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.”

Columns

Walk softly; the stories are etched in stone

It’s the storyteller in me.

Lots of people visit cemeteries on Memorial Day, but I visit cemeteries often, especially when passing through an unfamiliar place.

I wander through rows of markers reading history etched on tombstones. Each grave offers a thread of a story, and that thread weaves through time and place, connecting me to strangers. What’s not to love about that?

In March while visiting our son and his family in Grove City, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, our Airbnb sat directly across the street from the Grove City Cemetery and the adjoining St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery.

Our time in Ohio was filled with making the most out of every delightful moment with our twin grandsons, yet the graveyard beckoned every time I looked out the window. Balloons, ribbons, flowers and Christmas decorations dotted the graves, though the holidays were long past.

On our last morning before heading to the airport, we walked across the street and traveled back in time.

The photos caught my eye.

The newer Grove City Cemetery (established in 1906) had many gravesites that featured photos etched into the markers. They offered a surprisingly intimate glimpse of those buried there.

Like, Lisa, “loving daughter and sister,” who died at 19. Her beautiful smile beamed at us from beneath her blonde upswept hair. Fresh roses bloomed in urns. A ceramic horse had toppled from her marker, so I gently replaced it.

Other mementos brought smiles. A bottle of Blue Moon beer perched beside the grave of Georgia, “Loving Mother, Grandmother and Nana.”

Speaking of grandmothers, one gal’s family called her “Grammer.” I loved that. In fact, if my grandkids tire of calling me Nana, I’ll take Grammar (note spelling change) in a heartbeat.

Some gravestones featured beautiful colorized etchings of the person’s favorite place or activity. A covered bridge over a swirling stream marked the Ogg’s family plot, while the Thomas family monument highlighted a stable on one side and beautiful horses on the other. A bowling ball at the top and a pair of golf clubs at the bottom, showed how Robert and Rose Davis spent their time.

Sadly, many of the graves at the next-door St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery (1860) had grown too old and moss-covered to read. Indeed, some of the stones had fallen over, while towering obelisks some topped with angels or crosses stood sentry.

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I caught my breath at one simple plaque, embedded in the ground. “Daddy,” was all it said.

As a mother, I’m always drawn to graves adorned with lambs and angels – children’s graves where the briefest of lives are marked.

A tiny red tinsel Christmas tree fluttered in the March breeze. It marked Darren’s grave. He was born and died Oct. 26, but I couldn’t read the year through my tears.

I hadn’t anticipated the wellspring of grief that the graves of stillborn babies would trigger since we lost our grandson Ian Lucas in 2018.

“Our little angel,” Stephanie Lynn was stillborn April 26, my son’s birthday.

A photo of beautiful Maggie Jean, March 7, 2015-March 8, 2015, brought me to my knees, and since I was there anyway, I prayed for Maggie’s family.

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Some housekeeping seemed in order. I righted toppled ceramic angels and Santas, and brushed leaves and dirt from markers, knowing I’d want someone to do the same for my family.

Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get to my son’s house to hold The World’s Most Beautiful Boys one more time.

But I’ll never forget Maggie Jean, Darren, or Chelsea whose gravestone reads, “Walk softly an angel sleeps here.”

Indeed, it might be wise for all of us to walk a bit more softly wherever we tread in these troubled days. The thread of our stories can be ephemeral, but that connection is what we crave.

A stroll through any cemetery reminds us that our time here is just the merest whisper. How much sweeter our echoes would be if we choose to walk softly and be kind.

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Columns

Gowns for Grace

She should be turning 16 on June 1.

She should be clutching her newly minted driver’s license and deciding if she wants a big Sweet 16 bash, or to just hang out with family.

She should be so many things, but most important, she should be here. But she isn’t.

Grace Susie Bain died May 29, 2003. She was delivered June 1, 2003.

How do you mark this kind of milestone?

Sarah Bain, Grace’s mom, thought long and hard about ways to honor her daughter’s brief passage through this world. Then she got her wedding gown out of her closet and called Peggy Mangiaracina.

Mangiaracina had a long career in health care, from starting as a labor and delivery nurse to retiring 35 years later as executive director of Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital and vice president of women’s services.

When she retired, she got out her sewing machine and began making “angel gowns” for babies like Grace, who never come home from the hospital.

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.

“I remember being a labor and delivery nurse and not having anything for these babies,” Mangiaracina said. “Parents would ask me what I wrapped their baby in. They wanted to know.”

Last week, Sarah invited me to be with her when she gave her wedding dress to Mangiaracina.

First, the talented seamstress showed us examples of how she used the donated dresses. From a bin she pulled out gowns fit for a princess’ christening and tiny satin tuxedos with velvet bow ties – each creation, like each child, unique.

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Wedding gown trim like tiny seed pearls, satin-covered buttons and delicate lace make each gown a work of art.

“Oh, I would have loved a gown for Grace,” Sarah said.

In addition to wedding wear, Mangiaracina has used prom gowns, handkerchiefs and high-quality linens. She also uses soft, carefully lined flannel to make little “cocoons” for the tiniest and most fragile babies.

