After stillborn baby, couple starts burial gowns nonprofit
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Heather Wilson flips through a scrapbook documenting the pregnancies and births of her two daughters.
There are hospital bands from the days she went into labor, portrait photos of her pregnant belly, stickers featuring storks and flowers.
The last page, devoted to her first daughter, Kennedy, features two tiny footprints.
“Big feet just like Mommy’s!” the page says.
“This is all we have for Kennedy, are her footprints,” Wilson says. “This is literally all we have.”
Kennedy Milan Wilson died Aug. 17, 2009, delivered stillborn at Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk. Heather Wilson suffered a placental abruption at 36 weeks pregnant that suffocated Kennedy in the womb.
Eight years later, Heather and her husband Demitri Wilson have started a nonprofit in Kennedy’s name, an organization meant to guide and assist families who experience similar loss. They now hope to use their story to “break the silence” surrounding miscarriage and stillbirth, a topic often confined to families’ homes and not openly discussed.
But for a long time, the couple says, it was a lot easier not to talk about it.
“She was perfect”
Wilson had been home when she had a “mother’s instinct” that something was not right - she felt no movement in her belly.
She called Demitri, a firefighter in Suffolk, who came home, told her everything was OK and poured her some orange juice.
“Typically she would really start kicking with the orange juice,” Heather said. But this time: nothing.
They hopped in the car and drove straight to Sentara Leigh.
Soon doctors swirled in and out of their room and performed all sorts of tests. Then came the two words forever etched in their memory:
Shocked, confused and heartbroken, Heather still had to deliver. More than 25 hours later, Kennedy was born, eyes closed and looking just “like she was sleeping.”
Recalling that moment from their Virginia Beach home last week, the couple said it was surprisingly peaceful.
“She was perfect. She was beautiful,” said Heather, now 37. “Everyone would think it’d be very morbid. It was peaceful.”
Demitri, now 44, said he was angry but grew calm with his baby in his arms.
“Obviously we knew she was dead. But you never felt death” in that room, he said.
After a few days in the hospital, Heather and Demitri had to say goodbye to their baby girl. Her body was starting to break down and every time they wanted to see her, she had to be brought up from a special temperature-controlled room.
So they went home, alone.
“At that point we had had three baby showers for Kennedy. The whole entire nursery was completely put together, everything was ready for her to come home,” Heather said. “Instead of preparing our daughter for her nursery, we were preparing her for her funeral.”
But when the family went looking for a burial gown for Kennedy - an elegant one, befitting their little princess - nothing was right. Even doll clothes were too big, Heather said. So they ended up with a dress that was “just swimming on her.”
That always stuck out in Heather’s mind.
So last year, seven Augusts after Kennedy’s death, she had an idea.
Through her grief, she’d always wanted to find a way to help others. She works in foster care and adoption at the Up Center in Norfolk.
For a long time Heather was depressed, too afraid to talk about her experience.
“I bottled everything up and I didn’t talk about it,” she said. “I wasn’t allowing myself to properly grieve.”
But she remembered that dress that looked enormous on her baby girl, and got out the sewing machine.
Breaking the silence
Heather has always loved to sew - a talent she got from her grandmother.
Her idea was to start sewing small enough gowns for families like hers, families that experience stillborn birth and want to hold funerals for their babies. Families that want to bury their children in something special.
Soon, word got out about her hand-sewn dresses.
Thus was born Kennedy’s Angel Gowns, a nonprofit the couple launched late last year.
They donate burial gowns and suits for stillborn babies made from donated wedding dresses - they can make up to a dozen with just one donated dress.
Sitting on the couch of her living room last week, Heather brought out boxes of intricate hand-sewn gowns, some heartbreakingly tiny.
“These are for micro preemies,” she said, holding up a white silk wrap for babies born less than 1 pound, 12 ounces or before 26 weeks.
They all come with matching bonnets. Booties and sock hats are sometimes donated as well.
At the moment, Kennedy’s Angel Gowns operates mostly on word of mouth, through families and hospital contacts. Some recipients have included friends, or people who had donated a gown only to end up needing one for their own lost child.
Victoria Loyd, 23, who lives in Chesapeake, gave birth to her son, Zaine - who her family calls Zaine-Chosen because he was their “chosen” one - in late May at just 28 weeks pregnant. He was stillborn and weighed less than 2 pounds, Loyd said.
Grieving and trying to plan Zaine’s funeral, Loyd struggled to find clothing that would fit her son.
“I had no clue” where to find it, she said. “You don’t think about that stuff.”
Then “by the grace of God,” a friend sent her a Facebook message about Kennedy’s Angel Gowns, and she met Heather Wilson.
“I wanted my son to have the best stuff because he was the best thing to ever happen to me,” Loyd said. Heather “made that happen.”
At his viewing, Zaine wore a “beautiful” tiny custom tuxedo and matching hat from the nonprofit. Loyd said it was a tremendous help not only to receive her son’s burial attire, but to receive guidance from someone who’s been through the same traumatic experience.
The organization also helps bereaved families with funeral costs and has vowed to soon donate a “Cuddle Cot” to each hospital in Hampton Roads.
The cots, which will be shipped in from Australia, are small temperature-controlled beds, cooling stillborn babies to preserve their bodies so they can stay by the bedside of their grieving parents for up to five days, longer than normally possible.
“You should be able to have that time as long as you can to be with your child,” Demitri said.
The organization has raised more than $10,000 so far. They held an “Angel Ball” fundraiser in April and have received donations from individuals and companies - even a check in the mail from Wawa.
Next up, they’ll be speaking at Norfolk’s “Vibes Fest” at The Gallery at Military Circle on July 29, and are planning a 5K race fundraiser in October at Virginia Wesleyan College.
October’s a big month for families who have experienced this particular kind of loss, Heather said: It’s National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.
About 24,000 babies are stillborn each year in the United States - a number more than 10 times greater than deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black women and women 35 or older are particularly vulnerable, the CDC says.
Because of the prevalence of stillbirths and miscarriages, Heather said it’s important to “break the silence.”
“People are so afraid and it’s such a silent topic. People don’t talk about it. You won’t hear (the baby’s) name again,” she said. “So hearing her name and talking about her, those things help. With Kennedy’s Angel Gowns we now get to hear her name” all the time.
Her advice to friends of families who experience the trauma: Keep the baby’s name alive, keep talking about them.
“She was here”
The year after Kennedy’s death, the Wilsons welcomed daughter Ryleigh, who’s now 6. They also have a 20-year-old son, Demitri, from his father’s previous marriage.
But still, for Heather, Christmas is tough.
“I can’t help but to think I should have three kids playing with their gifts under the tree,” she said.
The pair hopes their organization can help achieve what its motto states:
In your arms a moment.
In your heart a lifetime.
The Wilsons want parents to have mementos to hold onto - even if just a little bit more than the brief time they were able to hold Kennedy and the tiny footprints at the end of a scrapbook.
Kennedy “existed. She was here, she was a person,” Heather said. “She made an impact and her legacy is living on. And I don’t want anyone to ever forget her.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com