When my friend Dawn was pregnant with triplets, due the following June, her husband Andy wanted to surprise her with a special piece of jewelry for Christmas. He had no idea what to get, so the sales lady helped him pick a stone. “Get her an amethyst because it’s purple, for royalty, and your wife should be treated like a queen,” she said smiling.
The triplets never made it to June. They were born prematurely in February and died within three days of birth. Dawn had chills the day she realized the bracelet Andy had bought her contained the triplets’ February birthstone.
“Couldn’t you have bought me a diamond or emerald? Then, maybe they would have made it until April or May and would still be alive,” she told Andy, only half joking. But she cherished her bracelet, and it became a symbol for her children that she wore every day.
After my Miranda died, I went to the angel boutique in my mom’s town and picked out a pin with a cherub sporting a cap and a cute grin. I wore it most days for several months, and especially at support group meetings where I noticed others wearing similar angel pins.
I soon noticed that parents whose babies have died often search for some keepsake or reminder, not only to comfort themselves, but to tell the world that indeed a baby had lived, even if only in utero. This is especially true if the baby or babies never came home with their parents. See if any of these ideas and stories from my “Good Grief Club” friends resonate with you.
My friend Heidi uses the e-mail address Britsmom in memory of her stillborn baby Brittany. I’ve noticed this among many bereaved parents who have also found a way to incorporate their babies into their e-mail addresses. I imagine the same is true of license plates.
After Miranda died, every time I had to sign our family’s names to a greeting card, it always pained me to leave Miranda’s name out, yet it didn’t seem complete without her. Then, when I received a Christmas card from Heidi that year, I noticed she had stamped an angel under their names to represent Brittany. I immediately rushed out and bought my own rubber angel stamp and a gold ink pad, adding Miranda’s “signature” to our cards during the next year.
I and many of my friends put together keepsake books containing whatever we had managed to collect: photos from the hospital, locks of hair, bassinet I.D. cards, sympathy cards. Dawn’s entire house became a shrine to her triplets: teddy bears with pink, yellow, and blue ribbons; angels in every room, always in groups of three; framed footprints and handprints; plates and poems hung on walls; vases and jars filled with dried funeral flowers lined the shelves. Photo albums overflowed with photos of the babies, the cemetery plot, and every flower arrangement sent.
Dawn often spent time looking through her children’s few belongings, which she kept in a large box in her bedroom closet. The most precious keepsakes were the ones that had been in contact with her babies’ paper-thin skin. Christening gowns, blankets, hats, and a blood pressure cuff. Dawn was so obsessed with protecting her children’s belongings that during tornado season she had her husband Andy bring the box downstairs so she could grab it quickly and take it down into the basement with her if the sirens went off.
She ignored Andy’s suggestions to get a cleaning service because she was afraid of an angel or keepsake getting broken. She laughed that she would have to follow the cleaning lady around the house telling her, “Don’t touch this and don’t touch that…”
Because I wanted to display Miranda’s hospital gown, cap, and I.D. bracelet, I bought a stuffed bunny and dressed it in her things, bravely cutting two holes in the cap for the long ears to poke through. The bunny sat on the dresser in the nursery after my next daughter, Casey, was born.
When Darlene’s twin sons Nathan and Nicholas died prematurely, she placed their cremated remains in a plain box. But a few years later when she miscarried her son Andrew, she bought a wooden urn with a carving of an angel holding a baby and moved her twin sons’ ashes to the new urn to be together with their younger brother’s ashes.
When Tracy’s son was stillborn, her father had two small baseball bats etched with his grandson’s name. One was buried with the baby in the casket, and the other was put in a display case at their favorite local restaurant where the family had gathered after the burial.
Beth and Tracy both commissioned portraits to be drawn of their babies, giving the artists photos to work from.
Heidi made a homemade lullaby tape (before CD burners existed) and played it at the cemetery, at support group memory night, and while sitting in the car with Beth late one night at a park as they shared their babies’ memory boxes with each other.
At Christmas, I bought a teddy bear stocking to hang for Miranda, and a new angel tree topper replaced the blinking star. Many of us bought or were given ornaments in memory of our babies. After losing her fourth baby in miscarriage, Wendy bought herself a new Christmas tree, lavishly decorated it with angels, ornaments, and ribbons of gold and sat in front of it every chance she could.
Tracy had bought a stuffed monkey for her son during the pregnancy, but after he died the monkey became a symbol for him. “Most people have stars or angels on top of their Christmas tree. We have a monkey. We even took it on vacation with us,” her husband told us one night at support group. Years later, the monkey found a permanent home on sister Serena’s desk, leaving only at Christmastime to resume his place of honor on top of the Christmas tree. The year Tracy decided to do something different, decorating the top of the tree with a big red bow, Serena brought the monkey downstairs and asked her mom to please put it on the tree where it belonged.
The need to keep, buy, or make mementos is not limited to parents of babies. My friend Pat keeps a pin on the outside of her purse that has a photo of her son Michael who died in a car accident eight years ago at the age of sixteen. His dad Mark has a window decal on his truck that says “Ridin’ for Czech” (his son’s nickname) and lists Michael’s birth and death dates. This weekend is the Bike and Hike for Mike fundraiser that Pat and Mark organize every year to raise money for the local youth band and music programs that Michael was such a large part of, and everyone will be wearing Michael pins and t-shirts that say “The Michael David Samel Spirit of Music Fund.”
These are just some of the many examples of parents telling the world: “Our child was important to us, and his or her life, although too short from our earthly perspective, had purpose and meaning and touched all those who knew us then, and those who are willing to listen now.”
Portions of this article were excerpted from The Good Grief Club: a True Story about the Power of Friendship and French Toast.