The grief of losing a child is hard for any parent. But there is comfort in ensuring bereaved parents are able to mourn their loss by giving their child a dignified burial. This is just what Felicia Tan and Cheryl Chiu — the founders of Angel Hearts — hope to do. 

There is simply no way to describe the grief of a child lost too soon. Grieving parents are not just mourning the loss of a life but also the loss of what could have been — the joy of choosing a name, of watching your child take their first steps or say their first words, tiny baby hands clutching on to your finger, trusting you with their life.

No parent should ever have to bury their child, and Felicia Tan, co-founder of charity organisation Angel Hearts, knows this pain too well.

Having suffered two miscarriages herself, she knows full well the grief that comes with it. It was through her devastating losses that she realised that there are not that many options when it comes to providing a dignified and beautiful burial for premature babies. Very often, burial gowns — or angel gowns, as they are known — are too big or unsuitable, especially for premature babies.

For a grieving parent already grappling with heartbreaking loss, it is truly distressing that they are not able to provide their baby with a burial gown that fits and would look beautiful for their final rest.

This realisation then led Tan and co-founder Rosalind Ang, to discover Angel Gowns, an organisation in the US that makes customisable, handsewn burial gowns from pre-worn wedding garments. Inspired, they began to think of bringing that to Singapore. In 2016, Angel Hearts was formed, first as a Facebook group and now into a company limited by guarantee (CLG).

“The aim was initially just to sew angel gowns. In fact, Angel Gowns in the US was so kind as to provide us with the templates [sewing patterns] for the gowns,” she says.

As word of the Facebook group grew, volunteers — many who are grieving mothers themselves — came forward to help, painstakingly and lovingly unpicking the donated wedding garments and putting them back together as burial gowns.

“Many came forward, mostly young mothers and working mothers who volunteered to help sew the gowns, and even their husbands came forward to help with logistics and the ‘manpower’,” Tan adds. Over the past four years, Angel Hearts has received tremendous support, with wedding gown donation drives exceeding their expectations and targets each year. “We have needed a warehouse as a result, because for the past two to three years we’ve received double the amount of wedding gowns we targeted for.”

They now have a space for all the gowns, thanks to the generosity of self-storage business StorHub. All of their gowns are now stored at the StorHub self-storage facility in Toa Payoh.

Giving back

Tan, who is a graphics and web designer by profession, started Angel Hearts out of the need to manage her grief and give back in any way she knew how. After trying to conceive for several years, she conceived in 2011 but at just 23 weeks, her premature baby was born with under-developed lungs and died.

Shortly after her first loss, she conceived again — this time, she carried twins, but both were also born at 21 weeks premature and passed away.

“The cause resonated with me, and I asked myself how I could contribute in terms of my strengths and abilities. I started as a volunteer myself, and I am trained as a web designer, so I helped them set up the website and with flyers and such, and when it came to registering Angel Hearts as a CLG, of course I agreed to be named as director,” Tan says.

Together with two other volunteers, and friend Cheryl Chiu (who currently acts as their Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR lead), they formed a team to get Angel Hearts registered in December 2017. To date, they have sewn and delivered (to funeral homes and hospitals across the country) 3,352 gowns, beanies and wraps for babies, made from over 950 donated wedding gowns.

For Chiu, having been busy running several different businesses in food and beverage for years, she and her husband decided to slow down after her youngest daughter was born. “When the opportunity arose to sell our business, we decided it was time for us to slow down. I thought I needed to slow down and look after my children. It was like a wakeup call for me; to slow down and give back to society. It was no longer about the dollars and cents,” she adds.

So, she began to get more involved with charitable organisations, among them the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) and soon after, Angel Hearts. When Tan invited her to host a Angel Hearts pregnancy loss remembrance event, the cause really hit home for Chiu.

