Thomas' Memory Box

4:44:00 PM

Most new parents have a beautiful baby to proudly show off to all their friends and family. We had a box: Thomas’ Memory Box.

When a baby dies there isn’t much to prove he ever existed. If a parent is fortunate there may be a birth certificate and a death certificate. Not much else. As grieving parents, we felt it was essential that we had some evidence of our baby’s existence, something that tells the world that we had a real baby, that he is important even if his life was so short.

Medical staff, in neonatal intensive care units, are aware of this need, a need of all grieving parents. They realise that if a baby were to die, any physical reminders or memories of that child will become extremely important. The nurses, in the hospital where Thomas was born, helped us to create the first memories of Thomas. These soon found their way into Thomas’ Memory Box.

The first time we were able to visit Thomas in the NIC unit after he was initially stabilised, we were offered a camera loaded with film. We took photographs of our tiny son. It was very difficult to see his features because he was hooked up to a feeding tube, cannulae, a heart monitor as well as a ventilator. But to us, those first pictures of our newborn baby are very precious.

Most of our photographs turned out blurry. To us this doesn't really matter. At least we have photographs. Many bereaved parents don’t. Thanks to the thoughtful hospital staff, we also have a few special keepsakes: the ear muffs Thomas wore in the NIC unit, his booties, a teddy bear, a lock of hair, footprints and handprints, a quilt and a set of clothes.

After Thomas’ death, he was taken away by a nurse who dressed him in a nightie, booties and a bonnet. He was returned to us wrapped in a handmade quilt so that we could spend time holding and looking at him. As we were leaving the hospital, a nurse gave me a small package containing a duplicate set of clothes to the ones Thomas was wearing. “Your baby will have an autopsy and then the funeral director will bring him home for you. It isn't likely that his clothes will be returned to you too. These clothes will remind you of how he looked when you held him.”

A couple of days before Thomas was buried, we went to the funeral home to see him. When we arrived, the director handed me a bag. Inside were Thomas’ original clothes and nappy. Attached to the clothes was a card upon which was written Thomas’ name and his time of death: 3 p.m., Wednesday 10th November 1999. I always think of these treasures as a special gift from God. We were told not to expect to receive the clothes but they arrived. The nightie was especially precious because it contained drops of Thomas blood, a part of him, a reminder of his suffering. As an added bonus, the card gave us evidence that Thomas died at the Hour of Mercy. No one thought to look at the clock as Thomas slipped away. The closest we could estimate his time of death was around 3 o’clock. To find out that he died right at the special Hour of Mercy was very consoling.

The day before Thomas’ funeral, I decided I would like to have a  special album to put all Thomas’ photographs in. I could then pass them around after the funeral. I found something better than an album: a box with sleeves for photographs and space for keepsakes. This became Thomas’ Memory Box. With the photographs and other keepsakes inside, I kept this box close to me during the funeral and wake. Everyone was very kind. They saw how much I needed to share our little baby and took a lot of time and care examining the evidence of his very short life. Everywhere I went for the next few months I took ‘Thomas’ along hoping that someone would want to share my son.

Thomas’ Memory Box filled up and spilled over into another box. Unexpectedly, we received more and more keepsakes and they were added to the box: a video of the funeral, countless cards and letters of sympathy, photographs of the funeral and grave… We have several memories which were not meant for a box but are on display around our home: a cross stitch and a wall hanging stitched with love by friends, a teddy bear bearing Thomas’ middle name and poems written by our eldest daughter. And around my neck is a heart shaped locket containing a tiny photograph of our child. This was given to me by my thoughtful sisters.

Even years later, items arrive to add to Thomas’ Memory Box. A few special friends send us cards to console us on the anniversary of his death and we periodically add teddy bears to the collection we started as a means of remembering him.

I no longer feel the need to carry along Thomas’ box whenever I leave home. I rarely get it down off the shelf to share it with visitors who come to our home. Sometimes I will blow off the gathered dust and quietly spend a few moments by myself looking and remembering. At one time I guarded the box carefully, thinking, “This is all I have left of our son.” Now, although the contents of that box are still very precious, I wouldn’t be devastated if I were parted from them. I know Thomas existed. He was here on earth for a very short time but he affected our lives forever. I don’t need evidence that I once had a baby. I still have a son called Thomas and he is an important part of our lives.

This story is in my book Grief, Love and Hope. Please feel welcome to download a free ebook copy of this book if you'd like to share more of my stories.

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  1. I finally got to read this part of Thomas' life.
    I wanted to wait til I had a good about of time to read it and take it all in.
    I know many of the nursing staff at the Nicu units spend quite a lot of time making special clothes and blankets for the babies, and especially babies like Thomas'.
    It must have really been comforting to realise that Thomas was born to Christ at the Mercy Hour.
    I have been on the giving side, the nursing side, not realising they really make a difference.
    I love your memory box. It is such an important box to have and treasure.

  2. Oh my goodness, Sue. It's hard to look at these pictures without crying for your loss. I'm so glad you have these Thomas treasures. The little nightie, hat, and booties are precious reminders of him. Most of all I'm glad you have pictures. Thanks for sharing this with us. God bless you, Sue.

  3. Hi Leanne,
    So pleased we can share.

    I am so very grateful to all the nurses and doctors of the NICU of Westmead Hospital. They were a fabulous team, giving everything they had in an effort to save Thomas' life. They didn't give up until it was absolutely clear Thomas was not responding to treatment. Everyone was very gentle and caring and made such a difference to what was a very, very difficult experience.

    There is a group of women at the hospital who sews gowns and quilts for newborn babies in the NICU. We didn't take any baby clothes with us to the hospital. Not knowing if Thomas would live, it was too hard taking along things he might not have needed. So we very much appreciated being given such beautiful clothes to dress our son in.

    Leanne, I can imagine you made such a difference in your patients' lives. Caring medical staff are such a blessing. Thank you!

  4. Mary,

    Yes, I am very grateful for all my treasures. I think about my digital camera and camcorder. If I'd had those at the time of Thomas' death I could have had lots of beautiful pictures. All I had was a simple film camera and the photos came out very blurry. But I am still grateful for what I have.

    The booties and bonnet? These caused me a bit of anguish. After Thomas had been buried, I realised I'd never looked at his ears and feet as they were covered in clothes. How I wanted to go back and examine him properly! Then one day, not too long ago, I was looking at the photos we took while Thomas was in our arms dying. And I could see his feet and ears! God has unexpected gifts sometimes!

    Thank you for sharing Thomas. God bless!

  5. Sue, I have Bea's box sitting at the end of my bed. I still open it often.

    Funny, the way that grief works differently for different people. I don't want anyone seeing what's in her box. I think it makes me feel naked, or like no one else will see anything but horror when they look. I feel very jealous of her box.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and your Thomas. <3

  6. Sarah,

    I used to take Thomas' box everywhere with me. When we went on holiday, Thomas came along too. I have a little photo frame with my favourite picture, and I had to take that too. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving Thomas behind. Maybe people would tell me that Thomas' things aren't him and that I was silly, but I think you would understand.

    It is quite OK for us to be different. I wanted to share Thomas and you want to keep Bea's box to yourself. I have a friend who feels like you. I know of someone who, only after about 5 years, has been able to part with photos of her daughter. Now the grandmother has a very treasured album of her granddaughter and she appreciates the sacrifice that was involved in the giving of the gift.

    Horror? Someone once asked me when a particular photo of Thomas was taken. I answered, "When we were holding him in the vistors' lounge." She replied, "He is dead in the photo?" I was surprised by the woman's horror. Yes, it hurt. She didn't see our son. She saw death.

    I said I wouldn't be devastated to be parted from Thomas' things. I was looking through his box yesterday when I was taking the photos for this post. So many memories came flooding back as I handled the gown, the pall, the footprints... Yes, I would survive without my box of things but I am so very glad I do have them. They connect me to my son.

    Sarah, I thank you for stopping and sharing. I feel honoured you have told me how you feel about Bea's very special box of memories.



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