LA GRANDE — Seventeen years ago, a La Grande mother experienced the devastation of losing a child — on Mother’s Day.
Last year, she read an article in The Oregonian about a Portland-area woman who placed butterflies at children’s graves. The action moved her.
“It touched me to my core,” she said. “I said, ‘I am going to do that. I am going to add to her movement.’”
Early Friday morning she brought the movement to La Grande’s Hillcrest Cemetery on 12th Street, taking two friends and placing more than 600 butterflies on the graves in sections of the cemetery set aside for babies and toddlers.
As the sun rose early Friday and peeked through the trees to shine on the two children’s portions of the cemetery, the trio staked the decorative, colorful, plastic butterflies — some as small as an inch across while others were 3-4 inches — around 100 to 150 headstones.
They were graves of children who died shortly after birth — some the same day, some just months or a couple of years later. The women speculated about each child — the dreams they would have carried out, what they would have looked like, and what took them from the world so early. The headstones are engraved with names dating back as far as the early 1900s and as recent as the last decade.
The women found joy in placing the butterflies, a reminder to mothers who have lost a child that they are not alone. And it helped the two who had suffered losses of their own.
“It’s therapy,” one said.
Some of the headstones simply display names. One group of headstones appears to be of a family that lost several children in a short span. In another area, twin girls who died the day of and two days after birth are buried next to their adult sister.
Some headstones have images of a lamb, of hands, or of Christ, words of comfort or a description of the child, including “Beautiful” or “Precious Baby.”
“I love ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus,’” one of the women said, reading the inscription on a grave from the early 2000s.
One has no name or date at all, reading only, “Until the new world sweet baby girl.”
The woman who organized the display wishes to remain anonymous, stating she is “not looking for recognition. I just want to share anonymous love.” Her hope is the act will touch mothers who also have experienced the pain of losing a child.
“May 11, 2003, was Mother’s Day. I had given birth to a little baby boy named Noah. He lived for two hours and passed away in his dad’s arms,” she said. “It devastated us.”
Her son, her second child, was born at Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, at 25 weeks gestation.
“I went into early labor,” she said. “Because I had been leaking amniotic fluid, his lungs were struggling to develop. When he was born he just didn’t live long.”
Because of the baby’s condition, the couple was faced with the gut-wrenching decision of whether to allow doctors to try to save their child or “let nature take its course,” she said.
“That was one of the hardest decisions of my life,” she said. “To make that choice to let go and let God take control of that situation was very hard.”
When she woke up after the death of her son in a different wing of the hospital, she knew there would be great difficulty ahead.
“The first thing I saw was, I was looking out over this magnificent view of Portland with Mt. Hood in the background,” she said. “I woke up terrified. I knew I had to go out into that world and leave that hospital. There are no words to describe the emptiness in my heart in that moment. Throughout the next several weeks, I had a lot of trouble coping.”
But during that time, her mother shared a dream of her late husband telling her their grandson was with him. That gave her hope.
She recalled realizing, “I have this child I need to be there for,” alluding to her firstborn child. “I’ve gotta pull it together and focus on what I do have.”
The pain she experienced still was crushing, though, even as two more children followed, and especially on Noah’s birthday.
“Every year, Mother’s Day, especially when it fell on May 11, has been super hard for me,” she said. “I have three children besides Noah, and I tried to put on a happy face for them, but inside I wanted to cry all day.”
But then she read that article.
“It was very inspirational,” she said. “I wanted to carry through and inspire others through what inspired me.”
She also said her faith has been instrumental in helping her continue on.
“I don’t believe God is a punisher,” she said. “I believe God is our strength. I didn’t feel he is punishing me, but I feel he is my core foundation. That got my heart through it.”
She wants the butterflies to carry the message to mothers who have endured what she has that they are not alone in their grief.
“I remember feeling a lot of love and support from my friends and family,” she recalled. “You didn’t have to say anything. Just that company was very comforting.”
She also wants to remember her son with the action.
“I want to honor him and his memory,” she said. “This is a good way to channel that energy, showing other mothers love and letting them know they’re not alone.”
And she wasn’t alone in this endeavor. One of the women who went with her to place the butterflies has experienced the same pain.
“She was my (fourth) child,” said the second woman, who also requested anonymity. “It was in 1986. She just stopped moving. It was three days before her due date. She was stillborn. They had an autopsy and don’t know what (caused it).”
She pointed to her older children and her faith as what got her through what she called “the most devastating thing in my life.”
“It was traumatic,” she said of losing Sierra, her daughter.
Enduring the loss, through, strengthened her.
“You don’t ever forget, but you learn a new norm.... The whole experience and the child (affects) your future,” she said. “I can look back and see how much stronger I got after that.”
She also added to her family following the loss.
“I had one other child afterward,” she said. “A rainbow child is what they call him.”
She said she was helped by writings she received from The Compassionate Friends, a nonprofit grief support group.
“To this day I have that literature and can read some of the poems,” she said.
She is glad to take part in setting up the butterfly display and hopes it helps other mothers who are dealing with loss.
“I think it’s going to be a blessing for anybody that needs it, make somebody smile. I hope it gets bigger. Next year we plan on more.”