Angel Gowns Offer Dignity and Beauty to Families Who Have Suffered the Loss of a Baby

For families who have suffered the unimaginable loss of a child before, during or shortly after birth, tiny handmade gowns called angel gowns offer dignity and beauty. They are worn by a newborn in his or her last moments and used for photos, memorial services or when family and friends come to say goodbye.

Whether it’s from an accident or natural causes, the death of a baby is a heartbreaking event for all involved. For many families, the loss of a baby is even harder to cope with because there’s no way to fix what happened or make it right.

For decades, labor and delivery nurse Tess Soholt has tried to help these families in need by providing them with something beautiful. But last year, the tragedy struck close to home when her son and daughter-in-law lost their infant at just 18 weeks gestation. That’s when she began to rethink her retirement and started Andrew’s Angel Gowns, named after the little boy who never got to meet them.

Soholt now aims to provide hundreds of these special gowns every year to grieving parents across the country. Each dress starts out as a wedding dress, which she and dozens of volunteers turn into something more meaningful. The gowns are then donated to hospitals and bereavement groups that give them to families whose babies have died before, during or shortly after birth.

Each kit includes a beautiful white silk angel gown, a pink or blue blanket, two soft hats and a memorial trinket. It’s a small but profoundly meaningful initiative that can change a difficult time for a family.

Gayle Fleury runs a similar program in San Pedro, California. Her team of seamstresses sews colorful gowns for hospice patients and their children. They also stitch face coverings, such as bonnets and hats, for babies in intensive care units at Providence Trinity Care Hospice. She and her volunteers also sewed about 6,500 face coverings for patients during the pandemic.

Fleury says she’s amazed by the generosity of the community. “People will just come in and tell us they want to donate a gown or a kit, or they want to get involved,” she says. “It’s just a whole lot of love and caring for these families.”

NICU Helping Hands, founded by pediatrician Kelsey Chesney, has already turned 40 dresses into angel gowns for bereaved families. It’s a small part of the work the group does, which is to bring comfort and support to families who are going through the most terrible kind of pain.

Each gown costs $30 to make, and each wedding dress yields about 12 to 20 of them. Some of the dresses are donated by older women who had a baby stillborn years ago, and others come from thrift stores or the attics of people who have passed away. Some of the seamstresses will stitch phrases like “heaven’s angel” and other personal messages into the garments, and one seamstress has been sewing bells onto each dress lately. It’s a nod to the ending of the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart’s character, Clarence, rings a bell to receive his wings.