Many families face the tragic loss of their infant due to miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth. These parents have to prepare for a funeral, make final arrangements and say goodbye to their baby before they even meet them. Having the right outfit for their child can help them feel like their baby is being honored in the last moments of life. That’s where angel gowns come in. They’re custom-made burial suits from wedding dresses, formal gowns and other dress wear that have been donated to comfort bereaved families.
A local nonprofit, Angel Babies, has been supplying hospitals with the gowns since 2018. A package that includes a gown, blanket, keepsake and two hats can be sent to a family for free, if they request it. Alisha Neal, founder of the organization, says requests are on the rise. She explains that there are many reasons why a baby may be born too early, including a fetal abnormality or medical intervention to terminate the pregnancy.
The volunteer seamstresses who work with these families have a passion for what they do. The group is a non-profit, and the women donate their time and supplies. A back closet in Egnatuk’s home is filled with gowns, and she constantly needs more material. She also keeps a plastic baby model by her sewing machine to remind herself why she and the other volunteers do what they do.
Edith Hauer, a 66-year-old retiree from Indiana, was reading the newspaper in her living room in 2014 when she saw an article about an angel gown program at Riley Children’s Health in Indianapolis. A registered nurse named Judi Gibson was recruiting local seamstresses to create the special outfits for babies who died in the hospital’s NICU. But it was too much for one person to do alone.
That’s when Edith stepped in. She had been sewing for years and knew she could help the Gibsons. She read the articles and contacted Judi. The pair worked together for more than three years.
During that time, the pair grew their group to include more seamstresses from across the state and beyond. They now supply four local hospitals—Roper St. Francis, East Cooper, MUSC and Palmetto—as well as four in North Carolina (UNC, Duke, Brenner and Levine). They’ve also sent gowns to hospitals in Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky.
The seamstresses personalize the outfits by adding touches like embroidered phrases, tiny teddy bears and antique buttons from their mothers’ collections. Shirley adds bells on each piece, a nod to the classic scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart’s character rings a bell after helping Clarence the angel. They send the outfits to hospitals, funeral homes and directly to grieving families. The Williamsons received a gown for their son when they lost him at 20 weeks. The couple is now paying it forward. “We feel it’s important to help those that need it,” she said. “That’s what we’re all about.” The outfits are given to families for free.