Photo courtesy of LaKaye Mbah Photography
Eight years ago, Virginia Beach resident Heather Wilson was preparing for the birth of her first daughter, Kennedy Milan Wilson. She had set up the baby’s nursery, decorating with a theme of butterflies in hues of pink, white and beige. All of Kennedy’s newborn clothes had been carefully washed in Dreft and placed in her white wardrobe. “Everything was perfect,” Heather recalls. “All of the hopes and dreams we had to watch this little girl grow up in this room kept our hearts full of wonder.”
One day, at 35 weeks pregnant, Heather didn’t feel her baby moving anymore. Concerned, she and her husband, Demitri, drove to the hospital, where they were told the most devastating news expectant parents could hear: there was no heartbeat, and their daughter had passed away. “I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t move … all I could do was cry,” Heather says. Demitri was equally pained. “He broke down crying like I have never witnessed him cry before,” Heather says. “It was so unbearable to watch him grieve for his baby girl.”
Shortly after, Heather was prepped to deliver the baby she’d been aching to meet and would never get to bring home. After 25 hours of labor, Kennedy was born silently on Aug. 17, 2009. “She was perfect, she was mine, and I loved her so much,” Heather says. “My doctor placed her in my arms, and I held her and cried so hard that it hurt. I was overcome by her beauty and overcome with emotion at the same time.” The Wilsons were told that Kennedy had died from placenta abruption, a diagnosis that didn’t help to ease their turmoil. “The pain was still there, and a part of me had died with my baby,” Heather says.
Instead of planning Kennedy’s future, the Wilsons were now planning their daughter’s funeral. One of the most difficult tasks was finding a gown to fit her. Everything was too small, including doll clothing, so they made do with a slightly oversized white dress and bonnet.
Since losing Kennedy, the Wilsons have wanted to honor their daughter. Last year, they discovered a way.
It had always bothered Heather that they couldn’t find a gown small enough to bury her daughter in. So, last year, the night before what would have been Kennedy’s 7th birthday, Heather stayed up all night sewing a gown. “I’ve always sewn—I taught myself to sew—and I love fashion,” Heather says. She posted the photo to Facebook, where it received an outpour of support. “It showed me how much it was needed because behind all of the Facebook tags, there were people personally emailing me, saying that they went through the same thing,” Heather says. “The amount of people it had touched—it touched me even more, and it showed me that this was something that needed to be done.”
In 2016, Heather started the nonprofit Kennedy’s Angel Gowns, an organization that provides burial gowns for baby girls and vests and ties for baby boys, hand-sewn from donated wedding dresses.
“When you think of wedding gowns, you think of the most beautiful material—pearls, beading and lace,” Heather explains. “You wait your whole life to get married, and so for a family that knows they will never get to walk that child down the aisle, to have a piece of that is beautiful.”
Former brides can ship their dresses to the organization’s P.O. Box, and then burial gowns are shipped at no cost to bereaved families. So far, 307 wedding dresses have been donated to the organization. Approximately 11–16 infant gowns can be created from one wedding dress.
In addition to the gowns, the organization hosts two annual events to raise awareness of infertility and infant loss. The events also raise funds for the cost of funerals or cremation services, as well as Cuddle Cots, a cooling system for babies that helps the body not to break down as quickly and therefore allows bereaved families to spend every second possible with their baby, during a time when every moment counts. “With the Cuddle Cots, the family will be able to hold the baby and be with the baby for five days,” Heather explains. “We’re kind of giving families the gift of time.”
Kennedy’s Angel Gowns also connects families with support groups and therapy services with Anisa Glowczak of Good Mourning Counseling & Consulting in Virginia Beach. Glowczak specializes in miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss, pregnancy after a loss, infertility issues, grief, anxiety and family caregiving for loved ones with cognitive impairments.
Through her involvement with the loss community, Heather has been able to partner with other organizations that provide services for parents grieving the loss of a baby: The Cooper Project donates handmade necklaces and bracelets for moms who have lost a child through stillbirth or infant loss. Molly Bears, an international organization located in Virginia Beach, makes teddy bears for grieving parents that weigh the same amount as a baby that was lost.
The organization is helping Heather in her own healing process, although she admits that it’s taken a long time to get to this point. “When this happened, I felt very alone. I did not know one other person this had happened to,” she explains. “Part of that is my healing too—to know that I’m not alone and in a community of people that feel this awful pain, and meeting them and talking to them. We’re at the point now where we can help people and honor her legacy.”
Kennedy’s Angel Events
Save the dates for these two annual events honoring angel babies.
Angel Run 5K
Held Oct. 15, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, the event will raise awareness and honor angel babies. Finish line activities include food trucks, vendors, Mixxed Fit, Zumba and a memorial ceremony. Registration 9 a.m., race time 10:15 a.m. Virginia Wesleyan University, Virginia Beach.
This past April, the organization held its Inaugural Angel Ball, which will always occur on an evening during the week of April 28, National Infertility Awareness Week. This year’s event was sold out, so get tickets early for next year’s event, held at the Virginia Aquarium.
Heather and Demitri now have another daughter, Riley, whom they refer to as their ‘rainbow baby,’ a term for a baby that’s born following a miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death or infant loss. Parents of rainbow babies may face personal challenges where feelings of joy and excitement are also accompanied with feelings of guilt, grief, worry, anxiety and fear.