When a baby is born prematurely and dies before leaving the hospital, families often receive clothes to help them say goodbye. Known as angel gowns, they come in all sizes for both boys and girls. The gowns are made from donated wedding dresses and sold to hospitals, funeral homes or directly to grieving parents free of charge. The outfits are made with lace, beads, appliques and sequins.
These gowns are the brainchild of a woman named Angel Ray who started Tiny Angel Gowns in Pennsylvania after her cousin’s ill-fated pregnancy. Ray, a retired college professor, was awed by the kindness of strangers who reached out to her family after their loss and saw the need for more preemie angel gowns. Her nonprofit is now nationwide, with more than 500 volunteers working to provide the gowns to grieving families.
The organization sends the gowns to hospitals, bereavement groups and funeral homes across the country. Each kit includes a special gown, a blanket and two hats for the tiny little ones, plus a heart and a memorial trinket. “The idea is to have the gowns ready for those first and last moments, when a child goes home or for pictures, for a memorial service or when family members arrive at the hospital,” Ray said.
At Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, nurses and doctors oversee a Comfort Committee that works with families and babies who may not survive their time in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. One of those staffers, Melissa Tyo, a nurse who works with preemies and their families, says she’s seen the gowns give some families peace of mind and comfort during this difficult time.
“There is something so full circle about it. A bride starts her life and then gives her dress away for this very important reason, and to me that’s just so amazing and moving,” she tells KHOU. Tyo works with a team that collects and transforms the wedding dresses into the angel gowns, which are then delivered to hospitals throughout the nation as part of an organization called Neonatal Intensive-Care Unit Helping Hands.
One of the seamstresses who volunteers her time to make these dresses, Lisa Grubbs, is from Fort Worth. She is able to work with women from around the country who are donating their wedding dresses for this purpose. “There is a connection between a bride’s love for her groom and her love for her unborn child, and when this is done, it’s like a complete circle,” she tells KHOU.
For many families, losing a baby is unimaginable. But the hope that their child will go home in a beautiful, handmade gown is one small measure of comfort. And that’s why programs like this are so needed.