She died the day she was supposed to be born. A ‘perfect’ photo helps her family heal.

Korbin Lanning drew this family portrait on his first day of first grade, barely five months after his sister Haven died at the hospital. (Courtesy of the Lanning family, provided by the Charlotte Observer)
Korbin Lanning drew this family portrait on his first day of first grade, barely five months after his sister Haven died at the hospital. (Courtesy of the Lanning family, provided by the Charlotte Observer)

MOORESVILLE, NC (Theoden Janes/The Charlotte Observer) - On the morning that Haven May Lanning emerged from her mother's womb, she looked flawless.

Plump, shiny lips. Dark tufts of hair as soft as goose feathers. A nose that could have belonged to a porcelain doll. Seven pounds, four ounces.

"My husband jokes that she's the prettiest baby that we had," says Haven's mom, Krista Lanning. "She just looked like she was sleeping. Her color was still good.... She was perfect."

That perfection was captured in a single photograph, a large copy of which now hangs on the wall at the top of the stairs in the Lannings' Mooresville home. A smaller print sits on a bookcase by the Christmas tree, another is in a framed collage off the dining room, and still more adorn Haven's siblings' bedrooms.

It isn't Haven, but it is Haven, in a sense – one of the precious few memories Jason and Krista Lanning have of their stillborn daughter, and that their other children have of their sister. So the photograph often goes where they go.

To the Bahamas, on a Disney Cruise ship. To North Myrtle Beach, where the Lannings spend a week every summer. To the mall at Christmastime, for a visit with Santa. And if they're posing for a professional photo, they do so as a family of six, with the large version of Haven's picture front and center.

"I know to some people it's just a picture," Krista Lanning says, "but to me ... that's all I have, and that's how I want her included. It brings joy to me to have her in our photos. I guess it's more like a material thing, but it's helped. It's healing. It's always been important."

Her husband nods.

"I've had some people that think it's cool, or that it's admirable," Jason Lanning says, "but then there's a few here and there who just look at this and feel like we're still grieving too much. But if we do a family picture and we include Haven in it ... if that's what helps us, then that's what helps us, you know?"

'Hold on, this isn't good'

Haven May Lanning died on March 26, 2015 – the day she was supposed to be born.

The previous evening, her mother and father had packed a bag and set their alarms for early morning, when they'd planned to leave their son Korbin (then 5) and daughter Taitlyn (then 2) in the hands of Jason's parents and head to Lake Norman Regional Medical Center for a C-section. It's a routine Krista had been through without incident twice in the previous five years.

But around midnight, she woke up with stomach discomfort that felt kind of like a cramp, kind of like a contraction. Over the course of the next couple hours, discomfort became pain and pain became agony; so she woke Jason, who quickly convinced her they needed to double-time it to the hospital.

Once she was admitted, everything happened in a blur. Haven's heart rate was reading around 50 beats per minute, far less than what it should have been, and Krista went from the ER to the OR in a matter of minutes. Jason stood helplessly watching from the hallway, as doctors and nurses rushed in and out while communicating in terms that made no sense to him but sounded awfully urgent.

When Krista went under the knife, a few hours earlier than her C-section had been scheduled for, it wasn't a delivery. It was a rescue mission.

Someone in scrubs found Jason and asked him, "Do you have family here?" He said no. They said, "Well, you need to get some here."

"That's when it started clicking," Jason says. "Like, 'Hold on, this isn't good.' "

In fact, it was grave. In a rare turn (it happens in less than 1 percent of women with C-section scars), Krista's uterus had ruptured where her previous cesarean deliveries had left a scar, at which point Haven started slipping into her abdomen. The rupture caused severe bleeding that was suffocating Haven and doctors tried to deliver her before her oxygen ran out.

But they weren't able to free her in time, and 45 minutes of resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

As Krista regained consciousness, she awoke expecting to say hello to her new daughter. Instead, she learned that Haven didn't make it, and that her baby was being brought in so that she and Jason could spend time saying goodbye.

'She was perfect and beautiful'

They spent several hours holding Haven and kissing Haven and crying for Haven.

Some of these grief-filled moments were photographed by Shannon Fowler, who was working a shift for a company called Bella Baby at Lake Norman Regional that morning. It was Fowler who swaddled Haven in a blanket and posed her in a wicker basket before capturing the portrait that would end up in almost every room of the Lannings' house.

In 5 1/2 years of taking pictures of newborns, Haven is among the babies that made the deepest impression on Fowler.

"My mother has black hair," she says, "and I've always wanted a black-haired child. I remember thinking, 'She looks just like a child that I would want to have' – just perfect. Haven was perfect and beautiful."

But as morning turned into afternoon, Krista Lanning knew her painfully short time with her daughter was slipping away. Her in-laws would be bringing Korbin and Taitlyn to the hospital soon. She'd talked it over with Jason, and for better or worse they decided not to let their children see their sister.

On top of that, Haven's color was slowly changing, and Krista wanted to remember her the way she looked in the photo: perfect.

So just like that, Haven was gone, leaving behind Fowler's photos, a set of handprints, a few locks of hair and a massive hole in her parents' hearts.

'I believe I'll see her again'

Krista Lanning knew the joy of leaving the hospital with a newborn. But the pain of leaving without one was staggering.

