Even as the pandemic alters every facet of American life, one area organization is providing more support than ever for women and families going through the heartbreak of losing a child during or shortly after pregnancy.
Founded in 1987, Infants Remembered in Silence provides a variety of services for grieving families, including support groups and bereavement packages that are delivered to area hospitals and funeral homes by a dedicated team of volunteers. IRIS started small and in some ways remains so, with just one paid staff person in addition to founder Diana Kelley. Kelley founded IRIS just two years after her son was stillborn and local doctors began referring patients to Kelley for support.
Now, Kelley says she receives calls from people across the globe asking for support and wanting to know how they can help women and families in their area. According to Kelley, the IRIS website — irisremembers.com — has been visited more than 500,000 times by viewers in 217 countries, and translated into 220 languages. While its paid staff may be small, IRIS boasts a team of more than 300 active volunteers. The organization primarily serves Dodge, Goodhue, Le Sueur, Rice, Steele and Waseca counties, where it distributes typically about 500 care packages a year.
Part of IRIS’s mission is also to show mothers and families that they are not alone in their grief. Each year, IRIS works to get as many proclamations as possible recognizing the tragedy of infant loss from cities, especially those in the region.
Another way IRIS works to increase awareness of infant loss through its lighting campaigns. At IRIS’s request, major buildings in the Twin Cities such as U.S. Bank Stadium and Target Field have been lit up in pink and blue, in memory of the loss so many suffer.
The March of Dimes reports that as many as half of all pregnancies may end in miscarriage. The exact number is hard to gauge because miscarriages often happen before a woman knows she’s pregnant.
In 2014, about 24,000 stillbirths were reported in the United States.
Stillbirth — the loss or death of a baby from the 20th week of pregnancy through delivery — affects about 1 in 160 U.S. births; about 24,000 babies each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That is about the same number of babies that die during the first year of life and it is more than 10 times as many deaths as the number that occur from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS),” it reported.
Kelley said that IRIS has gotten a lot more calls from grieving parents than normal this year. By Aug. 1, the organization had already given out as many packets as it did all of last year.
Even as demand has risen for IRIS’s services, Kelley said that donations have fallen. Support groups for grieving parents have been cancelled as well, with attempts to hold meetings over Zoom largely falling flat.
“Nobody wants to sign up for support groups on Zoom,” she said. “It’s not the same thing to do something on Zoom as it is face to face.”
IRIS’s biggest fundraiser of the year, the annual Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot, will continue even with COVID.
A much more low-key event, designed to help those grieving parents, is scheduled for Oct. 15. This year’s IRIS Memorial Service, the seventh annual, will be held to honor the memory of all children who have died, regardless of the cause or time of death. To symbolize that memory, bereaved parents, grandparents, family and friends can make a heart and send it to IRIS.
IRIS is encouraging participants to make two copies of the heart, one to send and one to keep. Along with hearts received over the last few years, all hearts received by IRIS will be displayed in and around the statue of an angel weeping over an empty crib in front of IRIS’s Faribault office. Hearts can be of any shape or size, decorated in any way and made of any material, from cardboard or paper, to wood or fabric. Even pictures can be added to the heart if the grieving person finds it meaningful.
At 7 p.m. Oct. 15, supporters of IRIS will gather outside the building for a candlelight ceremony. Kelley said that battery-powered candles are preferred due to the reduced risk of them blowing out in the wind. To minimize the risk of COVID transmission, IRIS asks all participants to wear a face mask and stand at least 6 feet apart even though it will be an outdoor event. IRIS’s front yard is small but additional space is available across the street.
According to Kelley, more than 7,000 hearts have been received and more are coming in each day. In a normal year, 60 to 80 people would attend the normal service, but Kelley expects a much lower figure this year.
Still, Kelley expects that IRIS’s in-person gathering will be joined by people from all around the world via livestream. In addition, 117 Minnesota cities have declared Oct. 15 a day of remembrance for lost infants, and dozens of buildings across the country will be lit up in their memory.
Despite the challenges posed by COVID, Kelley said that at this time of pandemic-inflicted isolation, many feel the loss of their beloved child like never before — and hunger for a meaningful memorial.
“It’s so dark here on our part of the street when we do it,” she said. “Those candles really shine.”