TACOMA – Almost 18 years ago, Jeannette and Bill Dorner lost a child when Jeannette went into premature labor.
“We were 20 weeks pregnant until all of a sudden we weren’t,” Jeannette said. “We weren’t prepared for that possibility. We had no idea what to do.”
“You just don’t plan for something like that,” Bill said. “When you’re going to have a child, there’s hopes and dreams and anticipation of a baby.”
“To have that loss, it’s like someone cut off the lights.”
At the hospital, the staff allowed the Dorners to spend some time with their son, who they named Johnathan, to say goodbye. They gave the couple a memory box for Johnathan’s blankets, images of his footprints and the Polaroid pictures they had taken of him.
Shortly after their loss, the Dorners decided to help other grieving families. In 2003, they started the Beloved Little Ones ministry at their parish, Our Lady Queen of Heaven in Tacoma.
“You assume this situation is unique,” Bill Dorner said. “You don’t realize how many people experience this loss.”
According to the federal government’s Office on Women’s Health, 10 to 15 percent of confirmed pregnancies are lost, and many miscarriages happen before a woman knows she is pregnant (after 20 weeks, a lost pregnancy is called a stillbirth).
The members of Beloved Little Ones include parishioners who have experienced pregnancy loss or know a family member or close friend who has — or who just want to help others, said member Teri DeGroote.
“We’re to be Christ for one another,” DeGroote said. “I can’t think of a better way to [be] Christ-like than to support people when they are grieving and when they are really suffering.”
Since it began in 2003, the Beloved Little Ones ministry at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Parish in Tacoma has donated 6,500 items to area hospitals for families who have lost a baby. Photo: Teri DeGroote
Acknowledging tiny lives lost
Members of Beloved Little Ones make items, such as memory boxes, to help families through their grief. Over the years, using funds contributed by parishioners, the ministry has donated some 6,500 items to hospitals in Tacoma, Puyallup, Auburn and Covington, as well as Madigan Army Medical Center near Lakewood, DeGroote said.
Although ministry members don’t have direct contact with families, hospital staffers have sent letters expressing appreciation for their work, said parishioner Karen Cole.
In addition to the boxes, members sew gowns, make bracelets and knit and crochet pouches that parents can place their babies in for keepsake photographs, Cole said. Other items include homemade soft felt hearts to carry in a pocket as a remembrance, and tiny rosaries purchased for Catholic families.
The group also buys teddy bears, since they are a much-requested item by the hospitals, DeGroote said.
“It’s important for the mom to leave the hospital holding something because the plan was to leave with the baby,” she explained.
When DeGroote suffered her own pregnancy loss in the early 1980s, she said, the attitude was “you just sucked it up and moved on.”
Now, through her work with Beloved Little Ones and hospital staff members, DeGroote said she has learned how important it is to acknowledge the tiny life lost.
One way the ministry helps parents do that is by providing pins that feature a black ribbon with tiny footprints on it, a remembrance that DeGroote said was designed by the ministry members and a former hospital staffer.
“It’s a conversation starter,” DeGroote said. “It helps the family when someone comments on it, because they need to tell their story.”
Space to grieve
Every year, families can tell their stories after a remembrance Mass celebrated at Our Lady Queen of Heaven on the Friday before Mother’s Day.
“We felt this was a way to help people have a space to be able to grieve,” Bill Dorner said of the annual event, which began in 2010. And it helps people heal if they can vocalize their story, he said.
At the first event, “it was such a powerful experience for us to be able to relate with one another,” Dorner added.
About 70 people participate each year, Cole said. The event is open to all, so the ministry spreads the word through local hospitals and the Pierce, South Sound and South King deaneries, Cole said.
DeGroote told the story of a family who attended the Mass after experiencing a pregnancy loss many years before.
“It was heart-wrenching to see this man who sobbed through Mass, but he said later [that] this was the funeral he never had,” she said.
DeGroote said she believes the items provided by Beloved Little Ones will help all family members affected by the loss, whether at the hospital, or later on as they continue processing the grief.
“They may not even appreciate it at the moment, since they’re too caught up in their grief to understand the meaning,” De Groote said, “but later they can go back through the box and remember.”
The memory box the Dorners received at the hospital helped spark a conversation with their two younger children about their brother, Bill Dorner said.
“Everyone grieves in a different way,” he said. “They find value in the things we [as a ministry] do to help people remember and reflect on their loss.”
“We give people a way to remember that life.”
Resources for pregnancy loss
The archdiocese’s Office of Marriage and Family Life offers resources for those who have experienced pregnancy loss. For additional support, call 206-274-3177.