"Angel Gowns" offer solace to families whose babies never come home from the hospital

(Natasha Clune)

This story originally appeared on Babble and is reprinted with permission.

Losing a baby during the latter stages of pregnancy is a situation that few are prepared to experience. When it happens, it's soul crushing and often all-consuming. But having the comfort around you of those you love can serve as the first step in restoring hope; and sometimes, even the kindness of strangers can help.

Such was the case for Natasha Clune, who delivered her son Elijah stillborn at 20 weeks in 2015. After delivering the small, precious baby, Natasha said she wasn't sure what would come next - so it took her breath away when the nurses brought Elijah back to her fully dressed in a beautiful "angel gown," specially made for a baby his size.

Image Source: Natasha Clune

"It was such a meaningful gesture that they took the time to dress and treat our son with such love and dignity," says Natasha, who lives in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and three older sons. "He was dressed and treated just like any baby born and this will stay with me forever. I have pictures of him dressed in his beautiful clothes and these are some of my most treasured possessions."

Touched by the gesture that helped lessen her grief in a small, but meaningful way, Natasha began to volunteer for her local angel gowns organization, Ava Grace No Footprint Too Small. She says the gowns are lovingly handcrafted from beautiful materials such as donated wedding dresses for babies as small as 15 weeks.

The memory box where Natasha stores Elijah's angel gown, along with other keepsakes of her son.

In the United States, the March of Dimes reports the stillbirth rate of babies older than 20 weeks gestational age affects more than 23,000 families each year - with many more experiencing second-trimester miscarriages. Although volunteer-based organizations that create angel gowns exist around the world to help families in these situation, they are often in need of materials and volunteers.

Natasha's sons hold the teddy bear keepsake they have in memory of Elijah.

However, some who are involved say they don't receive much publicity because pregnancy and infant loss isn't something most people consider until it affects them. In fact, the Australian website KidSpot reports that one angel gown organization was even barred from setting up a booth at the Baby Welcome and Family Expo in Far North Queensland in October because the booth wasn't deemed "suitable for babies and young children," despite assurances from the organizer that she would leave anything "controversial" at home.

In a statement, the Cairns Regional Council spokesperson said of their decision:

"After careful consideration, it was determined that this particular stall did not fit with the theme of what is a fun, light-hearted and celebratory civic event aimed at parents with babies and young children."

Natasha tells Babble she understands that sentiment - but believes it's still important to confront something potentially uncomfortable because of all the ways the angel gown mission could ultimately benefit families like hers.

"These precious babies are the ones that seem to be forgotten the most," she says. "Knowing how much it meant to my family to have our baby dressed I would hate to have a family miss out on that."

Here in the U.S., there are several programs like the one Natasha volunteers for - like the Angel Gown Program run by NICU Helping Hands in Fort Worth, Texas, which hand sews angel gowns and ships them to grieving parents for final photos and burial services.

While the costs of running a volunteer program like the Angel Gown program are sizable, considering the material and shipping costs that come into play, the dedicated group of volunteers take their job very seriously.

"We've never had to tell a family no," NICU Helping Hands President Lisa Grubbs shared on the program's website. She and other volunteers often spend hours ironing, folding, wrapping, and boxing up gown after gown.

If you would like to support Ava Grace No Footprint Too Small, you can do so by visiting the organization's official Facebook page here. You can also donate or volunteer your time to the Angel Gown Program of Fort Worth, via the program's official website, here.

More from Babble:
Couple Finds Healing After Friend Turns Their Stillborn Daughter's Ashes into Beautiful Sculpture
To the Mom Whose Due Date Will Never Come
Why My Wife and I Decided to Immediately Tell Our Friends and Family She was Pregnant
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