An obstetrics ward can be the happiest place in the world, said Tess Soholt, who just retired after 42 years of witnessing babies taking their first breaths.
She also knows that it can be the saddest place when a baby is stillborn. The medical term is “fetal demise,” an accurate yet clinical description of the unimaginable.
Yet for weeks and months, imagination has taken flight as parents daydream about outgrown onesies, grass-stained T-shirts, prom attire, graduation tassels — the keepsakes of childhood.
Soholt seeks to provide grieving parents with a keepsake by making “angel gowns” from old wedding dresses. The tiny, elegant wraps and gowns lend dignity to the baby’s life “no matter how short a time this life is with us,” she said.
“When you lose a baby, people hurt for you,” said Soholt, who lives in Golden Valley. She knows this too well. Her first delivery as an obstetrics nurse was stillborn, after the parents were in a car accident. Tragedy got even more personal two years ago when Soholt’s grandson was stillborn.
“The hospital in Des Moines had a blue gown for the baby, and I’ve never forgotten how thoughtful that was,” she said. “The family had something to acknowledge this life, and had something to keep.”
Soholt’s plan was simply to buy a used wedding dress and make some angel gowns from its abundant yardage. She’d had her eye on one at Empty the Nest, a thrift and consignment store in Golden Valley.
Owner Sharon Fischman opened the store after working for a moving company that specialized in getting aging parents into smaller apartments. “My mission is to have things be reused and have a new life,” she said.
So when Soholt came to the checkout with the wedding dress and $14 in hand, Fischman asked about her plans for the dress.
“When she told me she was making gowns for stillborn babies, I just got goose bumps,” said Fischman, who volunteered to put out the word via Facebook for more wedding dresses. Oh, and she gave Soholt the dress for 50 cents.
In the few weeks since then, customers have brought in 25 dresses, “and people are even sending them from out of state,” Fischman said. “I’m blown away by the outpouring of support.”
Soholt, for her part, also is a little overwhelmed by what’s been set in motion.
An avid seamstress ever since home ec and 4-H, she’d been looking forward to making quilts, clothes and other projects. Now, her basement sewing room is given over to small stacks of swatches of elegant fabric and people are asking about sewing angel gowns as a group, or if there’s a need for more dresses. (To donate, contact Empty the Nest at emptythenest.net or call 763-544-0106.) So far, three Twin Cities area hospitals say they would like to offer the gowns to parents of stillborns.
Soholt said she didn’t think up angel gowns on her own. They’re becoming part of the grieving process elsewhere. She tries to use every inch of a once joyful dress, removing yards of lace that she then re-appliques to the tiny gowns. For babies who were at term or close, she uses a pattern for doll’s clothing; for younger babies, she makes a sort of swaddling wrap.
She understands that each family will use a gown in its own way. Some may display it as a keepsake. Others may tuck it away. Others may never look at it again.
“But it’s something that shows that this baby existed, that this life matters and is a continued part of each family’s story,” she said. “Some of them had names.”
Soholt’s project also honors her own family’s story, of how at 18 weeks into her daughter-in-law’s pregnancy, no heartbeat could be detected. Today, in memory of her grandson, she sews inside each garment a small tag: Andrew’s Angel Gowns.