Columns

Grace and the Angel Gowns

For someone who never opened her eyes or drew a breath, Grace Susie Bain, continues to make a difference in the world she didn’t get to explore.

On June 1, 2003, my friend, Sarah Bain, gave birth to Grace, knowing the baby had died in her womb on May 29.

Two years ago, I wrote a column about how Sarah marked what would have been Grace’s 16th birthday, by having her wedding dress made into “angel gowns.”

The Angel Gown program has chapters and affiliates across the U.S. Volunteer seamstresses take donated wedding dresses and create gowns for stillborn infants or babies who die soon after birth.

In Spokane, retired registered nurse and health care executive Peggy Mangiaracina, has been making tiny gowns, tuxedos and cocoons since 2017. Sarah asked me to be present when she gave her wedding dress to Mangiaracina, and shared Grace’s story.

That column prompted an amazing response. Since its publication on May 16, 2019, Mangiaracina has received 56 donated dresses, and turned them into 1,600 angel gowns.

“Sixty percent of those donating the dresses have lost a child,” Mangiaracina said. “And most had never heard about angel gowns until your column came out.”

She said Sarah’s story has resonated with many.

“They told me, ‘Sarah’s story allowed me to feel and share my own.’ ”

Mangiaracina told of a man in Puyallup, who came across the column. His wife died, and he decided to donate her wedding dress.

“They’d lost a daughter long ago, and he could relate to Sarah’s experience of all the birthdays and special events they didn’t get to share with their child,” said Mangiaracina.

Hospitals in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene welcome the gowns, but Mangiaracina is also supplying them to hospitals in California, Texas, Oregon, Minnesota, Montana and Colorado.

“I get as much out of doing this as the parents who choose the gowns, or the people who donate their dresses,” she said. “I’ve found my niche.”

And soon she’ll have more help in this labor of love.

RoxAnn Walker, of Spokane, started making angel gowns in 2019. She made the first one for her granddaughter, Madelina.

“My daughter had a baby with a terminal birth defect and had to end her pregnancy at 20 weeks,” said Walker. “Madelina was too small for any outfit, so I went online and stumbled onto Angel Gowns.”

Walker bought a wedding dress at a thrift store and made a gown for her granddaughter. Her daughter lives in Texas, so Walker asked the hospital there if they’d like to receive angel gowns. They welcomed her gift, and she’s made 80 gowns, so far.

She has wanted to make gowns for Spokane area hospitals, too, but didn’t know whom to contact. I put her in touch with Mangiaracina, and the women plan to pool their talents and expertise.

“I like making something that’s helping make the worst situation in the world better,” Walker said. “The gowns say ‘You’re a little person. You’re here and you’re important.’”

So many lives had been touched by Sarah’s willingness to share Grace’s story. But Grace’s legacy is more than angel gowns

“When Grace was born we were told we couldn’t file a birth certificate because she hadn’t been born breathing. However, we were required by the state to file a death certificate,” Sarah recalled. “The first words out of my mouth and the mouths of so many other mothers who give birth to a stillborn baby were: How can you require me to file a death certificate for my daughter yet you won’t allow her to have a birth certificate? How is this even possible?’ ”

For grieving families, it often feels like one more cruel blow.

In 2005, Sarah, along with many others, embarked on a journey to ensure stillborn children receive birth certificates in Washington state. Finally, after seemingly endless hurdles and delays, on April 6, the state Senate passed HB 1031 allowing the issuance of a certificate of birth resulting in stillbirth. The governor signed it into law on April 16.

Because of the pandemic and resulting backlog, the certificates won’t be available for families to request until October 2022. They will be retroactive, so families can request one for a child that died in years past.

Sarah said the psychological implications of this are huge.

“Before, the state of Washington basically said: We won’t give you a birth certificate because your baby wasn’t born living. but since your baby was born dead, you must file a death certificate. Now they say. ’We see you, we acknowledge you, we honor your child,’ ” said Sarah. “After 18 years with a death certificate tucked away in a drawer for my daughter, I can soon request her birth certificate. Grace matters.”

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