IRIS Touches Lives of Owatonna Families
By Ashley Stewart
Owatonna People's Press
July 9, 2012


Owatonna resident Julia Anderson and her family hold on to the strings of balloons at the Owatonna Memorial Gardens Cemetery last October. Anderson, who lost her son, Tyler, to a fatal neo-natal bone disease 13 years ago, sends balloons to celebrate her son's birthday. (Submitted photo)

For the last 13 years, Julia Anderson and her family have sent balloons to their "angel in heaven."
Their angel, Tyler, was born on Oct. 15, 1998, at the old Owatonna Hospital, but was diagnosed with a genetic birth defect called lethal neo-natal hypophosphatasia, a fatal metabolic bone disease. He lived for 2 hours and 37 minutes, but the bond Anderson made with her son in that time has been unbreakable.

"The hardest part was actually holding him when he took his last breath," Anderson said. "(The doctors) knew he wasn't going to make it, so they took him off the oxygen and let me hold him while my family came to visit him."

And several decades ago that wasn't an option for many, according to Diana Sundwall, founder and executive director of Infants Remembered in Silence, Inc.

Sundwall said she decided to start the program 25 years ago after she gave birth to a full-term stillborn son, Derek.
"I was treated fantastic by the nursing staff, and then, it was unheard of to see, hold and touch your dead baby," she said. "I wanted to help one person."

The organization quickly realized that it could help more than just one person. IRIS assists 6,000 to 7,000 bereaved parents and family members each year in Rice and neighboring counties' hospitals and funeral homes.

IRIS is a non-profit organization based in Faribault that offers families free professional support, education and resources on the death of a child during all stages of pregnancy, including stillbirth, premature birth, neo-natal death, sudden infant death, birth defects and other types of infant and early childhood death.

"When a baby passes away, the hospital will call us and we will do whatever the family would like to remember their child," Sundwall said.

Some of the services include burial clothing for infants 10 to 40 gestational weeks; advocate services before birth, at time of the loss and in the years following; support packets; newsletters; support group meetings; one-on-one assistance; and remembrance services. Sundwall said there are free materials available to families even if they don't want an advocate or resource person to come visit them.
"It is an individual thing," Sundwall said. "Pregnancy loss is still a private issue, and the parents need to make a choice on their own."
That is how Sundwall met Anderson.

Anderson said when they first met, Sundwall offered to take pictures of her with Tyler. A little startled, she agreed to let her and the next day she asked Sundwall if she could have the pictures as keepsakes.

"There are many different aspects of IRIS. It is about options and it gives those options to the parents," Sundwall said. "These are all things I didn't have."

Anderson said when she had Tyler, she didn't know anything about IRIS, but the organization and Sundwall helped her cope.
"It is a really, really good support group," Anderson said. "It taught me that it is OK to say his name and remember him."
And the Andersons remember their "angel" every October with a special birthday celebration at Owatonna Memorial Gardens cemetery.

Anderson said her family started sending balloons to heaven the first year after Tyler died.
"My other children get balloons on their birthdays, so we go to the cemetery, where he is buried next to my dad, to send Tyler his, "Anderson said. "We send off the number of balloons for his age with little cards."

This year Tyler would have turned 14 years old. Anderson said she also includes a note on the balloons that says, "If found, please call." People have called from South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.

Anderson said one woman called after her grandma's funeral and said that the balloons had landed on her grandma's grave.
"I told her it was Tyler bringing her grandma to heaven," Anderson said. "I thought that was so great."
Anderson also said that she and her husband, Bryan, take Oct. 15 off. The family also eats angel food cake on Tyler's birthday.
"It's something our family always does," Anderson said. "It's tradition."

She said that even when her 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, graduates, the family will still celebrate Tyler's birthday because he is part of the family.
"When people ask my daughters, Ashley and Hannah, how many brothers and sisters they have, they always include Tyler," Anderson said.

Sundwall and her family celebrate Derek's birthday on Oct. 12 by eating angel food cake. He would be 27 years old.
"When my children were little, we decided that anybody who dies and goes to heaven becomes an angel," she said. "So we decided to eat angel food cake, and each year my children get to pick a topping for it."

Sundwall said one year she went to a convention that fell on Derek's birthday and her children told her she could go as long as she brought cake for everyone there. She bought angel food cake for 400 people.
"I still get cards around his birthday telling me that they still remember," Sundwall said. "It is just a little thing, but it left a lasting impression."

Anderson said she is thankful for what IRIS has given her, which is a bond with her son.
"I don't believe I would be so open and celebrating his birthday. We wouldn't have bonded without IRIS." Anderson said.

Another Owatonna mom, Nina LaBathe, is so thankful for the support Sundwall provided her and her family. LaBathe lost her son, Nathan, more than a year ago when he was just 17 weeks in gestation because he was wrapped in the umbilical cord.

"I think Diana is wonderful," LaBathe said. "Without her, I don't think I would have a lot of the things I have to remember him like an identical outfit to the one he was buried in, photos, and (hand and foot) moldings.

"I also don't know if I would be able to talk about it because nobody in my family has experienced something like that, but it is nice to know there's someone to talk to."

Sundwall said the biggest reward is helping another person, and she, too, is thankful.

On Tuesday, July 10, from 3 to 6 p.m. IRIS will be thanking its volunteers at its 25th anniversary open house.
Sundwall said the open house is to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the organization, allow people to see the new location and show appreciation to the volunteers for their generosity.

Cookies and punch will be provided as well as tours, an opportunity to make little memorial candles and learn more about IRIS's services.

On Feb. 28, IRIS's old build flooded after a "terrible storm" hit Faribault. Sundwall said a storm drain outside froze, which caused the water to rush into the basement. The organization - which had been at the location for 17 years - had less than three hours to evacuate.

"This event is to thank those volunteers for helping us that day and the days after," Sundwall said.

The event will take place at IRIS's new Faribault location at 112 Third St. NE.