For 25 years, the Bereaved Parents Memorial Tree at RMH has given parents a place to remember and grieve for children lost in miscarriage, stillbirth or early infancy.
About 75 people gathered at RMH Dec. 5 at the annual service for families to reflect on their loss, many by hanging an ornament in remembrance on the 12-foot tall tree.
Participants Pete and Ann Johnson of Harrisonburg have lost four children in utero and have attended the service since 2008. They said the tree gives them a place to mourn their loss each year.
"For people who miscarry, the tree is all we have," Ann said. "There is no casket, there is no grave site. It's the one place you can come."
In August 2008, Ann took a pregnancy test that was positive. Pete, the James Madison University football equipment manager, remembers the day she told him they were going to be parents.
"We were driving through campus," Pete said. "She pulled out the test and was like, Are you ready for this?"
The Johnson family was elated. Ann has two children from a previous marriage and was excited to bring the two families together with a child.
In October, the couple received the worst possible news.
"We went to the doctor on a Tuesday and there was no fetal pulse," Pete remembered. "You can imagine trying to be the strong one. I called my mother and brother outside and totally lost it. I went to football practice that day. JMU Coach Mickey Matthews pulled me aside and hugged me. He told me, 'You don't need to be here.' I told him,' There is nothing else I can do."
Ann said the family was devastated.
"There is nothing you can do to make it better," she said.
The couple's doctor, Ami Keatts, MD, recommended the couple speak with Nancy Shomo, GC-C, coordinator of Grief and Loss Services for RMH Behavioral Health.
"I went with an attitude and the very first thing Nancy said was, 'As much as I'd like, I can't take away your pain, but I can walk alongside of you in support and encouragement as you move through the grief process. It's important you remember you are not alone,'" Ann said. "I didn't have to explain and try to make sense."
Two moths later, the family participated in their first Bereavement Tree service.
"This service, this tree has been a help for our entire family," Pete said. "For us, this tree has been a place of healing. I encourage anyone who has gone through this to seek out these services. Eventually you have to live; no child would want their parent to suffer and feel that sorrow everyday."
The family lost three more children, mourning for each of them at the tree each December. In April 2011, Ann gave birth to Whitley, a strong and healthy girl who participated with her family at this year's service.
"I'm honest to say, Pete and I are still married, I"m still here and Whitley is part of our family because of Nancy and this tree," Ann said." I really believe that."
Shomo said a family's grief is not always recognized when a child is lost through miscarriage.
"A lot of times, miscarriage is a loss that's not recognized," she explained. "People have a hard time knowing what to say or do. It is gratifying to be able to offer this service to the community, acknowledging this is a very real and special loss."
The Bereavement Tree is on display in the main concourse at RMH until January 1. The ceremony takes place the first Monday in December.
For more information on Grief and Loss Services at RMH or community support groups for miscarriage, stillbirth or early infant loss, contact Nancy Shomo at 540-433-4427.