Every day, there are many beautiful gifts brought into this world. The lives of parents change, as they are now responsible for loving and caring for a little life. Heartbreakingly, some of these parents will head home with empty arms. These parents are experiencing the absolute worst nightmare for new parents: Their baby is not going home from the hospital with them, as a result of infant death or stillbirth.
These parents are now forced to begin parts of their child’s life, or death, far too soon. First pictures are full of tears, and the wrong kind of emotion, and the ride home is eerily silent. They must now clean out the nursery they so excitedly prepared in the prior months. But the most heartbreaking of all: They must bury their child before he or she has even had a chance to live.
Statistically, 1 in 160 children are lost as a result of stillbirth, or infant death. There are many different factors, including birth defects, poor neonatal care, and problems with the umbilical cord and placenta. Many of these losses happen from 24 weeks on, and therefore cause a very low birth-weight.
Any person who has prepared for a funeral knows that it is tedious and upsetting. But for a parent burying their child, there are no words. One local woman, Cathy Diehl, knows this pain all too well. She never wanted to prepare for her daughter’s death in the first place, but a horrible decision she had to make was what to clothe her precious Ava in, in preparation for burial. According to Diehl, “She [Ava] was delivered at 22 ½ weeks and passed away in utero. I had to wrap her in a fleece blanket, which was even too big for her so I cut it down.” There were no clothes at any stores for a one-pound child, and she even went through her other daughter Avery’s doll clothes to see if anything would work, but nothing seemed right.
After the burial, this, among many other things, did not sit well with her. She decided that she did not want other unprepared, and undeserving parents of this horrible fate to suffer thinking of one more thing that could have been approached differently. After hearing of another organization that made “Angel Gowns” for infants like Ava, she decided that she wanted to start her own local branch for this cause. It is where the idea of “Sewing Hearts” came from. This is a non-profit organization she created, which takes wedding dresses, a traditional sign of love and happiness, and creates gowns small enough for these precious angels to look like they belong in them. Even in a trying, emotional recovery, she is able to find peace in this. As Diehl said, “Doing this for othesr is helping me heal.” She also created the template for wraps, for children whose limbs are too fragile to be placed in a gown.
Helpful Resources in the Beginning Stages
There are many larger organizations that have online tips for getting started. These include the NICU Helping Hands Angel Gowns program, or Angel Gowns by Michelle. The first, NICU helping hands, is a widely recognized organization that often supplies hospitals. They are very beneficial, as the hospitals then have the gowns on hand, but this can sometimes cause a loss in personal touch and delivery of the gown. Gowns by Michelle is more similar to Sewing Hearts due to the size. She has online FAQs and help pages for those who want to start their own small non-profit. She was a NICU nurse herself, so women like her both understand the pain, and are very willing to work with others who want to start their own branch of this incredible cause. Michelle provides her Angel Gowns to families in her community through relationships with funeral homes. She is not able to take personal requests because she is a much smaller organization, but she does what she can for the children in need. Although somewhat similar to Gowns by Michelle, Sewing Hearts is a combination of these two.
Regarding distribution information for her non-profit, Diehl said that it is through “Facebook mostly, and word of mouth, especially from NICU nurses. There were also articles on Channel 12 News as well as the Catholic Telegraph. We received many wedding gowns and volunteers to sew after that.”
Volunteers and Donations
To make this all possible, there are many volunteers and donations needed. To begin with, the organization needs the initial donation of the wedding dresses. These can be hard to come by, as people develop attachments to their dresses, or pass them down from generation to generation. Diehl is also struggling to receive a tax status for the dresses from the government, which will encourage more women to donate. They have three different drop-off sites around the Cincinnati area: Youthland Academy in Montgomery, Youthland Academy in Norwood, and Youthland Academy in Fort Mitchell Kentucky. After the dresses are received, they go through inventory and are prepared to be given to the volunteers. This can sometimes be a long process because many of the dresses have a large train, which is unusable for the Angel Gowns, and needs to be sorted through. However, they sometimes will keep a small amount of this train to be added to gowns for decoration. The wedding dresses are also photographed and posted to the website, lying beside the Angel Gowns that have been created from their material. This allows the women who gave up their precious dresses to see the good that came out of their sacrifice.
After receiving the dress, Diehl must find people who can sew. This is so important, because both ends of this process—the woman who gave up her dress, and the parents trying to gracefully bury their Angel—are hoping for an incredible finished product. The volunteers who do want to take on the task of sewing are asked to fill out an application. This has location information, and a disclaimer stating that all patterns, designs, and supplies are copyrighted by Sewing Hearts. A box is then sent to the volunteer. This contains the following: the useable parts of the wedding dress, including ribbons for color, patterns, thread; and instructions for sewing. They are then asked to send the finished product back to Sewing Hearts, which leads us into the most heartbreaking piece of this situation.
Packaging and Delivery
This organization packages the gowns in beautiful boxes, lined with pink or blue paper. A quote or saying is added, and the box is wrapped with ribbon on the outside. It is then hand-delivered, by Diehl or one of the other ladies who assist Diehl, to the family in need. This is one of the most important jobs in this process and needs to be handled with care. It is often preferred that the person who delivers has gone through this same situation before. This is because they have a personal relationship with what it is like to lose a child, and can understand the parents’ pain, and the type of sympathy they want at this time.
As a childcare worker, I unfortunatley know many women who have gone through situations llike this. One of those woman was not so lucky with her second child. She had a beautiful little boy who was full of happiness, health, and love. Her second child, however, was a stillborn. The mother said that she was not personally able to find an angel gown at the time, and didn’t know anything about them, or even prepared for this as a possibility. When I asked her about it, she said she wished she would have known. She said that it had never sat right with her that her baby was eternally at rest in nothing more than a standard hospital blanket. She then had a thrid baby boy, who was also healthy and happy.
As the teacher in the infant room at the time, I could see such a big difference in her compared to the other parents. Her pregnancy was approached with fear and anxiety, and every week she had a healthy doctor’s visit was a huge relief. Once her child was here, she was more protective, but mostly she seemed like she didn’t want him to ever grow up. Big milestones like sitting up and walking were not as exciting for her. It was almost as if she were trying to make up for the baby coos of her second child she never got to experience outside of the womb.
Janet Toebbe, a retired NICU nurse, told me that she couldn’t think of a better organization. “I had to witness so many mothers being told that their children didn’t make it, and there is nothing quite as terrible. Now that you mention it, there was always a loss in their eyes when they asked about burial clothing, and learned there wasn’t much we could do. If I could be a part of any charity in my retirenment, I want it to be something like this.”
How You Can Help
All in all, this is a very hearbreaking situation, and there is no way the burden can be taken away completely from a grieving parent. We do, however, have the ability to love and be compaionsate towards those who have suffered this loss, and do everything we can to help. Anyone who would like to donate time, money, or a dress is welcome to be a part of this organization. Spreading the word is also needed, to ensure this organization grows. www.sewinghearts.org has an application page, and donation information. There is also a list of suggested donations for those without a dress or sewing ability. This includes thread and monetary donations for those who need a gown to be shipped.
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