Angel Gowns Help Bring Comfort to Grieving Parents
Justine Deslauriers was devastated when she lost her baby at 20 weeks pregnant. One of the things that helped her get through that difficult time in the hospital was an angel gown.
"It was comforting to receive this during such a painful time," says Deslauriers, 31, a government worker in Sheldon, Vermont. "It felt like someone cared and was thinking about our family and the child we lost."
An angel gown (also known as an angel outfit) is a tiny custom-made baby burial dress, often stitched together from donated wedding dresses. These outfits are made for families who experience a late miscarriage, a stillbirth, or an infant loss soon after birth. Organizations making these gowns exist all around the country, including in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, Florida, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, California, Alaska, and Indiana. Many of them were founded in the last decade and typically distribute these gowns to hospitals or directly to bereaved families.
Requests for angel gowns have been increasing every year, says Alisha Neal, founder of Angel Babies, a non-profit in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, which has been providing free, custom-made angel kits to grieving families across the country since 2018. In the first year Angel Babies made the kits, which include a gown, blanket, keepsake, and two hats, it gave out 175—this year it is expected to exceed more than 3,000 due to increased awareness about this service.
Pregnancy and infant loss, says Neal, has been a "taboo subject for a long time" and organizations that make gowns are helping families in their darkest days and raising awareness. She knows this firsthand having started the organization to provide support services to bereaved parents in 2012, in memory of the daughter she lost at 17 weeks. "Making the kits, collecting dresses from people who donate, talking about this with people all over the country, the volunteers who help make the gowns and distribute them—all of it sheds a light on infant loss and takes away some of the secrecy that often accompanies this," says Neal.
Raising awareness is important since pregnancy and infant loss is common. Approximately 1 in 4 pregnancies results in a miscarriage with a majority of them occurring before 12 weeks. There are also an estimated 26,000 stillbirths (losing an unborn baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy) annually. And complications from a premature birth (birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy) is the leading cause of death for infants.
Cara MacLean, 38, a postpartum and bereavement doula in East Freetown, Massachusetts, has helped many families experiencing loss, but this year she was also the recipient of an angel kit. MacLean—who began volunteering with Angel Babies in 2019 and later became a staff member—was given an angel kit after the baby she was carrying as a surrogate died at 19 weeks.
After a routine ultrasound showed no heartbeat, MacLean says that she and the intended family were heartbroken. MacLean was later induced and delivered a baby boy. Receiving the angel kit meant an incredible amount to them all. "After being on the receiving end of getting an angel gown, I saw even more how much this loss support means and it affirmed just how important this work is," says MacLean. "We want families to know that they are not alone and that their baby matters."
An angel gown can also help with some of the painful end-of-life preparations. Many times, these losses happen suddenly. That can include when medical intervention is necessary to terminate a pregnancy. "We have received requests from families who found out that their baby has a severe fetal abnormality or the birthing person's health was at great risk and they were not able to continue with the pregnancy," says Neal. It can be nearly impossible to find an outfit to fit a baby of such small size. Since angel gowns are custom made for an infant, they can give grieving parents one less thing to worry about during an already painful time.
"It took the pressure off; it helped with the concerns over what can we send our child off in," says Deslauriers. "The gown made me feel as if my baby was bundled, warm, and cared for."
These gowns can also improve the kind of grief care offered to bereaved parents in the hospital. Neal donates angel kits to several hospitals across the country and says when a family loses a baby, there is very little a medical provider can do to alleviate the tremendous pain. Angel gowns provide comfort and also help patients honor the child they lost by giving them an opportunity to take photos with their baby in the special outfit if they desire to do so.
"Having something tangible, such as pictures to look back on and to share with other loved ones, siblings, and friends can help continue the bond with the baby who died and serve as a means to carry on their memory," says Miriam Benhaim, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, who, along with the executive director, R. Benyamin Cirlin, L.C.S.W., runs the Center for Loss and Renewal in New York City.
Deslauriers understands how important that can be. When her baby died, she and her husband took pictures with their son in his angel gown and spent these final moments together. "We will never get these moments with our son again but having these photos to remember him was really important," she says.
Families in need of an angel gown can speak with their hospital, local bereavement groups, or reach out directly to one of the organizations that make these gowns.
While there is little anyone can say to take away the pain of pregnancy and infant loss, Neal says being able to provide bereaved parents a gown through Angel Babies, "allows them to give a family something that helps honor their babies' first, last, and only moments."