WAKEFIELD, Neb. (KELO) — When dealing with the loss of an infant, either before or after delivery, there are seemingly a million choices parents must face, all in the midst of one of the most intense periods of grieving in their lives. One of these things, not often thought of by society at large, is the clothing their baby will be buried in.
That’s where Brenda Nissen, a nurse and amateur seamstress in northeastern Nebraska, can help. She is one of a network of people who have taken it upon themselves to produce garments called Angel Gowns, handmade outfits stitched together from wedding dresses, to help ease the burden for those who have lost their child.
“I’ve only been doing it about maybe six months,” Nissen, who took it upon herself to start making the gowns for Providence Medical Center in Wayne, Nebraska, said. “I always thought that would be a good program to have at our hospital, but I always thought somebody else should do it.”
Nissen said her mind was changed after the recent death of a fetus at the hospital.
“I finally decided that well maybe I should be doing it, so that’s what I’ve started doing,” Nissen said.
Nissen makes the gowns in the dining room of her home on a century farm, a room in which she is not the first to sew such a garment.
“My grandmother,” Nissen said, while taking a deep breathe before continuing, “lost a two-year-old child to tonsillitis back in 1920 before there was antibiotics, and so in this room where I’m at now, she stayed up all night and had to sew a burial gown for her two year old.”
This personal connection, spanning a century but still felt so strongly in her heart, is emblematic of Nissen’s motivation.
“I can’t imagine the pain that goes along with that, so if we can provide something for a family so that they don’t have that burden that’s the goal of the angel gowns program,” she said.
Nissen is not alone in this service.
“When I first started, I talked to a gal named Anne Livermore in Sioux City. She sews dresses for the Sioux City hospitals — I think it’s more common than you think,” she said of the practice. “I think it’s just not in the news.”
This lack of awareness may come from the tragic nature of the subject.
“It’s uncomfortable to talk about a baby dying, and people who donate their [wedding] gown, and people who sew the gowns don’t necessarily talk about that,” Nissen said. “Most of my friends don’t know I do this. This is just a ministry that I do, and it’s not something I want praise or need praise for. It’s something I do because I think it’s necessary and I’m hoping I can help a family.”
Nissen says this service, which she and others do free of charge, is meant to take one task off the plate of grieving parents.
“I had one mother tell me how she lost — her baby was full term, and she had to go to a children’s clothing store,” Nissen recounts with tears welling in her eyes, “and try to pick out an outfit for her baby, and she said she had to leave — she just couldn’t do that. There was too much pain.”
One particularly heartbreaking challenge for parents who lose children earlier on in their pregnancy is finding clothing that will fit their baby. “These gowns go down to one to one-and-a-half pounds. I don’t know where you’d ever find a gown to bury your two pound baby in,” Nissen said.
The majority of the fabric used by Nissen consists of donated wedding dresses.
“I’ve gotten dresses from women who’ve lost babies and want to help other families. I’ve got dresses from women that are divorced and don’t want to see that dress in their closet anymore. I’ve got dresses from people that have kept their dresses and were married in 1970 like I was and decided they just didn’t want them in their closet anymore,” Nissen said.
While she finds use for other types of dresses such as prom and bridesmaid dresses, Nissen says there is a significance to the use of wedding dresses in particular.
“These babies deserve to be dressed in a wonderful outfit — this gown that you bury your child in, this fabric was used on a day where there was joy and love thick in the air, and so then this gown was given in love to someone who sews, and the person who sews sewed it with love. So your child is wrapped — this fabric is wrapped in love for your child,” Nissen said.
In addition to the gowns, Nissen sews together something else; small fabric hearts meant to serve as a keepsake of sorts.
“When you bury your baby in this outfit, you have pictures but you don’t get to touch it anymore — you don’t get to feel it, and that’s another loss,” Nissen said.
Nissen says the hearts are made from the same fabric as the gowns. “[The heart] goes to the mother that buried her child in this dress because it’s something she can feel and touch and look at — this is something else tangible that her baby touched.”
Nissen and others who do this work rely on donations of material for this service.
“This could not be done without the generous donation of women who call me and offer me and anyone else who sews these gowns their dresses,” she said. “I’ve probably spent over a couple hundred dollars. If I don’t have nice fabric for vests, I buy fabric from the store. If I don’t have enough lining for a dress, I buy special lining from the store.”
Nissen says she and many others are not known by the hospitals to which they provide gowns, doing this all purely as an act of service.
If you or somebody you know are interested in donating a dress, Nissen recommends reaching out to the hospitals in your area, who may be able to put you in touch with someone sewing locally.
If you would like to donate dresses or fabric to Nissen directly, you can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.