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Volunteer sews tiny gowns for grieving parents

Posted on Apr. 16, 2018 ( comments)

The tiny gowns Katie Foster makes could easily be mistaken for doll clothes. It’s hard to imagine most of them fitting a real child, sized more to fit a soda bottle than what we picture as a newborn.

But the children she sews for are real. They are loved. And their short lives mattered. That’s the message Foster hopes to give the grieving parents whose children are lovingly clothed in her gowns.

For the past three years, Foster, 47, has been taking donated or purchased wedding gowns and turning them into burial gowns for babies who die before or shortly after birth. An accomplished seamstress, Foster has made everything from custom wedding gowns to mascot costumes for schools.

But she says she believes the bereavement gowns are why she learned to sew at the age of four.

“I always kind of wondered why I could sew, why I had this skill,” she says. “Now I know.”

Foster, who has three adult children, says she also knows the pain of a pregnancy that ends with an empty nursery.

“The women in my family, we have an easy time getting pregnant but a hard time staying pregnant,” she says.

She suffered early losses herself and says too often people are uncomfortable talking about miscarriage and early infant loss.

“It should be OK to talk about loss,” she says. “Normal death is hard enough. But losing a child, losing a baby, it’s death on a whole other level.”

Foster began sewing gowns for a national organization based in Texas but stopped after her full-time schooling and job search left little free time. When she took up sewing again, Foster decided to look for local hospitals that could use her gowns.

She now provides gowns for MultiCare and Madigan Army Medical Center. She also sews small flannel blankets for babies too tiny for even her smallest gowns.

Bereavement gowns close-up - Shannon MacFarlane Photography

Foster says she uses wedding gowns not just because they typically are made with beautiful fabric but because of what they represent.

“Nobody wants to wear their Mom’s wedding gown,” she says. “But there’s so much joy and love in it. You plan for you wedding and you put your hopes and dreams into that dress.”

But about a year ago, a grief counsellor pointed out that the white gowns closely resemble Christening gowns and not all families who use them share her Christian faith.

At first, the suggestion to change things up felt like a criticism, she admits.

“I was looking at it from a ‘me’ point of view,” she says. “The natural instinct is to make an item that fits our own vision of what an angel looks like.”

After thinking about it, Foster says she realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t about what she wanted the gowns to look like.

“Not everybody has the same idea of what they want their baby to look like the last time they see them,” she says. “It’s my duty to try to give them something for their child.”

Katie Foster bereavement gowns - Shannon MacFarlane Photography

Today, Foster has wedding gowns in her closet, ready to be sewn into gowns. But the hospitals she works with already have all they need right now.

“I need to find more hospitals,” she says.

And while she’d like to be making more gowns, she’s grateful that the demand isn’t high.

“It means babies aren’t dying,” she says.

Foster typically doesn’t meet the families who use her gowns.

“It’s an anonymous thing,” she says.

In part, that protects her from the emotional toll and helps her focus on the handiwork. But it’s also because she doesn’t want any families to feel like they need to pay her or even write her a note.

“I don’t want them to feel as if they owe me anything,” she says. “The entire intent of the gowns is just so they know someone in the world cares that their child existed.”

Posted in: MultiCare Profiles

About The Author

Cheryl Reid-Simons
Cheryl Reid-Simons is a freelance writer and serial community volunteer. In her spare time, she drives a private activities shuttle for her twin sons, healthy graduates of the Tacoma General NICU and interim care nursery. More stories by this author
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