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They were here: helping tiny lives endure

They were here: helping tiny lives endure

JACKSONVILLE -- Margaret Abigail Remo lived the briefest of moments after her birth on June 24, 2011. But her two hours in the arms of her family are building a lasting legacy for other families who endure the pain of losing a child.

For four years, Margaret's Memories has been a standing mission for the Circle of Grace chapter of United Methodist Women (UMW) at Riverside Park UMC, Jacksonville. The project has provided more than 650 memory boxes – or kits intended to take notice of an infant’s brief stay in the world -- to area hospitals free of charge. From there, the boxes go to families who lose children to miscarriage, stillbirth or death shortly after birth.

Volunteers assembling memory boxes for grieving parents
Volunteers assemble items intended to comfort grieving parents into memory boxes for the Margaret's Memories mission at Riverside Park UMC, Jacksonville. Photos from Margaret's Memories.

It is a heartbreak Margaret's mother, Nicole Remo, knows too well. She received a memory box from the chaplain of the hospital where Margaret was born. The box contained a small blanket, a knitted hat, seeds to start a garden and clay to create a footprint memorial.

The memory box gave comfort as Remo dealt with her grief and searched for some deeper meaning to her daughter's life. Her name was chosen with care. Margaret means "pearl," and Abigail is "the joy of the father." Remo and her husband knew before delivery that they would not have a good outcome for Margaret, who had an inoperable heart defect.

"My first thought was I want something good to come out of our bad situation," Remo says. "She's not here to make her own legacy, so I'm doing it for her."

She turned to the UMW volunteers at Riverside Park UMC, and Margaret's Memories was born.

"It was a good way to show God's love in the darkest of times," Remo says.

Twice a year, usually in fall and spring, volunteers gather for a Memory Box Night. More than 60 volunteers from the church and the public came to the most recent box-making night on Oct. 6. They made 145 memory boxes.

October was Infant Loss Awareness Month.

Baptist Medical Center, St. Vincent's Medical Center and Memorial Hospital are among the Jacksonville hospitals who receive the memory boxes. 

Volunteers typically gather in the church's fellowship hall, surrounded by the materials that will fill the boxes. The evening opens with a prayer, short psalm or story and closes with another prayer.

When the volunteers gathered the first time on All Saints Day in 2011, Remo says everyone thought it would be a one-time event. They made 27 memory boxes. Now the mission has a designated room for memory boxes. 

"It takes a lot of space to store all the stuff," Remo says.

Each box costs about $30 to make. People donate funds as well as supplies. Local businesses also help out. And the church's UMW chapter sets up display booths at craft fairs and other community events throughout the year. 

Remo used her own experience to create a list of keepsakes for the boxes from Margaret's Memories. They contain clay for footprints and handprints, a small photo book with premade scrapbook pages, a journal and pen, handmade blankets and bracelets, a heart-shaped container for a cross fashioned from hair clippings and forget-me-not seeds for planting.

The box Remo received in 2011 had only one footprint card, and Remo asked the chaplain for more cards so that Margaret's grandparents also could have them. So Margaret's boxes have extra cards as well as a card overlaid with a poem.

Because of her personal experience, Remo includes something that probably wouldn't otherwise come to mind: lip balm.

"Obviously you cry a lot," Remo says. "And for some reason when you cry, you get cracked lips."

Remo's son, who was 3 at the time of his sister's death, has on occasion asked to see Margaret's memory box. "It has been a benefit to him," Remo says.

While most boxes go to parents with recent losses, Remo says she gets requests from families who lost children years ago. Even today, miscarriages and stillbirths can be a hush-hush topic, Remo says.

But it was worse decades ago, she says, and people had fewer opportunities to openly grieve.

"They never had any closure. Their grief wasn't a healthy way of grieving."

Even with the passage of time, Remo says memory boxes can give comfort. And there is comfort to her in knowing her daughter's life had purpose.

"This has been a very healthy way to work through [grief] to help others."

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– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.