A remembrance: Senior project helps grieving parents who have lost a newborn to have keepsakes

A 17-year-old Columbus East High School student has chosen a senior project to help parents handle their grief during one of the worst periods of their lives.

Maeleigh Roberts, daughter of Rick and Lynley Roberts, has created 10 wooden chests that hold a variety of keepsakes for parents of infants who were stillborn or died shortly after birth. These items range from blankets, picture frames, wind chimes to stuffed animals, clothes and jewelry.

It is a far more somber project than Roberts, a starter on the Columbus East varsity basketball team, had originally contemplated during her sophomore year. Her initial inclination was to conduct a basketball camp, she said.

But she learned that losing a baby can result in significant and long-lasting grief, according to Brandy Combest, who serves as Roberts’ project mentor. Combest had carried daughter Carolina full-term, but complications with the delivery led to the infant girl’s death three days after her birth in December 2014.

Combest was assigned a bereavement counselor who recommended to the grieving mother that she find ways of keeping memories of her daughter alive – even if she didn’t feel like collecting them immediately after the death, she said.

“I spent as much time as I could with my baby, but we didn’t bring anything except the typical things you pack when you are having a child,” Combest said. “But you are going to have to make memories for the rest of your life. And when somebody comes along and bring things that make memories of your baby, that’s just a blessing.”

When Maeleigh babysat Combest’s two sons – Lucas, 7, and Liam, 5 – last summer, she learned much of what her future mentor had learned. That includes that between 10 to 15 newborns in Bartholomew County die during or shortly after birth, she said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates Indiana loses approximately 502 babies to stillbirth each year.

“I also have a cousin that had a stillborn baby, so Maeleigh chose to do this project in memory of those babies and to help the hospital out,” Lynley Roberts said. The cousin’s stillborn daughter was named Madelyn.

For Maeleigh, preparation included attending multiple meetings of Angels of Hope with Combest at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Founded by Megan Bozell and Kylee Jones, the support group is for families grieving the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss who are looking for ways to find hope again.

Most of Maeleigh’s efforts took place during the month of October, which was National Infant Loss Awareness Month. October was the month that Maeleigh began using the Amazon online shopping site, inviting others to purchase items for the chests in exchange for having a tag placed on the item in memory of a stillborn child identified by the donor.

“We would add a tag with the baby’s name on to the item they purchased for our project,” Lynley Roberts said. “Brandy purchased all of the picture frames, so they will have a tag in memory of Carolina on all frames.”

While each wooden chest costs $50, both Lynley and Maeleigh Roberts crocheted the blankets themselves that are among the keepsakes themselves.

There was a family decision that no businesses were going to be asked to make a donation for the project because because many retailers are already being overwhelmed by requests, the mother said. Only family and friends were asked to contribute to the project, Lynley Roberts said.

But when she and her daughter went into Columbus Gold and Diamond at 2725 24th St. to learn if baby rings were within their budget, store owner Tina Burton promised not only to find the appropriate rings, but to donate them to the project.

“We were both just taken back,” Lynley Roberts said. “They also gave Maeleigh a necklace with a baby ring on it, so she has a reminder of the project.

“It’s one of the causes that is close to our family’s heart,” said Burton’s daughter, Angela. “So we were glad to donate the rings.”

For certain items, the grieving parents will receive two identical keepsakes. This is done so if the stillborn child is buried, one can be placed in the casket while the other is kept as a keepsake, Maeleigh said.

The project will wind down this Friday when the chests are donated to Columbus Regional Health Birthing Center for families of stillborn babies.

“(Keepsakes) mean so much to us who have lost babies because we want our children to be remembered,” Combest said. “Anything that has the child’s name mentioned that helps us remember her in any way.”

Combest said it’s also important to remind others who have lost an infant that there are quite a few people going through the same experience.