Personalized mementos can help families cope with loss of a baby

March 2024
Julie Lazar-Reskakis, perinatal bereavement specialist at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, likes to give families choice when they are experiencing infant loss. Among the choices of keepsakes she offers are teddy bears, personalized crib cards and handmade infant burial gowns and caps.


Beth Pahnke of Waunakee, Wisconsin, donated her 1994 wedding dress to be transformed into burial gowns for babies.

When Beth Pahnke of Waunakee, Wisconsin, recently put her 1994 wedding dress into her garage sale, a customer mentioned that her dress could serve a higher purpose — she could donate it. An online search revealed she could give her dress to nearby SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital — Madison, where a hospital volunteer transforms donated wedding dresses into burial gowns for babies.

"I hadn't heard of this before, but it was a no-brainer to donate the dress," Pahnke explained. "I experienced a stillbirth many years ago. You don't forget it. I moved forward, but I understand what people are going through."

St. Mary's is among many ministry facilities that offer families mementos and other items to honor the dignity of their baby who is dying or who has passed. The items are gifted to the families as part of the facilities' Catholic health mission. As the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services says, "… as a witness to its faith, a Catholic health care institution will be a community of respect, love, and support to patients or residents and their families as they face the reality of death."

Health St. Mary's Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, stocks multiple keepsakes in Olivia's Room to offer families whose babies are dying or have died. A team in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit created Olivia's Room as a tribute to a baby who was stillborn.

Passion projects
Joanne Johnson, St. Mary's director of volunteer services and guest relations, says the wedding dress donation program began around 2019 when a woman who loved sewing and had heard of the concept of creating burial gowns from wedding dresses offered her services.

When St. Mary's sought out dresses, "there was an outpouring from our community," with dozens of dresses sent in — even a few from out of state, says Johnson.

She says with the dresses come touching notes and stories from the donors. When a couple sent the dress of their daughter who had died of brain cancer, they included a photo of the woman in her dress along with a note for St. Mary's to share with the family whose baby would benefit from the gown. That note spoke of how their daughter would have been honored to help a family in this way. Another donor wrote that she was giving her dress in honor of her mother, who had died. The donor wrote that the dress had been made with love by her mom, and now a little one could be wrapped in that love.

The donors "want to bring comfort to those who have had this loss," Johnson says. "These mementos are very meaningful — we honor and respect life, regardless of how long that life was."

The seamstress uses the embellishments from each dress to make original designs. She can make several gowns from one dress. When the gowns are completed, Johnson sends them as well as any messages from the donors to the neonatal intensive care unit, where they are placed in a special space called Olivia's Room.

Comfort for donor, recipient
A team in the neonatal intensive care unit created Olivia's Room about a dozen years ago in honor of a baby who was stillborn. The team wanted a place to keep all of the materials they had on hand to "help families go through the journey of grief," says Brandi Hoesley, who works in St. Mary's NICU and serves on its perinatal bereavement team.

In the room there is a "cuddle cot" that can be rolled into the room of a mother whose baby has been stillborn. This high-tech bassinet keeps the baby's body cool to slow bodily changes. This gives the family more time to spend with the baby before they have to say goodbye.

As part of the HeartPrint grief support program for families whose baby has died, Mercy Hospital Springfield in Missouri offers keepsakes to memorialize the infant. Other hospitals in the Mercy network also offer HeartPrints.



Olivia's Room also contains numerous items for creating keepsakes for families, such as necklaces and memory boxes. Many of the materials were donated by individuals and foundations in memory of children who have died.

Something tangible
As part of the HeartPrints program, hospitals within the Chesterfield, Missouri-based Mercy system ensure they have items at the ready to provide to families whose babies are dying or have died. Ashley Wilson, who manages Child Life services at Mercy Kids hospital at Mercy Hospital Springfield in Missouri, says it is important to many families who are going through this grief and trauma to have something tangible. The hospitals offer similar mementos for families served by pediatric units.

Health St. Mary's Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, stocks multiple keepsakes in Olivia's Room to offer families whose babies are dying or have died. A team in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit created Olivia's Room as a tribute to a baby who was stillborn.

Wilson's colleague Lisa Logan, neonatal clinical nurse educator and bereavement coordinator, says many parents whose babies die during pregnancy or shortly after birth do not have many material items to help them remember their children. In some cases, women arrive expecting a healthy delivery, are put under anesthesia, and when complications arise, they awake to learn their baby did not survive.

To complement HeartPrint's emotional and spiritual services, Mercy Springfield offers, through the generosity of donors, gifts to these families. Those items can include photos of the baby and family in the hospital, a personalized scrapbook, teddy bears that contain a recording of the baby's heartbeat, bracelets with beads spelling out the baby's name, fingerprint charms for necklaces, handmade afghans, molds and ink prints of the baby's handprints and footprints, personalized decorative plates and memory boxes. Parents can choose a combination of mementos.

Giving control, options

For Julie Lazar-Reskakis, it is important to offer grieving parents many choices for keepsakes. Lazar-Reskakis, perinatal bereavement specialist at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, says, "There is such a loss of control when a parent loses a baby." Through the bereavement services she can provide and through the mementos she has on hand, she tries to give families many options, so they can feel like they are gaining at least a small measure of control.

The Mercy Hospital Springfield bereavement support team collects quotes to include in scrapbooks they can assemble for families whose babies or children have died. Mercy Hospital Springfield is in Missouri.

Similar to the group at Mercy Springfield, Holy Name works with volunteers to offer families of stillborn babies a professional photography session. Lazar-Reskakis has numerous items handmade by donors to give them, including layettes and blankets. She can provide personalized crib cards. She can provide inked footprints and handprints. Most of what she can provide, or the materials to create the items, are from donors who wish to bless families experiencing a loss.

One donor provides personal care bags for the moms with slippers, shower accessories, a journal, forget-me-not seeds, a small ring honoring their baby and informational resources for after discharge.

Lazar-Reskakis says she presents the keepsake options to parents and helps them decide which combination of items will be most appropriate for their family. It doesn't matter what stage of life — before, during or after birth — the loss has happened, Lazar-Reskakis says, a family can use support.

"We have to condense a lifetime of memories into these moments," she says.

"I want to help them minimize regrets," she adds. "I don't want them to have to think, 'I wish I would have.'"


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