‘Angel gowns’ help one Virginia Beach family remember a life never lived

Demitri and Heather Wilson, parents of Kennedy Milan Wilson, hold sewn garments made from donated wedding dresses.
Demitri and Heather Wilson, parents of Kennedy Milan Wilson, hold sewn garments made from donated wedding dresses.

Twice a month, Heather Wilson meets with a sewing circle. Each time they gather, group members carefully craft dresses so small that it’s hard to imagine who the garments are for. The satin white material is taken from donated wedding dresses, complete with soft lace and patterned beadwork.

Beautifully sewn, these tailor-made dresses – called Kennedy’s Angel Gowns – are intended for something uncommon and often unspoken.

Seven years ago, Heather and her husband Demitri were readying their home for the addition of their baby girl. The nursery, painted and themed with fluttering, colorful butterflies, was complete, bursting with gifts from friends and family. Three baby showers celebrated the infant’s future.

Already 35 weeks pregnant and scheduled for an induction on August 24, 2009, Heather had only eight days separating her from holding her baby, Kennedy Milan.

The scheduled birth would never happen.

A Pregnancy Near its End

On Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009, Heather became uneasy when she could not feel her baby girl moving in her womb – something that she had felt consistently until that morning. Nervous, the hopeful mom-to-be placed a call to her doctor who suggested that she and Demitri head to the hospital.

“For my doctor, it was just a precautionary move,” Heather said. “They were thinking everything was going to be OK.”

But when the doctor wasn’t able to quickly find Kennedy’s heartbeat, Heather’s hopes sank.

“They didn’t tell us what was going on at first,” she said. “Then they brought another doctor into the room. They let us know that she – they said there was no heartbeat.”

The couple was given time to grieve and process the unexpected loss. Soon after, doctors began prepping the hospital room – and Heather – for what would happen next: she had to deliver the stillborn baby.

“It’s very different when you’re delivering a child and you’re in labor and you know that you’re going to have a healthy baby and you know that this baby has already passed away,” Heather said.

After more than 25 hours of labor, Kennedy quietly arrived. While most families spend those first hours watching their babies take first breaths and learn to open their eyes, Heather and Demitri spent as much time as they could holding Kennedy, a baby that would never see its nursery.

Family members visited the hospital just the same to meet Kennedy, though the experience was somewhat different. There were no typical family huddles near the glass windows of the nursery.

Instead, Heather and Demitri had to ask to see the infant, who was kept in a temperature-controlled setting to preserve her body. Whenever they asked, nurses would bring Kennedy to the hospital room in a basket.

“We were able to spend time with her which was nice. It was scary, but it was nice,” Heather said. “She just looked like she was sleeping. It didn’t look like there was anything wrong.”

Making Arrangements

A burial dress made for stillborn infants, which will be given to a local hospital or funeral home to cloth an infant that has passed.
A burial dress made for stillborn infants, which will be given to a local hospital or funeral home to cloth an infant that has passed.

The experience was already difficult enough, but now, a grim task needed their attention. The Wilsons now had to plan a funeral for their little girl.

“It was incredibly tough and trying,” Demetri explained. “You’re planning a funeral for a child that you never even really met.”

After the delivery, Heather fell sick. Her mother helped Demitri plan Kennedy’s services and burial. For the most part, planning went smoothly, but when it came time to find a burial dress for the 5-pound infant, there weren’t many options.

“Nothing fit,” Heather said. “Even doll clothes were too big.”

That’s where Heather got the idea to sew the angel gowns named after her own lost infant.

“I’ve always tried to think of how I would honor her,” Heather said. “So this year, I decided to make the gowns.”

Across the Southside, about 20 babies are remembered at memorial services every other month at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens. The services, which are put together by Sentara staff, are held in a section of the cemetery called The Circle of Love.

Sentara labor and delivery staff also create keepsake boxes – called Operation Bereavement – for the families of stillborn infants. The boxes contain any clothing that the baby wore, blankets, the infant’s hand and footprints, the tape measure used after delivery and photographs.

“This is not the side of labor and delivery that most people think about, but it certainly is a reality,” said Reagan Boomer, clinical nurse manager in labor and delivery at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital. “But in this situation, this is your child. This is your reality in this moment, and the boxes are just a way that we can give to those families.”

Every year in the United States, about 24,000 babies are stillborn, and 24,000 families bear that pain in almost total silence.

“It’s still taboo,” said Ann Prescott, a counselor who has worked with Sentara’s bereavement and pregnancy loss support groups for 28 years. “Most of the families of these patients would rather that the patients move on much quicker than they’re able to.”

While Heather and Demitri had a supportive family gather around them when Kennedy passed, Heather said it isn’t often that she hears her baby’s name spoken, even by family members. It wasn’t even until the couple lost their infant that Heather found out there had been stillborn babies in her family because “people just don’t talk about it.”

“I wish people would say her name more. In the family, they’re weird about mentioning it,” Heather said. “I love to hear her name. It makes me feel like she’s remembered.”

Sharing Kennedy’s Story

When infants are even too small for the mini gowns, Heather sews a wrap that the infant can be placed in.
When infants are even too small for the mini gowns, Heather sews a wrap that the infant can be placed in.

Next year, Heather and Demitri are holding events to ensure that their baby girl will always be remembered. On April 20, 2017, the inaugural Angel Ball will be held at Martin Mansion in Norfolk to spread awareness for pregnancy and infant loss. A memorial walk for all lost infants will take place on Oct. 22, 2017, at Mount Trashmore.

Heather hopes to use funds from a silent auction to help other stillborn infant’s families pay for funeral services. She also plans to buy Cuddle Cots – a cooling system disguised as a bassinet that would allow stillborn infants to stay in the hospital room with their families – for local hospitals.

The couple, who also have a 20-year-old son from Demitri’s first marriage, added another baby girl to their family a few years after Kennedy passed. Ryleigh, who is now 5 years old, is their “rainbow baby.”

“They say after the storm comes a rainbow,” Heather said. “She’s our rainbow.”

The family frequently honors Kennedy’s memory, but now, with each dress sewn and passed on to another family in need, Kennedy’s name is remembered and her story shared.

“Sewing – it’s just healing. I know what it’s like to be in those shoes,” Heather said. “I’ve been waiting for something that I can do to help other families in this situation and to honor Kennedy, my baby girl.”

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Amy Poulter has lived in more than a dozen cities – including New York, San Antonio, Austin, Orlando and Jersey City – but she was born right here in the Southside. Amy graduated from Old Dominion University and worked for The Virginian-Pilot and Princess Anne Independent News before joining Southside Daily. Before working as a multimedia journalist, she was a professional chef and musician. In her free time, Amy enjoys listening to music, reading, spending time at the beach and chasing her two pups around the park.