. When I left, I felt like I had a friend. Years later, I have a business partner and (hopefully!) life partner in advocacy. I am so grateful I went to lunch that day. I’m an introvert by nature and was grieving so much that I almost cancelled. I am so glad I didn’t!

When I asked her if she would consider developing a perinatal bereavement training program, taking years of our stories and experiences, to EMPOWER medical professionals supporting loss families, she agreed. And now, we get to give that gift two-fold: to the parents we are called on to support, and to the medical professionals caring for them during those precious and delicate moments. The response from both the professionals and advocates trained through our scholarship program has been tremendously overwhelming, which tells us we are on the right path. Unfortunately, the community we have created, continues to grow. The support is needed now more than ever.

Desiree, thank you for meeting me the day I needed a friend the most, for inspiring me to be of service to others and helping to create a community for families walking this journey.

When Desiree met Kristen – By Desiree Miller

When I sat down to write my meeting Kristen, I realized that she already filled you in on the story. Perhaps I should back up then and explain a little more about my journey and what brought me here today.

In 2005, I been married for six years, and my children were five and three. I was working part time in the local hospital’s Emergency Room, after previously working in the ICU at a different facility. I loved the fast pace of a critical care setting and wanted to be more than a Unit Secretary; I wanted to be a nurse. So, I pursued my degree, still working and being a mom. Taking you back a few years prior, I was gifted a beautiful film camera and realized that I really loved portrait photography. The next Christmas, I upgraded to my first professional digital camera and was hooked. Friends started asking for sessions for their own children, hence my first portrait business was born! My poor husband. He worked every day 5a-5p, came home to the kids so many nights and weekends because I was either working, photographing, in school or studying. It wasn’t working for us, so he asked me to please decide what I wanted to continue doing: photography or work/school. I, too, knew it wasn’t fair to continue this way, so my decision was to pursue photography (hence making my own hours, staying home with the kids, etc) and volunteer my time in the hospital. I knew nursing was a wonderful, well-paying career, but I was blessed to be able to choose to do something I loved.

Come 2006, I was officially a stay-at-home mama with a budding portrait business. I began looking for a way to still be in the hospital, utilizing the skills I had gained over the years, both medically and photographically. That’s when I found an organization to volunteer with. I would be photographing babies for families who would never get to take their child home. It sounds weird to say it, but I was excited to start. There were no other photographers local to me who I could go and “shadow” or learn from, and it was hard spreading the word to hospitals all alone, but over time it happened. I was being called on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, family birthdays….. and all the while, my husband always encouraged me to go and help the family. He somehow understood the importance of what I was doing and never made me feel guilty. (Thank you, Brad Miller. I love you!)

About 10 years later, I got the email from Kristen, asking me if I would volunteer my time with the organization she represented. “Volunteer my time? Girl, I have 175 sessions on my log. I feel like I’ve been doing this alone forever! You want to help? Yeah, let’s go!”, I said.

At that initial meeting, yes, we discussed how to get other photographers involved. More importantly, we discussed the vast lack of resources for these families. I knew every time I left a family’s room, I was giving them photos, but I wasn’t able to make a difference in their lives further than that. I had no guide to provide them on what to do next or where to seek more help. The hospitals back then tried, but the sum of what they were giving them amounted to a fabric lined box with hand/footprints and a teddy bear, as well as a white photocopied sheet for Funeral Homes. I cannot tell you how much I HATED leaving them, knowing this.

When Kristen mentioned starting Three Little Birds Perinatal, it was kind of scary. She had (always has) all these grand plans. Looking back, the plans she had were nothing compared to what we do now, but to me they seemed unimaginable. However, I took that leap of faith, acknowledging that we were hopefully going to be successful giving families more than they would have otherwise gotten.

Now talk about spreading the word; it was HARD!!! Hospitals already knew about the organization we left, so they were hesitant to accept something new. Thankfully, most all the staff trusted me when I explained what we were offering, and at first it just started with providing more resources to families. It was nothing but a double-sided piece of paper, explaining what we offered to help them with at no cost, and a link to our website.

We grew from there, and six years later, here we are. We have an office! We have a team of volunteer doulas. We have the best families in our nest! We offer so much to grieving parents, all at no cost. I’m still volunteering my time at the hospital, and instead of just taking photos, I can help in creating lifelong memories with their baby. We encourage bathing, hair cutting, foot and handprints by the family, dressing and loving their baby. And it’s not just hospitals, but even funeral homes, where sessions take place. I’ve been honored to meet so many angels during the past 16 years, and each circumstance is similar but so unique. I’m so honored that they are willing to share these private, precious moments with me; a complete stranger.

Without Kristen, 99% of what we do would not happen. We met from the most shittiest of circumstances but are using that to further the mission of Three Little Birds!

Other fun facts about us!

  • We rarely say no to each other, but we respect each other enough to say, hey, this isn't working, let's look for a better way. There is so much value in that type of partnership.

  • We grew up only about 20 houses apart, on the same street, during our childhood! We have similar memories of playing with other neighborhood kids but not specifically each other. One of our mutual fond memories was the year they planted big old pine trees on our “sledding hill” to keep us off. That first snowstorm, we were all out there running over them on our sleds!

  • Desiree's husband Brad and two adult children are always ready to help with fundraisers and events. They are also such a big part of our nest.

  • We have our own language and can read each other's minds. When we can't figure out what to say, the other usually finds the words. Also, we can interpret the most bizarre texts without a blip such as... I'm off to Inspire violence, really means, I'm off to Inspira Vineland Hospital. Thanks auto correct! 🤣🤣🤣

  • She and I have the same twisted sense of humor which is important when in this line of work.

  • Not only does Desiree support Kristen’s two-legged kids – she also babysits her Bernese Mountain-Border Collie mix, Maggie. The last time she had her, Desiree entered Maggie into a Halloween costume contest, and we won first place. She’s the best doggie!

  • Put us in a vehicle together, turn the music up, and you’ll see one rockin’ car!

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