And the "what-ifs" were eating her up. What if she had scheduled her C-section for the week before? Or the day before? What if they'd left for the hospital two hours earlier? What if that one light hadn't turned red on the way there?

The seven-mile drive home felt like it took seven hours, and one of the first things they saw when they walked in the front door was the baby swing they'd set out. Krista went upstairs and shut the door to the nursery; it was weeks before she opened it again.


Jason had taken time while Krista was recovering to make family members and close friends aware of their loss, but she'd been vocal about Haven's impending arrival on Facebook. There was no way to keep track of everyone who knew her due date. So to spare his wife from having to field "Is-she-here-yet?" questions, he temporarily deactivated her social media accounts.

But life went on for her son Korbin and her daughter Taitlyn, who had to be ferried to play dates and soccer practices and birthday parties. Other moms had seen Krista pregnant, and now she obviously was not pregnant anymore – but not toting around an infant. Some knew, and either avoided her or fumbled through condolences. Others didn't, and felt sick with discomfort after stumbling onto the news.

It all made her want to lock herself in her bedroom, pull the comforter over her head, curl into a ball and never come out.

"I remember those first couple days when I got home, because it's raw and it's fresh. Sometimes I'd even think, 'I wish I would have just died when she did, so I wouldn't have to suffer this pain that I'm feeling right now,' " she says.

But it didn't take her long to find a light in the darkness, in the form of the memory of an angel-faced baby named Haven May.

"I mean, my faith's pretty strong, and I believe I'll see her again, and when I do..."

Suddenly Krista's voice breaks, and she forces a soft smile through tears welling in her eyes. "I need her to say that she was proud of me for what I did on this side, when I see her again. I don't want her to say, 'Mom, why didn't you take care of my brother or sister at the beginning? I want her to say, 'You did good.'

"And I want her to feel like she was included."

'They thought that was crazy'

Eight days after Haven's birth and death, Krista rejoined Facebook to share Shannon Fowler's stunning black and white photograph of Haven for the first time.

A month later, the Lannings pulled the large framed copy off of the wall in their upstairs hallway and brought it to a photo session to continue a tradition of getting a formal family photo taken after the births of each of their children.

A month after that, the picture came with them to a celebration of life service held for Haven at a nearby park, where friends and family laughed and ate cake, kids chased each other and blew bubbles, and everyone wrote messages to Haven on pink, red and aqua-colored balloons that were released into the sky.

The family didn't have long discussions about it. It just became a habit: We're doing something as a family, and Haven's part of the family, so her picture comes with us.

So Korbin's copy of Haven's photo went on a Disney cruise and posed with Korbin, Taitlyn and Minnie Mouse. Then the kids celebrated the Fourth of July with Haven's big picture. And Taitlyn's copy of Haven's photo went on the annual summer beach trip.

All of these moments were captured in photos that wound up on Krista's Facebook page, or Jason's, or both.

"Of course, some people thought that was crazy," Krista says of the first time Korbin insisted on bringing Haven's photo for a picture with Santa, "but –"

Jason jumps in: "If a 5-year-old tells you he wants to take a picture of his sister to see Santa, he takes his picture of his sister to see Santa."

Some people will never understand these rituals. (They once heard a son say to their parent, "Why would they put a picture of a dead baby on Facebook?") But the person who took Haven's "perfect" photo gets it.

"Everyone's like, 'Doesn't that make you sad?' " Shannon Fowler says. "But I love seeing how they have taken that picture and just done so much with it. And it's the best feeling in the world to know that through that picture, they get to look at her every day in that light."

'I felt like I could breathe'

As soon as Krista Lanning found out she was pregnant again, early last year, she started holding her breath. With each passing week her worry grew, and in the three days leading up to the birth, Krista Lanning says she didn't sleep at all.

"I was a nervous wreck," she says, "about seeing her here and getting here safely, where before – in all my other three pregnancies – I never even thought about that kind of stuff. I just assumed they were all gonna be here and healthy. So with her, I had lots of anxiety ... including for my kids, especially Korbin, because he would even ask me questions like, 'Will she die?' Or 'I want to hold this baby,' because he didn't get to hold Haven."

Again, there was a C-section scheduled. This time, a high-risk pregnancy doctor would be joining her regular obstetrician. And this time, they'd be taking her baby out on the early side to reduce the risk of another rupture.

Just after noon on Sept. 23, 2016, Laelyn Grace Lanning emerged from her mother's womb happy and healthy, and "when she finally got to my chest ... I felt like I could breathe," Krista says. "I could take a deep breath that she was here. Here was my joy, after lots and lots of tears."

And as they lay in the hospital bed together, their connection seemed strong almost immediately.

"I always say that I think Haven met her before me and told her, you know, 'Hug on Mama a little more. Love on Mama.' Because she's been my only 'mama's girl.' All the other ones didn't really care," Krista says, smiling, "but Laelyn loves to be held. So that brings me joy to think that Haven told her Mama needed some lovin'."

For the third time in seven years, she was going to be leaving the hospital with a full heart instead of a broken one. But before doing so, two things had to happen:

Shannon Fowler needed to take photographs of Laelyn – she did – and Haven's photo needed to be in one.

It was.