Ashley Shirley had already given birth to three beautiful babies before becoming pregnant with little Jocelyn, but she would soon find out that her fourth pregnancy was unlike any other.
Ashley tells Independent Journal Review it all started around 20 weeks into her pregnancy, during an ultrasound, when the doctor saw something new that wasn't right.
Four weeks later, she and her husband, Ronnie, went to a re-scan, and the results confirmed their worst fear:
"I was sent to high-risk doctor. I didn’t know much, I just knew something was going on. When we went to the high-risk doctor, he said her frontal lobe in her brain was missing, upper and lower extremities were measuring 3 weeks behind and her overall body was measuring 5-6 weeks behind what it should have been.
Her chest cavity was so small, her heart took up half her chest — it wasn’t allowing the proper maturity of her lungs. Her femur bones were severely bowed, too. All these things together gave us the diagnosis that she’d be born with Skeletal Dysplasia and that throughout the pregnancy it can become more lethal, but we were praying against it.
We were told her lungs didn’t have room to grow and that she wouldn’t be born breathing."
Prayer isn't something new to the Shirley family, as Ashley and Ronnie are youth pastors in Tennessee.
Though she hoped and prayed for the best, Ashley called Jennifer Wilkerson, a local photographer, to get some family maternity photos done, in case it was the last time she'd be photographed with her baby girl.
Fast forward to July 7th of this year, and the Shirleys reunited with Jennifer at the hospital, preparing for the birth of Jocelyn. Ashley remembers it like it was yesterday:
"We were all praying together, believing God would turn things around.
When we were in the delivery room, Ronnie was sitting at my head. I had a caesarean section. We were all just anticipating and praying, and they told me to basically not expect for her to come out screaming like a normal baby would.
But when they pulled her from me, she just made this little whimper at first, we were holding our breath, then she let out a big SCREAM."
Ashley adds that after baby Jocelyn was put on oxygen for half a day, she was taken off it, something they never expected:
"Her bones were completely straight — legs, arms, completely straight — her chest cavity from the outside looked perfect.
It was a miracle of God right in front of us."
She says she's a firm believer in God, but going through a high-risk pregnancy truly tested her faith:
"I trust God and I try to stay in a place where I trust God at all times, but I’m also a human being. When my baby was moving inside me, I began thinking, 'I’m not going to hear my baby cry.' Those were very real emotions to me — I was in a very dark place, just trying to hold onto God.
When we went into delivery room, all I was trying to do was pray. Once I heard her cry and the doctor held her above the sheet and she was screaming, the first thing that came from my mouth was 'thank you God, thank you God!' He just increased my faith that much more. He's a miracle-working God. I was in complete awe."
And the Shirleys weren't the only ones deeply affected by Jocelyn's birth; Jennifer, Ashley's photographer, was just as moved by the experience.
She explains that she has volunteered with the organization Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep (NILMDTS) for about a year. According to their website, NILMDTS is an organization that “trains, educates, and mobilizes professional quality photographers to provide beautiful heirloom portraits to families facing the untimely death of an infant.”
Jennifer, who is also a mother of four, says she's done eight sessions since working with NILMDTS, and more often than not, the outcome is tragic:
"We don’t get as many calls as we'd like, some people just don’t even know our services are out there. What’s really struck me and has been incredible are some of their moms I’ve photographed, they've written to me and said, 'these are the most incredible and cherished photos we have.' For the most part of what we do and situations we're in, it's definitely not what people wish for.
If anything, we as humans we hold out hope, until there's no hope to have. With Jocelyn, this was the best scenario that we could have hoped for."
She adds that the photos are taken in black and white because most of their babies have passed away, with them often times being “discolored.” Jennifer says it makes it less shocking for families to see the images, as well as making it easier for her to edit.
Since Jennifer shared the miraculous birth of Jocelyn on her Facebook page, something she said she was wary to do, thousands of mothers who have lost babies have shared their stories with her:
"I’m just a little photographer in my photography studio in a little town, I never expected this sort of response. So many people say they get goosebumps reading it. Every time I think about it and talk about it, my whole body is taken over by goosebumps.
It’s normally a tragic situation, for this to happen it was incredibly moving, it’s just not what we get. Not only does she look perfect, but she has this head full of beautiful hair — she’s got gorgeous lips, beautiful cheeks."
Jennifer says she originally began photographing for NILMDTS because she'd had friends who had lost children as babies, and it broke her heart:
"Here I had this talent for photography and I just felt very prayerfully called to give that talent back in a way that honored that all of these little babies that don’t get to come home.
In some cases, parents only have thirty minutes together. Every time I go into a session I pray for these parents and pray to do the best job I can do to honor these beautiful little angels. I go into work mode, I don’t get emotional when I'm working since I’m focused on doing the best job I can do, but there are moments when I get messages later and when I hear back that are pretty intense. It’s hard work, but I definitely feel like I’m suited to do it. It's the most humbling experience ever."
It's safe to say Jennifer, Ashley and little Jocelyn have a special bond that will surely last for years to come, with Jennifer even planning on photographing Jocelyn soon for her “newborn” photoshoot.
Through it all, both women simply want “God to be glorified” in the process and firmly believe Jocelyn is a testament to his goodness.