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Honoring and remembering the lives of their little ones

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Memorial programs at Methodist Charlton and Methodist Dallas help parents cope long-term with perinatal loss

When Andra Hunter learned she had lost her baby just days before she was due to give birth at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, the shock and grief that followed were unlike anything she'd ever faced.

"My husband and I were overwhelmed, unprepared, and in completely uncharted territory," Andra recalls. "The care and compassion we received from the Methodist Dallas staff helped us get through it. Our relationship with them has made all the difference in the world, then and now."

The loss of a baby is one of the most painful and complex losses that life can offer, which is why the labor and delivery teams at Methodist Charlton and Methodist Dallas Medical Centers have created special memorial programs that help parents cope with their loss by honoring the memory of their child.

A place for temperance and reflection at Methodist Charlton

At Methodist Charlton, families who experience perinatal loss (the loss of a baby during pregnancy or shortly after birth) have the opportunity to remember their child with a special brick placed in the hospital's Garden of Angels.

Located on hospital grounds immediately adjacent to the labor and delivery unit, the Garden of Angels is a secluded courtyard that's accessible around-the-clock. Noteworthy features of the garden include an angel water fountain, a towering Japanese maple, and a colorful abundance of forget-me-not flowers that are replenished on a regular basis.

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"The garden is a very special place for our families and our staff," explains Kimberly Burgess, RN, bereavement care coordinator at Methodist Charlton. "It's a quiet, peaceful area where people can sit and reflect."

The central feature of the Garden of Angels is the more than 100 bricks inscribed with the names of lost loved ones, primarily babies of Methodist patients.

"Most of the bricks were purchased by families at Methodist hospitals who have experienced perinatal loss - but anyone is welcome to visit the garden and remember a lost loved one, whether they have a brick there or not," Burgess explains. "The funds generated from brick sales help us pay for the garden's maintenance."

It's not uncommon for families to also place personal mementos in the garden, often on their baby's brick. "Families bring balloons, flowers, all kinds of things," Burgess says. "We also have a ceremony each December where parents can place an ornament in memory of their baby on a Christmas tree that's located in our chapel. Parents are grateful to have opportunities to display these important visible reminders of their child."

A meaningful tradition at Methodist Dallas

Tactile reminders that connect grieved parents to babies they've lost can be meaningful and healing, says Deborah Ernst, a case consultant and bereavement counselor at Methodist Dallas.

"Parents who have lost a baby don't get to experience those daily connections with the various life stages that children go through," Ernst explains. "That's why having personal items that remind them of their baby, something that they can see and touch year after year, provides solace and comfort."

Similar to Methodist Charlton, each December, Methodist Dallas invites families who have experienced the loss of a baby, whether it was recently or years ago, to a special ceremony in Hitt Auditorium that's centered around the hospital's Memorial Christmas Tree. After the ceremony, the tree is placed in the hospital chapel.

"We call out the name of each child during the ceremony, and the parents step forward and place an engraved or handmade ornament on the tree - it usually bears the name and sometimes the picture of their child," Ernst says. "They then light a candle in honor of their child's memory before returning to their seat."

The tree ceremony, which is conducted in Spanish and in English, also includes a group reading of specially selected poems, as well as the presentation of a rose and a snowflake ornament to each mom, the latter of which may be placed on her own tree at home. An organist volunteers each year to provide music.

"Some of our families have been coming for years," Ernst says. "They dress up and invite their extended family members and make it part of their annual holiday tradition. They will show up no matter what the weather is like."

Since the program began, the Memorial Tree has grown from a small 3-foot-tall tree placed on a table to a floor-to-ceiling tree that's teeming with ornaments from years past.

"Being able to see those ornaments each year helps moms stay connected with their babies," Ernst says. "It's just one of the reasons why this program is so important to our families, which in turn makes it very special for our staff members to be able to offer it to them."

A sense of community

Programs like the ones at Methodist Charlton and Methodist Dallas also give parents the invaluable opportunity to connect with families who have experienced a similar loss, says Andra, who began volunteering at the tree ceremony after the loss of her daughter Lindley.

"The tree ceremony is a phenomenally important day for our family each year," Andra says. "It's a time that we can think about Lindley and be in the company of people who have gone through the same experience. It's very touching to see families who have gotten to know each other reconnect each year - and to watch the families who have been coming for a while comfort the newer ones. "

A few years ago, Andra worked with Methodist Dallas staff to add a new element to the event: a musical number at the end of the ceremony that's performed by siblings.

"We give them sticks with bells on them upon which they can write the name of their sibling, and then we have them come up front and sing Spanish and English versions of 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' and 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer ' while they jingle the bells, " Andra says. "It's both an opportunity to have the siblings get involved and to end the ceremony on a life-affirming, positive note."

Would you like to support the Garden of Angels at Methodist Charlton or the Memorial Christmas Tree at Methodist Dallas? To learn more about the Methodist Foundation or to make a designated gift, click here.