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License article

Canberra woman turns wedding dresses into angel gowns for babies

Fiona Kirk believes the last thing a parent who has just lost a baby should have to do is shop for a special outfit to bury them in, rather than take them home in.

It was that heartbreaking prospect that prompted her to grab her $3000 wedding dress from the cupboard and take to it with a pair of scissors.

Motivated by a desire to give grieving parents dignity and choice in the midst of deep loss and sadness, Mrs Kirk, of Greenway, started Angel Gowns Australia about a month ago.

The volunteer organisation is part of a global trend in which women donate their wedding dresses to be transformed into gowns for babies who are stillborn or die soon after birth.

The response on social media has been overwhelming, with more than 150 women pledging their dresses in the first week.

More than 50 of those offers have come from the ACT.


Angel Gowns Australia already has a branch in each state and territory and in New Zealand, and Mrs Kirk hopes the garments will be in every neonatal intensive care unit in the two countries within a year.

She also hopes to strengthen ties with the first organisation to make the gowns, NICU Helping Hands, based in the US.

‘‘It’s just to make that one decision easier for parents while they’re in their grief,’’ Mrs Kirk said. ‘‘The last thing a parent wants to think about when they lose a baby is going shopping for something to wear.

‘‘I’ve heard of mothers who had to go to Pumpkin Patch to buy a dress to bury their baby in, instead of one they would take them home in.’’

Another mother was offered two blue dresses for her twin baby girls who died, while many others told Mrs Kirk their babies were wrapped in towels.

‘‘The gowns are sewn with love, and they’re so full of love from the day the bride got married, and the seamstresses sew love into every seam,’’ she said.

‘‘A lot of the women who donate their dress have experienced the loss of their own baby or grandchild, and for a lot of them having their wedding dress hanging in a cupboard is a waste.

‘‘To know it’s going to a grieving family is very touching. A lot of ladies will tear up when they hand over their dress, not for loss of the dress but because of what it will become.’’

Mrs Kirk also hopes the organisation will spark a conversation about one of the last ‘‘taboo subjects’’ - the death of an infant.

There were 1031 infant deaths recorded nationally in 2012, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal. That meant there were 3.3 deaths for every 1000 live births, a rate that has been in gradual decline in the past decade.

Angel Gowns Australia has partnered with organisations such as Sands, which provides support for families dealing with miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death, and Pregnancy Loss Australia.

Handmade outfits are one of many items used at Canberra Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit to help grieving parents come to terms with the loss of a child – and to say goodbye.

The ward’s Angel Room is also home to donated teddy bears, hand-stitched quilts and tiny knitted garments including cardigans and hats.

Registered midwife Cath Phillips said the donated items acknowledged a baby’s life, but also a family’s sense of loss.

‘‘A lot of them want to know what they did, what caused it,’’ Mrs Phillips said. ‘‘There’s, ‘Why me?’ and there’s this immense sadness that probably won’t go away for the rest of their lives.’’

Mrs Phillips said parents were often ‘‘overwhelmingly grateful’’ for any gifts they were given.

‘‘Even in the state of shock they’re usually still in when they’re with us, or often down the track when they’re looking back, they don’t believe how generous people have been to make things.’’

Australia-wide volunteer organisation Heartfelt, which began in the ACT, specialises in photography sessions that capture a family’s precious few hours together.

ACT representative Hilary Wardhaugh said photographs of the child, whether parents could bring themselves to look at them or not, were ‘‘evidence they existed’’.

‘‘I think the parents are worried they’re going to forget they had a child, because it’s such a brief, fleeting moment in the scheme of life," she said.

Heartfelt’s founder Gavin Blue said organisations such as his and Angel Gowns Australia could bring some dignity.

His daughter was stillborn in 2006.

‘‘The hospital put her on butcher’s paper,’’ he said. ‘‘It was quite brutal.

‘‘To have a gown in beautiful wedding dress fabric shows, when your world is crumbling around you, that someone cares.’’

The SIDS and Kids 24-hour bereavement support line is on 1300 308 307.

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