One by one, the people seated in the pews of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church walked down the shadow-covered aisle in silence to the altar. There, each one lit a slender white candle and leaned into the microphone to say the name of a child whose life ended too soon.
The nearly 30 people were gathered Tuesday evening for the National Day of Remembrance for Pregnancy and Infant Loss, organized by Hospice of Chattanooga. The service was a time for families to share memories, as well as grief, and connect with neighbors who have experienced similar losses.
Melissa Alexander lost her son in the final weeks of her pregnancy in March 2011. She had already named the boy Pete, after her father. Learning at the hospital that the child died was devastating, she said.
"I laid in my bed all night long, poking my belly, hoping he would move," Alexander said.
In the operating room, when it was time to remove him, Alexander knew it would be the last time she would be with her baby, she said. She got to hold the child for a few minutes before handing him over to the doctors. That was the hardest day of her life, she said.
Alexander attends the vigil every year. She brings her two daughters — 11-year-old Karagan and 7-year-old McKenna — and they wear matching blue T-shirts in memory of "Wittle Pete," the way Karagan pronounced her brother's name when she was younger.
"He's part of our family," Alexander said. "We will never forget him."
To contact Lisa Cahill, Erlanger Health System bereavement coordinator, call 423-778-5149
To contact Cynthia and Joel Dewild, email @email@example.com
When Alexander gave birth to her second daughter after losing her son, she still was haunted by grief, she said. Every memory she had with her new daughter — first steps, first words — was a painful reminder of the memories she could not have with Pete.
People often do not know how to grieve when a baby dies, said Susan Latta, director of bereavement for Hospice. Society struggles to recognize the grief of parents whose pregnancy triggers a rush of hopes and dreams for their child but ends in tragedy. People begin making memories with their child long before the child is born, Latta said.
When a child dies during pregnancy, parents are encouraged to still make memories with the child, said Lisa Cahill, Erlanger Health System bereavement coordinator. Parents can wash their child, pick an outfit and dress the child, if they want, she said. Doing these things can bring a sense of closure to a very painful period.
"Those little memories that don't seem like a lot, they won't get to make those memories later," Cahill said.
Cahill said she often connects grieving families with Hospice's support groups for when they leave the hospital.
In the past year, Cynthia and Joel Dewild began taking photographs of the children in Hospice so families can have lasting memories. The couple, who otherwise work as nurses, wanted to share their passion for photography in a way that could help people.
"Photography kind of freezes the moment and gives you the opportunity to hold onto the memories you don't want to lose," Cynthia said.
The Dewild's son was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 2-and-a-half years old. Their son survived, but the experience led the Dewilds to meet many families who lost children. The photography they do now helps families focus on life, not loss, they said.
"You have to see beyond the tubes, the gadgets and the wires and see the beauty in the child," Cynthia Dewild said.
From the reporter
I became a journalist to help people see people as people. But highlighting the human side of every policy decision, and how it is affecting your community, takes time as well as support from readers. If you believe in telling the stories of people in your community, please subscribe to the Times Free Press today. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Find me on Twitter at @News4Mass.