Tucson couple Kristin and Jamie Lewis Hedges were thrilled at the birth of their first child, a son named Nathaniel Lewis.
Until he died five days later.
Although they now have two children and four years have passed, the pain hasn’t. In fact, certain reactions actually make it worse.
“At all costs, refrain from giving greeting card platitudes,” said Jamie Lewis, 39. “They don’t make sense and they don’t help. Some will say ‘God just wanted Nathaniel to be with him, to be with God.’
“Screw God,” is the father’s response.
Folks who dance around the subject are no help, either.
“Give people an opportunity to talk and ask about their kids,” Kristen, 33, added. “Even though there is nothing they can do to make it better, they can let the parents express themselves. We want to brag about our kid, talk about it.”
The couple discovered a way they were able to freely express themselves – and share the experiences of others – with the Children’s Altar.
The Children’s Altar is erected for the annual All Souls Procession weekend, and Kristen and Jamie Lewis found so much solace in the project that they are now the Buckstoppers, or facilitators of it.
Their centerpiece contribution last year was a mobile to honor Nathaniel Lewis.
His photo was in the center, surrounded by arms of the mobile that held a boy and girl doll – the recipients of Nathaniel’s organs. At the age of 5 days, he saved two lives and became the youngest organ donor in the Southwest. Nathaniel donated his kidney, liver, pancreas and heart.
“I am convinced beyond doubt that his sacrifice was his wish. I may have had to sign papers and give consent, but it is my son who is the hero, and it is my son who saved two other children,” Kristen wrote in her story “Mama Hands” that tells of her experience building the altar. Read her full story by clicking here.
Those who wish to contribute to this year’s altar can do so in a number of ways. They can make an extended project, like the mobile, or bring photos, artwork, poetry, or items to honor their dearly departed. Memorial cards will also be on hand, for people to write a message on the spot.
The couple has seen the healing in action.
“One little girl asked me if she could write a message to her friend. She told me, ‘My friend was supposed to come play but she died instead,’” Kristen recalls.
The girl wrote the message on a memorial card and then brought it to Kristen, asking if it was a good message to send.
Jamie Lewis recalled a boy who asked about the baby in the photo, Nathaniel. So Jamie Lewis told him the story.
“He sat there with amazing concentration for an adolescent,” Jamie Lewis said. The boy then disclosed that his sister also died. She was 4-year-old Adelita Camacho-Bedoy, who was killed in 2007 when her babysitter accidentally ran her over when backing out of a driveway.
Camacho-Bedoy became the centerpiece of that year’s Procession of Little Angels and the inspiration for the first children’s altar.
“It was a mind-numbing, tragic accident,” said Jhon Sanders, who came up with the children’s altar project. “By the end of the day, I knew I had to do something with this upwelling of energy.”
Local artist Matt Klepl built the wooden altar base, which will be used again this year. Metal sculptor Nathan Matti will be constructing this year’s side panels and artist Marissa Ettal will be creating a collage for the back panel.
“It won’t be a full masterpiece until the community is involved,” Sanders said.
While Adelita and Nathaniel have both been centerpieces in the altar, the altar is meant to honor every child.
Another child who has been honored was Brian Halbert, a 14-year-old who died in Guatemala after falling out of his bedroom window.
“Somebody’s death is always a loss to somebody else,” Sanders said. “There is always grief. But there is something specifically unique about children’s lives – and their deaths. There’s something inside us that says it’s just not right; it shouldn’t be that way.”
What: Children’s Altar
When: Saturday, Nov. 7 – in conjunction with Procession of Little Angels
Where: Altar in place from 3 p.m. to midnight at Jacome Plaza in front of the main library, 101 N. Stone Ave.
How to contribute: No artistic experience necessary
1. Create a memorial piece in advance and bring to the altar
2. Bring an object or items for the altar – poetry, photos, artwork, toys – whatever best honors the child
3. Fill out a memorial card on the spot to be hung on the altar’s side panels
Contributions can be taken home or burned in the All Souls Procession urn.
To plan an advance contribution to bring on the day of the event, call 395-5326 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about the Children’s Altar, the Procession of Little Angels and other events surrounding the All Souls Procession Weekend, visit www.allsoulsprocession.org.
Thanks to Many Mouths One Stomach, the incredible organization behind it all.
Have you experienced the loss of a child?
What helped you heal?
Have you been to the Children’s Altar or Procession of Little Angels?