Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Local Organization Helps Families Experiencing Stillbirth, Infant Loss to Not Leave Hospital With Empty Arms

Nonprofit organization Weighted Angels provides stuffed animals to families who have experienced stillbirth or infant loss to give them something to hold when leaving the hospital. (Courtesy of Weighted Angels)

HAMPTON ROADS — For families coping with the loss of an infant, one of the most difficult parts is leaving the hospital without something to hold.

Weighted Angels is a local nonprofit organization that provides comfort to families experiencing infant loss and stillbirth on the Virginia Peninsula with hand-crafted stuffed animals that match the weight of the child lost.

The idea for Weighted Angels came during a dinner with a group of women who had all experienced the loss of a pregnancy or infant.

“We were just talking about how one of the hardest parts was leaving the hospital with empty arms when you spend your pregnancy planning and you have these dreams of this future that’s about to happen, and then it’s just gone,” Weighted Angels board member Erin Miller said. “And it was just born from that conversation.”

All board members are women who have experienced this loss, which Miller said makes it more meaningful to communicate with families going through this event.

Since 2019, Weighted Angels has provided sets of stuffed animals to local hospitals, including Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Henrico Doctors’ Hospital, Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and Sentara OBICI Hospital.

The families who have lost a child receive a package that includes a Weighted Angel that matches the weight of the child that was lost. Each animal also matches the weight and name of a child lost by a founding member of the board. 

“For example, if an eight-pound baby passes away at the hospital, the mom there would receive a box with a moose in it, which weighs eight pounds and 10.9 ounces, which was the weight of my son,” Miller said.

The stuffed animal comes in a package with a brochure and a custom letter written by the board member who is the mother of the baby the Weighted Angel is named after.

They also provide a list of bereavement resources, including doulas and photographers who can respond to hospitals quickly to take photos of the babies.

“It seems like it’s just a stuffed animal, but it’s really a profound experience to hold something, even years later, that feels like how your baby would feel,” Miller said. “My son would be 14, and I’m still amazed when I pick [the stuffed moose] up, like, that is what he felt like.”

Hospitals receive one full set that includes Riley Giraffe (one-two pounds), Landon Elephant (three pounds), Ellett Deer (four pounds), Honor Lamb (five pounds), Zion Lion (six pounds), Finley Bunny (seven pounds), Odin Moose (eight pounds) and Laken Sloth (nine+ pounds).

The animals, which are handmade by volunteers and team members, are stuffed with different materials to get each one to weigh a particular amount, Miller said.

“It’s hard with such a small group of women,” Miller said. “But we’ve distributed the responsibilities as much as we can so we make sure that the animals are getting produced and hospitals are getting stocked. And we are always trying to spread the word about our mission so we can get support from volunteers and donors.” 

Weighted Angels holds several fundraisers throughout the year. Its third annual 5k took place earlier this month in Williamsburg.

Other events include a spaghetti dinner and silent auction, profit share nights and handmade holiday ornament sales.

Miller said that through all of this, the team has found that losing a child is more common than people realize.

“It’s just amazing how many people have come and told us their story about their loss and how only if we were around years ago when they went through this,” she said. “We’ve had many, many requests for animals to be made for people who are not in this area.”

While Miller said that the team does accommodate and fill these orders when they can, the priority now is to keep the local hospitals stocked.

“It’s hard being in this industry, because when we’re busy, we can’t say business is good because it’s a heartbreaking situation,” Miller said.

However, Miller noted that the nursing staff and heads of delivery departments at the hospitals have shown a lot of support.

“The feedback from the hospitals has been nothing but overwhelming,” she said. “They can see the value in what we do, because they’re the ones that have to have that really personal interaction with these families right in the moment.”

Hospitals might receive several sets of animals a year, depending on the traffic. Miller said that on average, the team has produced 20 sets a year, not including individual requests.

“Nothing will ever replace their child, but it gives them something to physically hold because there is a physical pain and ache that comes with that kind of loss,” Miller said. “And holding something at least makes it a little bit easier to bear.”

To learn more about Weighted Angels or how you can help, please visit the organization’s website.

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