In a Granby Street Starbucks on a Wednesday afternoon, Heather and Demitri Wilson tell me about the grueling, 25-hour, induced labor Heather endured just minutes after learning their daughter, Kennedy Milan Wilson, had no heartbeat. The feeling of joyous anticipation the couple had experienced for their eight months of pregnancy was immediately consumed by grief. On Aug. 17, 2009, Heather and Demitri held their perfect, yet lifeless 5-pound daughter in their arms.
As the Wilsons continue to share their years of mourning and healing with me, their story evolves from tragic to hopeful. Two years ago, on what would have been Kennedy’s seventh birthday, Heather dug through her closet for her wedding dress, unstitched the entire gown and pieced together the first of what are now recognized as Kennedy’s Angel Gowns.
“What bothered me the most [about Kennedy’s burial] was that my mom and husband couldn’t find anything to bury her in,” remembers Heather. “It just messed with me.” This unforgotten longing to give her daughter a perfect and peaceful burial not only sparked Heather’s late-night sewing session but also a social media outbreak. “I put the gown on the Internet, and a lot of nurses contacted me saying, ‘You have to make us one of those,’” remembers Heather.
In the beginning of Kennedy’s Angel Gowns, Heather and Demitri paid for everything out of pocket including materials, funeral assistance and cremation services for families in need. The financial obligation started to weigh on the couple as they began to think about the wellbeing of their own family and two children, Demitri and Ryleigh. During those moments of doubt, however, they kept in mind the heart of the organization. “How can you turn down a family that’s grieving?” asks Heather. “Even when we couldn’t, we helped them.”
At Kennedy's Angel Gowns' sew-in events, seasoned seamstresses and sewing
novices are invited to assist with the unstitching of wedding dresses and creation of
The Wilsons explain that registering as a not-for-profit organization allowed them to operate more smoothly. They could collect monetary donations as well as ask for volunteers to help take apart donated wedding dresses and seam together burial gowns for Kennedy’s Angel Gowns’ lengthy list of recipients. As Heather explains the laborious process of dismantling a wedding gown, she reveals a cardboard box stamped with a Salem, Va. return address. In the box lies a beautifully beaded wedding dress and flower-trimmed veil. “We’ve gotten gowns from as far as Haiti,” says Heather.
As we wrap up our conversation, Heather sends me home with the gown and three seam rippers. “We’ve got about 300 more of those in storage when you’re finished,” jokes Demitri.
Later that evening, I prop myself up against my family room sofa and place the gown’s laced train in my lap. It’s while I’m rifling through the trim looking for the best stitch to loosen that I am overwhelmed with the irony of my project. Wedding dresses symbolize the start of a new chapter; the matrimony of two individuals, who within minutes of speaking their vows, become family. I can’t help but recognize that I am literally unstitching this tangible era of new beginnings to make room for the end of another family’s dream.
Amid this tragic irony, I also find beauty. Exchanging a wedding dress for a burial gown is, in a sense, an exchange of love. Women around the world are forfeiting gowns of immense sentimental value to ensure that grieving families, like the Wilsons, can bury their babies in proper attire and, most importantly, with love.
As I rip through the thousands of stitches holding the gown together, I begin to grasp the full impact each bead, panel and laced flower has on Kennedy’s Angel Gowns. The loose pearls and lace strips are more than burial gown accents but rather pieces in the entire organization’s fabric.
Heather and Demitri explained to me that of the four-plus families they visit in hospitals every week, the overwhelming majority are African-American. Heather, who lost Kennedy as a result of a placenta abruption, had fallen victim to the racial disparities present in modern prenatal care. These burial gowns that cloak lost children are more than just garments; they are symbols of the difficult conversation surrounding race, infertility, stillbirths and maternal deaths Heather hopes to facilitate with Kennedy’s Angel Gowns.
Another epiphany surfaces as a I pluck yet another stitch from the dress’s seam. I realize that this gown and its tedious undoing symbolize more than just death and illness but hope. It is through the panels of this satin gown that a family may set their angel baby to rest, peacefully closing their child’s chapter in their life, and beginning anew.
Heather and Demitri were fortunate enough to give birth to a healthy baby girl just one year after Kennedy’s passing. Ryleigh, the couple’s almost 8-year-old, is recognized in the loss community as a rainbow baby. Heather explains that rainbow babies are children that follow after a miscarriage, stillbirth or death. Their purpose is not to replace the life of the angel baby but to shed light and color on a family after the figurative storm they survived.
After hours of undoing the meticulous stitch work and dividing the collage of a wedding gown into piles of buttons, satin strips and transparent beads, I pack up the parts to return to Heather. My hand in this project may be finished for now as I leave the reassembling to the intricate handiwork of the organization’s seamstress team, but I remain hopeful that another opportunity is on the horizon. I also wish that with this gown, Heather and Demitri may not only further the legacy of their daughter, Kennedy, but continue to make strides in the education and support of the loss community.