Emily Peregrim remembers looking at the clock. She remembers it was 1 p.m. on the nose.
Everything after that is a blur.
Twenty-nine weeks pregnant with her second child, Emily was at Yale New Haven Hospital for a checkup. The doctor told her there was no heartbeat from the baby daughter she was carrying. Labor was induced and hours later, Emily’s daughter, Adalynn, was stillborn.
Shocked and heartbroken, Emily briefly held her baby, who weighed just under 2 pounds.
“I felt so frozen,” says Emily, a senior product manager with Aetna Commercial Service Operations. “I don’t really remember my time with her. That’s a regret.”
It’s a regret she’s trying to make sure other families don’t share.
As she mourned during her maternity leave—finding solace in the routine of caring for her 2 1/2-year-old son, Alex, and writing in a private journal to put her emotions into words—Emily decided she wanted to honor Adalynn by doing something for other families experiencing a similar loss.
She remembered that shortly after delivery, a nurse gave her and her husband a box filled with assorted items, including two hand-knit caps, a tiny blanket, a small white dress, a cast of the baby’s footprint, the measuring tape used to record the baby’s length, a candle, a prayer shawl and a handful of photos a nurse took of Adalynn. Volunteers assemble these “memory boxes” for the families who lose infants each year at the hospital.
“Memory boxes are so effective because of the fog that the families are in. They are in a state of shock,” says Christine Coffey, a registered nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital’s Labor and Birth and Maternal Special Care unit. “With the memory boxes, the families have something to look back on.”
The memory box turned out to be a tremendous source of comfort for Emily and her family. Days after returning home from the hospital, Emily sat in the bedroom that had been freshly painted and decorated in anticipation of Adalynn’s arrival. Armed with a box of tissues, she opened the memory box. Removing the items one by one, she felt a deep connection to her daughter.
“The blanket smelled like her. I’m so grateful for it,” she says. “The only tangible items I have of her, the things she actually touched, were in the memory box. The memory box is my prized possession.”
When it came time for Emily and her husband, Matt, to make funeral arrangements for their daughter, they discovered that all the outfits they had bought for Adalynn were too big for the tiny baby. The white gown in the memory box was just the right size. They buried her in it. “I’ve always wondered who made the gown,” Emily says.
And so, as she was looking for a way to help other families, Emily thought she would try to offer them the same comfort the memory box brought her. She began buying decorative boxes at craft stores and started gathering stuffed animals, angel Christmas ornaments, clay hearts and other items to fill the memory boxes. Her mother, a skilled seamstress, and her sister, a knitter, pitched in, making dressing gowns, tiny suits and hats. Emily learned to knit, too.
Knowing that stillbirths are often unexpected, and parents arrive at the hospital without a bag packed, Emily decided to add a few items especially for the moms: moisturizer, warm, fuzzy socks and lip balm.
To date, Emily has delivered about 35 memory boxes to the hospital. Overall, hundreds of families have received memory boxes since the program was launched at Yale New Haven Hospital in 2001 with a donation from the Angel Fund, says Alissa Dimeo, a registered nurse and the bereavement coordinator for labor and birth at the hospital. She has seen firsthand the comfort the items bring.
“You can run your finger over the footprint mold and remember how small that foot was,” Alissa says. “It’s so wonderful that we have this program to help families. And it’s so impressive that Emily has been able to rise up and do this.”
Emily continues to work full-time and has since had a daughter, Juliet, who is now 2 years old. She created a Facebook page, Adalynn’s Gift, where she posts updates and photos of memory boxes in progress, including pictures of the hand-sewn gowns and suits and the knitted hats and blankets.
Honoring her daughter while supporting other families has helped Emily move through her grief.
“It’s really therapeutic and it’s been a real comfort,” she says. “I truly enjoy putting the boxes together. It makes me think of my daughter. It’s a way to honor her and make her proud and make her memory live on in some way.”