BRANDON — It used to be that when a woman lost a baby at or near birth, it was rare she would even know whether it was a boy or a girl.
There were no photographs, no funeral, no conversations. It was as if the baby never existed.
One woman relayed a story to Brandon Regional Hospital nurse Laurie Van Damme about how her stillborn baby, many years ago, was placed in a margarine tub and taken away before she ever got a glimpse of it.
The hospital’s Perinatal Bereavement Program, which Van Damme developed, has helped to change that for today’s parents. One change is that now, for the seventh year, families who have lost babies before or at birth can gather for the Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Ceremony in Adam’s Garden, a quiet place for reflection in front of the hospital where columns hold tiles naming the babies lost too soon. This year alone, there have been 85.
This year’s ceremony takes place on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
One of the names on those tiles is Emma Jean Clayson, born to Whitney Gunder on Feb. 22, 2010. The baby died just hours after her birth. Gunder will sing during the Tuesday ceremony, which begins at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public.
Emma Jean had genetic complications and Gunder knew even before her birth that she would not survive. Van Damme came to her and told her about the perinatal bereavement program, which includes having the baby photographed just after birth so the family will have something to hold on to.
“Thanks to Laurie, we have lots of pictures,” Gunder said. “And every year, we celebrate Emma’s birthday.” Now, she will bring her young son, Jackson to the garden to remember his sister.
Another of those tiles holds the name of a child lost in 1982, long before Adam’s Garden was established. Van Damme remembers watching the mother approach the tile, touch it and cry. It was the first time, she said later, that her baby’s existence had been acknowledged.
The nurses and physicians at Brandon Regional are paying for an extension to Adam’s Garden, to make room for more tiles on two more columns and a concrete wall that will hold tiles for another 15 years or so. Van Damme said the two new columns will be in place for Tuesday’s ceremony. The remainder of the extension should be completed by year’s end.
“Most times, there are no answers as to why these babies die,” Van Damme said. “But a garden like this is especially important to help people get that acknowledgement. It’s especially important for people who lose babies under 20 weeks” gestation, because they typically don’t get the same kind of family support as mothers of babies who are further along.
“The world says the baby doesn’t matter, that it never existed,” she said. The families know differently. In most cases these days, the babies are named, even though they don’t live much past birth or die before they ever experience the world.
“Losing a baby before or shortly after birth is unlike any other type of loss,” Van Damme said. “Oftentimes these families experience birth and death all in the same day — sometimes in the same breath. They have few memories left behind to comfort them in their time of sorrow, and so their journey through the grief is often a lonely and complicated one.
“We extend an invitation to all individuals and families who have experienced the loss of an infant through miscarriage, stillbirth or early newborn death,” Van Damme said.
The ceremony will include a few words from hospital staff and members of local clergy, an invitation to parents to share their story if they desire, live musical performances, and a candle lighting at 7 p.m. Refreshments will also be served.
Adam’s Garden is located at the northeast corner of the hospital lawn at Parsons Avenue and Oakfield Drive in Brandon.