“You never truly see how meaningful it is until you’re there, to see the gown they made — that ‘punch’ is there. You think, this is really meaningful.” Chiu was also named as a director and currently handles the accounts and finances at Angel Hearts, in addition to leading their CSR efforts. Their work has been deeply satisfying, and over the past few years, Tan says there have been many moments where she knew it was all worth it.

“There were parents who took pictures of their babies in the gowns, and messaged us on Facebook with words of gratitude and appreciation. The truth is, we distribute the gowns to hospitals and funeral homes, and we don’t always know who receives the gowns or see where they go. So having parents message us, is a rewarding experience for us to know that what we are doing is appreciated, even if we or others don’t see it,” she shares.

For Chiu, the moment that made her realise how important their work is, and how meaningful it is, was when her own mother got involved with Angel Hearts. “My mom is very traditional and conservative — speaking of things like this [death] is very taboo for her. But when I told her about Angel Hearts, she was so surprised and understanding, it was not a taboo to her at all. She is now even one of our volunteer sewists.”

Managing grief

Angel Hearts also works closely with grief recovery organisation Whispering Hope to provide grief management workshops for bereaved parents. “We refer parents who need more structured programmes to cope with grief to Whispering Hope. Frankly, there was no such programme available until [Whispering Hope] came along,” says Tan, who herself has gone through a session with Whispering Hope, and benefited greatly from it.

“I always say, if you want to learn Japanese, you just sign up for a Japanese language course. But what happens when you have trouble learning to cope with grief? There is nothing. No help. You probably see a counsellor but that’s it. We’ve realised that coping with grief is a life skill, and it must be learnt, and thankfully if you take a step forward, you have a chance to recover but you need the expertise,” says Tan. “So that’s why we’ve partnered with them, rather than taking it on ourselves and training volunteers.”

It is difficult not to give in to the inherent sadness of the work they do, but knowing that there are women they can help and can provide support to, keeps them motivated — women who are alone, or have little extended family support, or whose work has been greatly affected by their loss.

“This has given us motivation to push through as well. It is an uphill task, but then it gives us the motivation to say, “We are here for you, and we can lend you support, and if you need comfort we are there; and we also have our partners to help if you need additional counselling sessions,” says Tan.

Chiu says that very often, there are just no words to say to the grieving parent. “What I can just say is, at this very moment, I would just want to give you a big hug, or stand beside you. That’s why we share a certain positive attitude, and to our volunteers as well. We know negativity does not help anyone.”

“We don’t want to be a sad organisation,” she adds. “We want to walk with the mothers to the rainbow, and want to return the ‘colour’ to them.”

Challenges ahead

Running and operating Angel Hearts during this pandemic has been challenging. During the “circuit breaker” period — a stay-at-home order implemented as a preventive measure by the Singapore government in response to the Covid-19 outbreak — they were faced with the “double trouble” of not knowing where they fell in the categorisation of essential services, and also the halting of their usual fundraising activities.

“We were not part of the funeral home service, we are a non-profit, but a miscarriage happens when it happens. It’s not like we can tell a parent that ‘oh it is the Phase One (of the circuit breaker) we cannot give you a gown, because we are not an essential service’,” she recalls. “Fortunately, we have incredible partners who work with us, including several funeral homes who were willing to help keep our gowns in stock and help distribute when needed.”

With events being halted because of Covid-19, it was also challenging to conduct their usual workshops and corporate programmes.

Prior to the epidemic, they worked closely with corporates to spread awareness of the cause, as well as to organise and conduct CSR programmes and workshops for companies. These workshops include gown-making workshops for employees of the company, setting up booths to sell handmade items, and more.

Not only that, they’ve conducted several of these workshops at secondary schools as well. With these activities halted, their source of funding comes mostly from selling handmade items on their website, which are made by volunteers.

Nevertheless, they are pushing on and exploring new ways to conduct their workshops and programmes over video conferencing platform Zoom, for example. “We are very thankful that we still have a lot of support,” says Chiu. “Even the small things help us a lot. So we’re looking forward to doing what we do in the ‘new’ way.”