This past Sunday marked the completion of a mission for Dexter United Methodist Church Pastor Denise Kasischke, who has long sought a place in Dexter where parents could go to quietly grieve the loss of children who either didn’t live long enough to make it out of the womb or passed away shortly after birth.
A children’s memorial bench now sits with a blessing etched upon its face as a message of comfort to all those who seek respite among the greenery of the church’s surrounding memorial garden and the nearby burbling fountain.
“It’s so much better than I ever dreamed of — I pictured a wooden sign in the ground and that’s it, but with the bench and the fountain it really is beautiful,” Kasischke said after leading the dedication ceremony before a crowd of attendees — many of them couples who had come to honor their own lost babies.
Scott and Sherry McLane were among those who witnessed Kasischke’s dedication of the bench, near to which is the preserved trunk of a maple tree that was planted originally when the memorial garden itself was created and dedicated in 1997.
“Our son’s name was Nathaniel — Nathan,” Scott said. “He was born 19 years ago. It was July 15 in 1996. He was my second born. He was born at 26 weeks. He lived for about 30 minutes … we did get to hold him.”
While the McLane’s are thankful for the half hour they shared with Nathan, they recognize that some parents who lose a child don’t even get that and that it can be difficult to find emotional support when suffering with a sort of pain that most people can’t comprehend like that associated with losing a parent, a spouse or a friend.
Kasischke’s loss was around the same time as the McLane’s — nearly 14 years ago. During the dedication ceremony remarks, she recalled gathering baby clothes and items with joy and hopefulness as her imagination lay out before her mind an entire life of possibilities that she hoped to raise her child to successfully chase and realize.
But during one trip to her OBGYN she “walked into the hospital pregnant and (she) walked out and (she) was not,” after receiving news from her doctor that her baby’s heart had stopped while in the womb.
“I left the hospital with empty arms and that was that,” she said. “This is not something that is talked about which can make it really hard to heal from the loss. So I was back to work by the weekend and I continued with life as usual but I did not have a good guide for my grief or a place to go remember what was lost.”
One in five pregnancies ends with no birth, but despite this fact Kasischke and several of the people in the crowd during the ceremony indicated that it’s difficult to find people with an adequate understanding of the loss of a child and how it can envelope the rest of a person’s remaining lifetime, as everything from holidays to death-dates and even people talking about their own children graduating high school or getting married can trigger the sense of pervasive loss that results from the death of a child.
Kasischke had the idea of having a special place for grieving such a loss in a magazine that had published an article about memorial spots. She liked the idea so much that she clipped the article and has kept it to this day, as it’s the inspiration for the bench.
“This to me says that this is something that’s significant in people’s lives and it’s a significant place to come,” she said of the final product, which was designed by the DUMC Memorial Garden committee and brought into physical being by Poseidon Ponds, who also restored much of the rest of the memorial garden’s grounds and foliage, which had gotten into disarray after years of nature taking its toll on the man-created landscaping that a garden typically represents.
She added that she felt it was important to offer something in addition to a church as far as a place of emotional and spiritual healing is concerned, while also providing something other than a gravestone to visit. Since stillborn and miscarried babies often don’t have a grave-site or headstone to visit, for many this is their only option to have their own equivalent mourning site.
Not everyone visiting the bench had lost a baby. Jackie Wireman attended the ceremony because her son John Wireman died more than a decade ago. He was 28 years old, but to Jackie he had always been her baby and will always be her baby. She spoke fondly of him Sunday with tears in her eyes — about how he was going to be an attorney and planned on having a family of his own one day.
“In society today it’s very uncomfortable to walk the journey of losing a child, whether it’s a miscarriage or like myself losing an adult son,” Wireman explained. “If you lose a spouse it’s easy for people to talk to you and say, ‘I’m sorry … I know you miss him,’ but when they approach me about losing my only child it’s hard because they don’t know what to say.”
Wireman also recently lost her mother, Martha Jean Wheatley, a longtime Dexter resident.
“It’s hard that John is not here and now dealing with my mother’s death, but the memory and the thing that keeps all of us alive is that we will see them again,” Wireman said.
And now Wireman will join the many who visit the DUMC Memorial Garden and the Children’s Bench. Maybe she’ll run into Sherry McLane on a day that she plans to aim her daily run to end at the bench, where she will spend a moment remembering Nathaniel before turning around and completing her training circuit by returning home for a time before she repeats her training routine with a little space for her lost son in the middle of it as often as she can. As long as she can, he’s still that much in her life.
It’s something Sherry has done for years before the bench was installed. Nathaniel was the second one interred on the Memorial Garden grounds in 1997, during which a Japanese maple was planted. The tree has since fallen and was re-purposed into the decorative pruned trunk that lays wrapped around the base of the fountain near the bench.
“There are just all kinds of little symbols when we come here,” Sherry said. “Yesterday we saw a rainbow. It feels like we’re connected to him when we come here and we know that someday we’ll be with him and that’s reassuring.”
Kasischke said that she felt “compelled” to provide this place for people like Sherry to have that connection and the ability to process and manage such a powerful grief.
“I didn’t know anyone personally who had gone through this, but after I went through this I knew a lot, so I want to share that and I’m hoping that people are open to conversation and will reach out for healing sooner rather than later, because there’s recognition that this is real,” she said. “The big thing for me is how can I help other people.
“How can I share with them, because there’s an emptiness and you cannot explain it. It comes up when you don’t expect it and there are triggers. It’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to cry and to grieve and to remember. There’s pain and grieving, but there’s hope at the end.”
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Below is a gallery of photos taken during the Sunday, July 26 dedication ceremony in the Dexter United Methodist Church Memorial Gardens.