Garden designed for grieving parents

Little Spirits Garden acknowledges heartbreak of infant loss

Lindsay McCray sits with husband Jamie Elmhirst, three-year-old daughter Lauren, who holds a Spirit House, and 15-month-old son Colin in Little Spirits Garden, a new memorial for miscarried and stillborn babies.

When Lindsay McCray first told friends and family she’d had a miscarriage, most people didn’t know how to react.

McCray and her husband, Jamie Elmhirst, had been quick to spread excitement about their new pregnancy, so when she noticed spotting at eight weeks their cheer turned to devastation.

“So many of my loved ones were great, but a lot of people think you’ve done something wrong, or some well-meaning friends will say ‘well, you can always try for another,’ or some just don’t know how to respond at all,” says McCray. “Miscarriage is just not discussed that often, and there is no formal place for it in our society.”

That lack of support lead McCray and the team at the Saanich Legacy Foundation to disturb the often-silent grieving process and create a memorial that marks one of the first of its kind in North America — Little Spirits Garden, a dedicated public space at Royal Oak Burial Park where families can grieve the death of a baby and the community can openly acknowledge pregnancy and infant loss.

“Most parents tell me they wish for a place where their baby can be with others who know what it is like to be in this situation,” says Jill Davoren, maternity services social worker at Victoria General Hospital. “It does not matter if parents lost their baby 50 years or five hours ago — the grief for the loss of a baby before birth is often lifelong.”

The Board of Cemetery Trustees of Greater Victoria contributed $50,000 to developing the plan for the garden, and dedicated land within the park for the project that is now under construction. For the project to be completed, however, the board, McCray and the Saanich Legacy Foundation will have to raise the remaining $295,000 needed. The group is asking for help from the government, community members, foundation supporters and sponsors.

Joe Daly has been hired as the lead design consultant on the project. Daly and his colleagues at Daly Landscape Architecture wanted to create a space that spoke to the “contemplative nature” of the memorial, but was also open enough so that visitors would not feel isolated.

“We wanted to find a way to communicate these losses as a communal expression, as well as give families the opportunity to personalize the spaces,” says Daly. “Not every child will have had a name at this point, so we had to find a way to honour that.”

The solution came under a knoll of arbutus trees, in the form of small cement “Spirit Houses,” which can be decorated, filled with mementos or personalized. McCray hopes fundraising efforts will allow these tiny markers to be kept free or affordable for families. Due to the trees in the location, there will be no spots for in-ground burials, but Daly designed the area to host 3,000 small houses, along with benches that can be marked with bronze plaques, area-specific foliage, a ceremonial pavilion memorial installation, an ossuary and communal garden for scattering ashes, and suspended cedar flags or “wind notes” for messages.

“When you look around North America, there is no precedent for this,” says Daly. “We needed to create something more than a plaque wall — we needed a place where people could come and feel good about this.”

Daly has his own personal connection to the project as well: he is the father of three children, with one miscarried. Though the project was proposed to Daly two years ago, he says he and his wife are just now thinking about partaking in the memorial.

“It is surprisingly hard to get people to speak about this issue, and a lot of women used to be expected to just grieve in silence or move on, because people didn’t understand that loss,” says McCray. “It’s very hard on the dads, too. My husband felt helpless … But our loss wound up being a blessing in disguise: the more I talked to other people, the more I heard how common this was, and how much we were lacking space to honour these losses.”

Dr. Konia Trouton of the Vancouver Island Women’s Clinic estimates that, in Victoria, there are at least 450 miscarriages a year where women experience this loss in the first half of pregnancy. Meanwhile, Vital Statistics reported 457 stillbirths in B.C. in 2010, with at least 50 in the Greater Victoria area.

“It is difficult to get an exact number for miscarriage, as many are not reported in the systematic way that births are tracked,” says Trouton, who adds that approximately 15 to 20 per cent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. “Miscarriage, and even stillbirth, is more prevalent in our society than most people realize.”

Because McCray already had her now three-year-old daughter, Lauren, in an uncomplicated pregnancy, she and Elmhirst expected the best. When their worst fears were realized on that day two years ago, McCray had no memorial, ceremony or physical reminders to commemorate the loss. The family has now happily expanded to include 15-month-old Colin, though McCray says, “our baby in heaven will always be in our hearts.”

“My heart still hurts, but my experience and my grief has come full circle,” she says. “I’ve been able to talk to other people about this and turn it into something that, I hope, will help a lot of other families.” M

To contribute to Little Spirits Garden, visit saanichlegacy.ca, or call 250-477-3806. On Oct. 15, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day, a candlelight ceremony will be held at 7pm at Royal Oak’s Garden Chapel.

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