Volunteers and staff help families heal after losing a baby

Brenda Shim understands the power of memory boxes first-hand. Eight years ago, six months into her pregnancy with triplets, Brenda went into labour. She delivered her babies at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, but one of the babies, Samuel, passed away shortly after his birth.

She’ll never forget the social worker who put together a memory box for Brenda and her family. It has Samuel’s framed photo, ceramic foot and hand prints, a soother, a lock of hair, his hospital bracelet and his blanket. 

Brenda reflects on the loss of her son, Samuel, who passed away shortly after he was born at the Royal Alexandra.

Gently touching Samuel’s things, Brenda explains how the memory box has helped her and her family heal. 

“It’s a way to look back and remember Samuel, and that he was really there. It’s always hard, but this has helped me heal and make peace with losing him.”

Brenda Shim

Brenda says her memory box helps her reflect and remember Samuel with her family.

Brenda leads a team of volunteers at the Misericordia Community Hospital, who for decades have been trying to comfort families who have experienced the same loss.

“It’s healing for the families; it shows we acknowledge their loss and shows respect for the baby and family,” says Brenda, Manager, Misericordia Hospital Volunteer Services.

And this is exactly why Danielle Nachtigal, a nurse on the Misericordia’s Gynecology unit, began making memory boxes 10 years ago in her spare time. The memory boxes are given to parents who have lost a baby in the hospital, and can contain photos, the baby’s foot and hand prints, blankets and other meaningful items. She’s made about 200 memory boxes in total for the Misericordia Hospital. Danielle’s father has also built and quilted tiny caskets for babies.

“It’s our way to say we’re sorry for their loss and we’ll do anything we can to support them,” Danielle says. “I hope it brings families peace and comfort.”

Danielle Nachtigal has made about 200 memory boxes for the Misericordia Hospital since she started 10 years ago.

The tradition of making tiny caskets started in 1969 with a carpenter named Al working at the Misericordia Hospital; he wanted to make sure the babies had a special resting place.

Forty-eight years later, Al’s commitment to honour the Misericordia’s tiniest patients thrives. Even after he retired, the Misericordia carpenters continued building the caskets—about 20 each year. The linen department then sews soft linings into each casket. The reason they continue is simple, according to Craig Pritchard, Manager, Facilities, Maintenance and Engineering.

“We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” he says.

Al’s work inspired a group of volunteers to make burial clothing for babies of all sizes, from a few months' gestation to full term. The clothing, handmade using only the softest fabric, gives parents something beautiful to dress the baby in before they say goodbye. 

Volunteers sew burial clothing for babies of all sizes and donate them to the Misericordia Hospital.

Claire Dowbiggin Klug, Chaplain at the Misericordia, says the emotions parents may feel after losing a baby can be complicated.

Claire Dowbiggin Klug, Chaplain, Misericordia Community Hospital

“Along with sadness and grief, sometimes parents feel guilt. A memory box honours the baby and gives parents something they can remember the baby by. It’s a gesture that shows we’re there for them, even if we can’t possibly understand exactly what they’re going through.”

Recently, Brenda introduced her memory box to her other three children, twins aged eight and an older boy aged 11.

“They’ve asked me about Samuel before, and it’s always hard to explain to them,” says Brenda. “I just decided it was time, and we looked through the box together. It was such a positive experience.”

She hopes other parents who have lost babies will find the same peace she has experienced.

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