At the hospital, nurses offer grieving parents a small selection of gowns to choose from. Infants can wear them for photos and to the funeral home.

Mangiaracina gives the parents of the baby a memory square with a swatch of fabric from their child’s gown, a silver heart charm and a card that reads, “Babies are innocence on earth, a link between angels and man.”

Each woman who donates a gown also receives a memory square, as well as photographs of the gowns made from their donated dress.

Friends help Mangiaracina with the sewing. A group of ladies in Coeur d’Alene knit tiny hats to go with the gowns. Then they are distributed to nine hospitals across the region.

Now, it was Sarah’s turn. Her beautiful ivory satin gown with puffed sleeves, elaborate beadwork and a scalloped lace train hadn’t been taken from the box since her wedding 24 years ago.

She knew the dress wasn’t to her 18-year-old daughter Sophia Bain’s taste, so she decided to use it to honor Grace.

59708414_2312918792080068_1957199751925465088_n[1]Her eyes filled with tears as we opened the box.

“I wore this before I knew babies died,” she said. “This is like donating an organ, like pieces of my heart are being spread out across the community.”

And she told Mangiaracina her story. About the sorrow and trauma that came with the news that her baby had died while safely snuggled under her heart. About the scant few hours she had to hold her. About how the loss of Grace forever changed her and her family.

She also talked about her wedding day, and how she’d felt like a princess in that gown.

“Every dress has a story,” Mangiaracina said.

The story of Sarah’s wedding dress isn’t over. Sometime in the next year, grieving parents will carefully dress their baby in a bit of ivory satin. Tears will likely dampen delicate beadwork. And the gown that Sarah wore with such joy will bring them a measure of comfort and the sweetest whisper of Grace.

Columns

Strengthened by Sympathy

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Within hours after my most recent column ran, notes began to trickle into my inbox. The trickle soon became a flood as kind readers wrote to express their sympathy at the loss of our infant grandson, Ian.

Scores of people responded on social media. Dozens sent cards.

The messages echoed: “We are so sorry.” “You and Alex, Brooke and Farrah are in our thoughts.” “We are praying for you.”

Each one felt like a warm embrace.

Of special comfort – the notes that mentioned Ian by name. To see his name written on cards and emails made me feel that however fleeting his tenure was on this Earth, he mattered.

He will always be Alex and Brooke’s firstborn son. He will always be our first grandchild.

Jaded journalist that I am, I still was profoundly moved by a postcard informing me that the Congressional Prayer Caucus was praying for our family.

I’d never heard of the organization. But it’s an official, bicameral caucus of Congress focused on the role that faith and prayer play in our life and history. Each week the members gather in Room 219 of the Capitol and pray for the nation and for specific prayer requests.

The card read, “We just wanted you to know that we prayed for you this evening. You will remain in our thoughts and prayers.”

Representatives from several states signed the back.

As a person of faith, the knowledge that others are lifting our family up in prayer during this time of sorrow makes the burden of loss seem a bit lighter. It helps to know we aren’t alone in our grief.

My heartfelt gratitude goes out to all who wrote. Your kind thoughts help the healing process, and I sent many of your notes on to Alex and Brooke.

Of course, I’d trade every thought and every prayer to hold Ian in my arms. To watch his eyes flicker open. To hear his cry.

Many who wrote used the words “brave” and “courageous” to describe the column. I didn’t feel brave when I wrote it. I felt broken.

To me, courage describes the parents whose souls are forever seared by grief. The mothers and fathers whose joy and excitement vanishes in the silence of an inexplicably stilled heartbeat.

The members of this tribe are more numerous than I imagined. Many mothers and grandparents wrote, generously sharing their own stories.

Each story mirrored the sadness that my family feels, but also offered words of hope and encouragement.

With her permission, I’m concluding with a note I received from reader Donna Peterson. Her son was stillborn many years ago and her reflections offered great insight and comfort.

She wrote, “I can’t know how you feel, but I have been there, too, with my own child. I am 65 now, so medicine was not as advanced with prenatal issues at the time I lost my son. I had no idea why it happened.

“My daughter, who was 4 at the time said, ‘God took him to heaven and will make him better. Then He will send him back.’

“In 1980 I gave birth to another son. When my daughter looked at him for the first time, she said, ‘See Momma! God sent him back to us!’

“As I read your words I cried again. I grieved a little again – with you – for you and your precious wee one and family.

“Then I remembered my healing moment.

“I had a dream about a poem. I woke up and got my pen to write it down before I forgot the words. For some reason I wanted to share them with you. They are not as eloquent as yours always are, but maybe they might help a tiny bit.”

He would call me Mother

And call his father DAD!

He would be a bright boy …

A handsome, clever lad.

The days passed by so quickly

As joy grew deep within

Then all too soon he left us …

The tiny light grew dim.

Although I’ll always miss him

I will not be sad

For a light will always shine inside

For the son I almost had.

 

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at http://www.spokesman.com/staff/cindy-hval/ Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.