Are there healing ways for all in the family to remember an infant who dies?
This was Ashlee Hammac’s question last October when their baby Ryan died just five days after his birth from Hypox-Ischemic Encephopathy. Though in shock and heartbroken, this mom also recognized her three-year-old son Tucker’s heartbreak at losing his little brother. He had shared months of the family’s joyful anticipation during her pregnancy. He also met Ryan in the hospital NICU room. He knew his mother and father spent day and night reading children’s books to Ryan as a way to bond with their dying child. Realizing Tucker needed a natural way to mourn, she decided to add a sandbox to Ryan’s gravesite so his feelings could be expressed too. “Tucker loves trucks and was always going to the gravesite with me,” said Hammac in an interview with People magazine. “I wanted to make it special for him too. Now he goes out and sings lullabies to him and talks to him just like he was there, almost like they are playing together.”
A National Response
When the photograph above was published, it went viral to over 220,000 users. Hammac received so much virtual support because other parents recognized her unusual thoughtfulness in our mourning-avoidant culture. This also led their family to start a non-profit called “Pages to Memories.” Part of their mission is to collect books for families to read to children in the NICU units in hospitals. “I wanted to feel like Ryan was helping still. In those five days he changed our family.”
Other Ways of Remembrance
Other parents I interviewed for Pilgrimage through Loss mentioned creative ways they found for siblings to remember and talk about their feelings of confusion and loss. When Lorie Sawyer entered unexpected labor and gave birth to premature twins, her daughter and son died within minutes of birth. “I first saw Lori in bed with a baby in each arm, wrapped in the pink and blue blanket I’d brought,” remembers Shelly, Lori’s mother. “Memories of this are still heart-wrenching years later.” But what Lori and Shelly appreciate deeply was the humane and sensitive way the hospital helped their family through such a profound loss. For a brief period, the nurses took the babies to bathe and then brought them back dressed in tiny baby clothes kept on hand for such infants. “What I remember vividly was there was no sense of hurry in the hospital. We could hold and rock the babies as long as we needed,” said this grateful grandmother.
Including Their Other Children
Lori and her husband, Ben, have two older sons who were five and eight and their family wanted to have the babies baptized. Their friend, a female pastor, came to to the hospital to conduct this significant religious ritual, and they named their children Molly and Joseph. They believe this bonding time with their babies have helped Joseph and Molly to always be a part of their family story, important to their older sons. Even their daughter, Annie, born after the twin’s death, gets involved in remembering. “They died shortly before Halloween, so on the first-year anniversary, we released balloons with messages from the boys to their baby brother and sister,” said Lori. “Then, when their father took the boys to get pumpkins, they asked to add two very small ones for the babies. Now it is a tradition to have five pumpkins on the porch each year in memory. Annie, seven, continues this custom now.” She also feels that family rituals need to be natural, not forced, and recognizes that they will change over the years.
In their shock, they hadn’t thought to take pictures, but the nurses took little Polaroids. “These became magically recreated into beautiful photographs through a group of professional volunteer photographers in the Seattle area called Soulumination,” appreciates Lori. “They take life-affirming pictures of terminally ill children to give the family an enduring legacy.” These also help provide a natural way for siblings to talk about baby Molly and Joseph.
These healthy expressions of forever love inevitably help siblings. It’s an important change from earlier times when sorrow often stayed buried in silence.
Do you know of other creative ways families have helped siblings living with a brother or sister’s death?