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The hardest thing Dana Ludvik has ever done was to hold her newborn son Miles.

The six-day-old baby, who was dying from a congenital heart defect, had just been taken off respirators.

“Because of my other son, I knew the amazing feeling of finally holding your child,” she said. “And I needed that, even if it meant saying goodbye as I was just saying hello. … It was my first and last time holding him. I really don’t know how I got through it.”

Ludvik has made the loss transformative. She now volunteers for No Footprint Too Small to provide support and share her own experiences with families going through child and pregnancy loss.

After Miles' death, Ludvik’s arms ached because she was unable to hold her baby, a feeling that many mothers report after a loss.

To help ease the pain, No Footprint To Small creates personalized bears that are intended to match the baby's birth weight.

“Your body still thinks you’re a mom, and you are a mom, but your baby isn’t there … and there are all these physical reminders of this,” Ludvik said.

Holding the bears serves as a therapeutic tool and provides a physical way for mothers to grieve.

No Footprint Too Small founder Jolie Vega said that a friend gave her a bear nearly a year after the death of her son. The stuffed bear weighed 6 pounds, 3 ounces, exactly the same as her son, Judah.

“On certain days when I knew I needed to just let it out, I would hold mine and wrap it up in a blanket and put my son’s hat on it and it was just so comforting,” Vega said. “It allows you to grieve.”

The bears are created by several volunteers, including Geory Sikkink, who has been stitching bears together for the organization since November.

She works out of her Firth home to craft the bears, which are sometimes made from blankets or clothing that belonged to the baby.

Each bear takes Sikkink about five to six hours to complete. She measures out sand to match the baby’s birth weight and sews it into the bear.

In order to provide maximum comfort to the families, Vega said that bears and care packages are all assembled and sent out or delivered within 10 to 14 days after a request is made.

“To get a bear like a year later, it still might be nice, but it might not be effective,” Vega said. “It’s not coming at the right time.”

Vega’s own grief journey began with the loss of her son, Judah, who was stillborn. 

Right after giving birth on Sept. 6, 2014, a bereavement counselor encouraged Vega and her husband Charlie to interact with their son, to help normalize the situation. The counselors encourage parents to bond with the baby by holding them, reading to them, bathing them or "anything you would do with a live baby." 

Vega was also told about Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, an international organization that visits hospitals after an infant death to photograph the babies. She remembers wondering if it was weird or morbid to take photos and worried about what others might think.

"How do you properly take a picture with your dead baby?"

The photos are now her most prized possession and were invaluable to her grieving process.

Vega decided to become a certified birth and bereavement doula. The certification helped her to learn to physically and emotionally support mothers who are delivering a stillborn baby. She felt that having someone there to guide families through the chaotic process of losing a child "can really determine their grief journey."

"It's really to give the family a chance to say hello to their baby before they say goodbye."

She now offers the doula service through No Footprint Too Small, which launched last April. Vega created the organization to fill the need for a more complete care system for families dealing with child and pregnancy loss. She wants to raise awareness about the frequency of miscarriages, which about one in four women experience, and make infant loss less taboo. 

The nonprofit provides bereavement doula support, creates care packages and custom-weighted bears and can connect families with counselors specializing in child loss. She wants to make the loss feel less lonely.

The organization, which runs entirely off donations, has grown throughout the last year to include over 15 volunteers and has moved from Vega’s basement into an office at 4740 A St. Most of the volunteers and board members have personally experienced infant loss or miscarriages, Vega said. 

“When you go through something like this and you don’t have a support system, you want to help,” volunteer Jennifer Feltes said. “You don’t want other people to go through it alone.”

Ludvik struggled to find support after the death of her son. She found that most hospitals had few resources and sometimes friends and family didn’t know how to address the "taboo topic" of child loss. For a while, she felt isolated.

“I think it comes down to people feeling that they need to have the perfect words or that they just want to ‘fix' things and make the parents the same as they were before,” she said.

Friends and family don’t always know how to react or are afraid to talk about the baby, she said. “It’s probably easier to say nothing, especially as more time passes after the loss,” but Ludvik found that the more she talked about her son, the better she felt.

Ludvik connected with a counselor. She also started talking with other mothers via Facebook and sharing similar stories of loss. She reached out to Vega after hearing about No Footprint Too Small through a TV ad. 

She joined the team as a graphic designer. Other volunteers help to sew the bears, organize fundraisers, compile care packages and sometimes even personally deliver the care packages or bears and meet with families.

“We want to be as proactive as we can so we can avoid any unhealthy coping strategies and just to lessen that anxiety, depression and guilt that come with that loss,” Vega, who also works as a bereavement counselor at HoriSun Hospice, said.

Often, Vega and a counselor make the home visits. Over the last year, volunteers have provided 150 care packages and bears. Volunteers recently started creating bereavement wraps and swaddles, which they hope to deliver to hospitals next month. 

In May, a Mother's Day celebration is planned.

"Some mothers don't get acknowledged as a mother, especially if they don't have any living children and that can be very difficult," Vega said. "We just want to celebrate them as mothers, because they are mothers, and we just want them to feel comfortable and like they aren't alone."

While the grieving journey never ends, Vega said that being at peace with her own grief three years later makes it easier to help others. 

“I’m finally at a point where I can think about my son, and it doesn’t make me cry,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or twilliams@journalstar.com.

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