Stillwater mother’s Tiny Treasures ministry clothes babies born and gone too soon

| October 26, 2016 | 0 Comments
Christelle Hagen, center, works on baby clothing with her daughter, Emilie-Rose, left, and mother Marilyn Kallio. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Christelle Hagen, center, works on baby clothing with her daughter, Emilie-Rose, left, and mother Marilyn Kallio. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Part 13 in a 14-part series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Tiny handmade hats, gowns and cloth diapers fill an entire room of Christelle Hagen’s workshop. The soft material is fitting for any newborn. But these garments are made for the frailest of babies — those whose parents must clothe them for burial rather than home.

Layettes containing clothing, a diaper, a blanket, sometimes booties and hats, and a keepsake for the parents are packaged and stacked neatly on shelves and in bins, ready to be sent to parents who experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth. Volunteers from across the country sew, knit and crochet these baby items for Tiny Treasures, which Hagen started in 2013 to support grieving families.

“By giving clothing to these babies, all of a sudden, they’re not just a fetus, they’re a person,” said Hagen, 43. “And I think that is another very important reason why I do this.”

Tiny Treasures provides hats for babies as young as 14 weeks’ gestation up to 6 months old. Handmade wraps called “angel pockets” fit babies who died up to about 24 weeks’ gestation. The baby is placed inside the pocket, and the corners are tied together. Even smaller babies — at 14-19 weeks’ gestation — can be placed in buntings. In the common size comparisons to produce, at 14 weeks, a baby is the size of a nectarine, weighing about one and a half ounces. At 24 weeks, a baby is as long as an ear of corn and weighs a little over 1 pound.

Because Hagen doesn’t personally deliver the layettes to families, she doesn’t typically get to hear what the gesture means to them. But for her, it’s an act of love and mercy — to know that someone was thinking of them even before their loss.

“I think the clothes are beautiful,” Hagen said. “I would never send out something that I didn’t think was beautiful. That’s important to me. I do stress with the volunteers often that this is the only thing [the parents] are ever going to put on that child.”

Tiny Treasures’ more skilled seamstresses use gifted wedding dresses to create burial gowns and suits as part of its Brides to Babies Project. Hagen welcomes anyone’s talent and contribution to Tiny Treasures. Many volunteers, some who’ve lost a baby, pray for the families as they make the garments.

Sometimes, the babies are big enough for parents to bathe and brush their hair before they wrap them in the delicate garments, the kind of care parents anticipated doing repeatedly.

“But when you know you can only do it this one time,” Hagen said, “it takes on incredible significance. It’s almost like taking that whole lifetime you expected in just one moment.”

A friend who was full-term and delivered a stillborn baby was the impetus for Hagen to become a perinatal loss doula — a person trained to accompany women during pregnancy loss at a medical facility or in their home. She soon learned about bereavement support and decided she, too, could operate such a ministry. With six children — three daughters and three sons, ages 16, 13, 10, 8, 5 and 2 — knitting baby clothes for Tiny Treasures is something she can do from home, where she home-schools them. The older children help, too.

“[Starting Tiny Treasures] felt like a way to honor the babies we lost,” Hagen said. “So, oftentimes I make a piece in honor of our babies, and it keeps their legacy and their memory alive.”

A sample of Tiny Treasures baby items. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A sample of Tiny Treasures baby items. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Close to home

Hagen and her husband, Christopher, 40, parishioners of St. Michael in Stillwater, experienced six miscarriages at various stages of development. They know the pain and uncertainty of what to do when losing a baby through miscarriage or stillbirth.

At the time of their first pregnancy loss in 1998, they had been married for about seven months and weren’t Catholic. Not knowing what to do, they decided to bury their first child, whom they placed in a jar, near a tree in a cemetery.

A few months later, she was supposed to be celebrating Mother’s Day. But at church that Sunday, she recalled sitting and sobbing when mothers were given flowers; she didn’t consider herself a mother.

Hagen never imagined she would miscarry a baby, let alone several; she miscarried again six months later, and had several other losses around 2010. Some of the pregnancies were too early to have anything of the baby to bury. The Hagens were able to bury four of their six babies.

“For us Catholics, it’s one of the works of mercy to bury the dead, and it’s very much an act of love,” she said.

Hagen’s most recent miscarriage occurred last June. But she had time to prepare. She made a pouch for Anaïs Zélie’s burial, and later, planted a memory garden.

“I feel really, really good about that,” said Hagen, who’s pregnant. “It felt so different to have something that I made personally for that child. And I know if I give it to someone else, even though they didn’t make it, [they know] someone intentionally created something specific for their child.”

Serving every need

The workshop on their rented 14-acre hobby farm — Claret Farms in Lakeland Township near Stillwater — also serves as a playroom for their children and a retreat center for guests. The Hagens host retreats for parents who’ve lost a child, and Tiny Treasures also provides free maternity clothing, books for parents and children about the loss of a baby, and resources and information about post-loss lactation and milk donation. In the works is an online course to educate people about what they can do and say to others who’ve lost a baby. While everything Tiny Treasures provides is free, Hagen has a Go Fund Me page on her website, TeamTinyTreasures.weebly.com, to provide even more goods and services to families.

She also partners with local hospitals, birthing centers and midwives to supply Tiny Treasures items. She said families treasure any mementos they can get.

“As time goes by, it can be very easy to question if [the loss] was even real,” Hagen said. “Usually, no one else experienced the baby … so when you can take out that memory box and you can see that tiny diaper or hat or hand mold, it’s, ‘Yes, this really did happen. This child was real.’ That’s something that I wish everybody knew.”

Many people tell Hagen that they weren’t given anything to clothe their baby at the hospital.

“That was an additional pain for them that doesn’t need to be,” she said.

Once a year, her parish has a special naming and commending ceremony for babies who have died. At its last one, Hagen set up a Tiny Treasures display, where she asked attendees their babies’ names, and then wrote the name in calligraphy on a card attached to a handmade ornament.

“What always breaks my heart is when I see the really elderly couples there, because they’ve been carrying these losses for years and years, and they’re finally getting a way to acknowledge [those children],” Hagen said. “Because way back, people didn’t even talk about these things.”

Learning about others’ experiences with miscarriage and stillbirth has broadened her mission; she seeks to raise awareness.

Because Tiny Treasures and similar organizations tend to be mom and pop operations, not a lot of hospitals and birthing centers know of these additional support services. Eventually, she hopes to have people on board to serve as ambassadors who reach out to medical facilities.

“With the loss of an older child, other people saw that child and interacted, and they share the grief,” Hagen said. “But with a pregnancy loss, it’s often you’re the only one who ever saw them, and so they’re an abstract loss. And I think it becomes extremely important for many parents who’ve lost a baby either in pregnancy or during birth to keep that child’s memory alive in some way. And this is a ministry that people can engage in. For some people, it really is a way of grieving and taking grief to help someone else.”

She added: “It’s meaningful of itself to be able to provide a beautiful piece of clothing to somebody who’s experiencing what’s probably one of the worst days of their entire life.”

Clothing the naked

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy