“Every outfit I make, I feel like I’m dressing Luís António”. Ângela creates clothes for premature babies so that other parents don’t have to go through the same thing: not having anything to wear to their children’s funerals.

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Angela and Luis lost their premature son. When it came time to prepare for the funeral, they were suggested to dress the baby in clothes bought from a toy store, which would still be big. It took two years for this mother to realize how she could turn her grief into strength, to overcome the hurt of not having anything to wear for her son at the most difficult time. Today, she creates outfits, boots and hats, which she donates to maternity hospitals. This family wants to inspire others to do the same where they live. And they’re asking hospitals across the country to contact them to get their work “to the right person”

When Ângela Borges, 49, bought her sewing machine as a way to unravel hems when she was an emigrant in London, she never imagined it would get so much use. Everything changed “when this happened”.

“This” is the death of Luís António, the son born at 24 weeks. He lived for six days, but made Ângela and her husband, Luís Melo, 44, parents forever. He was longed for after multiple failed pregnancy attempts.

The sewing machine is in the center of the room they had prepared for Luis Antonio. And the sound of the threads digging into the fabric is heard every day, for three or four hours. Making clothes for premature babies is Ângela’s moment of therapy.

“Every outfit I make, I feel like I’m dressing Luís António. Every hat, every shoe”. Ângela “relieves” her own pain, thinking that she may be easing the suffering of another family who will go through the same thing as her: the death of a premature baby.

Because Ângela and Luís, at the time of their son’s death, had nothing to wear. He was too small for any premature clothes on the market – those, says the forestry engineer, are for babies who are closer to the end of their cycle.

In the maternity ward, they even suggested that they go to a toy store and buy “clothes for babies”, but warned that “it would still be big”. They still tried to make that purchase, but none of it made sense to them. It didn’t dignify their loss. “It’s not conceivable that you have to go to a toy store to buy an outfit to dress your child in. It’s not conceivable”.

“I don’t want other parents to go through the pain of watching the hours go by and not knowing what their child will have to wear to the funeral,” she tells CNN Portugal. The idea lingered for a long time. But it was only when Luís António’s second birthday approached that Ângela was able to have “the strength” to move forward. “Every day that went by, there was a parent I wasn’t able to help.”

On May 5, the day that will always be their son’s, the couple delivered the first suits, caps and booties for premature babies at the Dr. Bissaya Barreto Maternity Hospital in Coimbra. Since then, the sewing machine has never stopped. And Ângela, even though she is the only one in the room, is never alone. “I feel he is always around me”.

Luís António said goodbye to his parents wrapped in a blanket, which his grandmother knitted all night on the eve of the funeral. But now he has a closet like no other: “He has lots of suits. All the ones I make, wherever he is, he’s been trying them all on. They’ve all been through him,” the mother boasts.

Ângela and Luís became parents to Luís António on May 5, 2021
Ângela and Luís became parents to Luís António on May 5, 2021

An outfit for every moment

The suits, caps and boots that Ângela and Luís have donated to health units near their home in Figueira da Foz can be put to different uses.

The couple packs sets of a suit, a hat, a pair of boots and a blanket in small plastic bags. On the outside, they write the sizes, so that everything is easier in the hour of greatest distress. These “kits” are for premature babies who do not survive.

Then there are other “kits”, with just a cap and booties, for babies in the incubator. While they are in the “glass houses”, premature babies do not need clothes. But as they grow and get stronger, they begin to have moments of skin-to-skin contact with their parents. It is in these moments that the couple’s donation makes all the difference, protecting the extremities.

Ângela also creates caps that, whether the baby survives or not, are given to the parents as a memory of that moment. “My idea is to create a memory, linked to something material, that you can hold on to, which we, in our case, don’t have,” she explains.

“And if the preemies survive, which I hope there will be many, that one day later when they are big, they can be aware of how tiny they were. And know that this was their first onesie. That they didn’t have a first outfit, like all end-of-cycle babies do,” she adds.

A premature baby is one born before 37 weeks. In Portugal, of the 79,795 babies born in 2021, 5997 were premature. That’s 7.5% of the total – or 16 every day.

According to data provided to CNN Portugal by the Portuguese Society of Neonatology, premature babies account for more than half of the deaths of babies in the first 28 days of life. In the country, about 140 babies die in this neonatal period each year. In 2021, there were 135.

Each suit takes about an hour and a half to make
Each suit takes about an hour and a half to make

A giant centimeter

With a premature baby, every inch makes a difference. And Angela Borges learned that as soon as she started sewing and knitting. The suits come in different sizes, depending on the degree of prematurity. But there are references: for the body 15 centimeters, for arms and legs 10 to 12 centimeters, for the head 9 to 12 centimeters in diameter.

“When I started making it, I based it on a photo I have of Luís António standing next to the thermometer. The thermometer is the size of the body. I grabbed my thermometer and it measured 12 centimeters. So I thought that if I made a 13 or 14 centimeter suit, it would fit. But then I was told that there was a jumpsuit that didn’t fit. I asked for the measurement of the maternity thermometer. And theirs is 13 centimeters. In such small creatures, one centimeter is huge”, she explains.

Trial and error. And a lot of dedication. Each piece takes an average of an hour and a half to make. Then there’s the rest of the ritual: putting on the springs, washing, ironing, packing. So that everything is as prepared as possible for the moment that no one wants to prepare for: the death of a child. “What I ask is that parents be given the chance to choose, not to be forced into a costume.” Despite options in all colors and patterns, white tones tend to be the most chosen.

With every costume she makes, Angela tries to have a similar version. The fact is that there are also twins among premature babies.

Photo by Luís António served as a reference for the first costumes
Photo by Luís António served as a reference for the first costumes

An example that wants to reach others

Ângela Borges’ project would be virtually unknown if her husband, Luís Melo, a manager by profession, had not shared it on Twitter. The post quickly went viral. Many other stories of loss like theirs arrived on the screen – and, above all, the desire to help. “Many said that the funeral was done with clothes that were too big,” he summarizes.

“Go to a toy store, and buy a Nenuco outfit” This is what we were advised, hours after our premature son passed away It was only 6 days after his birth, and we had to prepare the funeral (1/6).

“The aim was to raise awareness of something that doesn’t cross anyone’s mind. It doesn’t cross anyone’s mind to think what a premature baby is wearing to the funeral. It gives us a little joy to know that we can contribute to other couples or other parents not going through the same pain and the same experience”, points out Luís.

The couple challenges others, whether or not they have experienced the loss of a child, to start similar initiatives and deliver these items to hospitals and maternity hospitals that are closest to their areas of residence. There are institutions, such as nursing homes, that already have this practice. But all help is welcome.

Their house is full of items for premature babies. The grief is still there, perhaps never to be overcome. However, Luís rejects that these miniature clothes, always in sight, are an unresolved pain. “Months after my son was born, I published a text saying that it was time to stop hiding, to stop running away from the pain. And that we should talk about what we went through, and talk about our son every day, if we had to, with everyone,” she recalls.

The couple would like to get the clothes they make to other maternity hospitals in the country. And they are asking hospital managers to contact them. They want to “reach the right person” to ensure that all the effort reaches those who need it – the families of premature babies who die – and is not lost. “If I don’t know to whom things have been handed over, who is doing the follow-up, I can’t rest easy,” Angela confesses.

Angela spends several hours a day dedicated to this project
Angela spends several hours a day dedicated to this project

Suggestion: a space for farewell

Angela and Luis do their part. However, there are answers in supporting families who have lost premature babies that are not in their hands. From the teams that accompanied them, they say, they received all the support. But there are things that, despite all the goodwill, have to be taken on by the decision-makers.

“It would be a space for parents, like us, to hold their child for the first time and the last time. That happened to us in a space that was more like a storage room. Having a space where you can break the news and have that contact is important. Then there is the accompaniment of the parents’ grief by a psychologist, which happened in our case”, summarizes Luís.

"Kits" are packed, with reference to sizes
“Kits” are packed, with reference to sizes

The touch

For six days, Angela wanted very much to touch her son. They never let her, she was too fragile. The first touch only happened after the news that no one wanted to hear. Angela and Luis only learned of the death the following morning.

“It’s the grabbing of that tiny thing, that fits here, in your hand, like this. But cold. It’s freezing. It’s very… I wanted to say it was very good, but at the same time, it’s heart-wrenching,” the mother describes.

The father did not want to take it. However, the nurse eventually forced the moment. Even today, Louis is grateful for that gesture. Or he would have regretted it forever.

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