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The Nevada Independent

Vegas hospital’s candlelight ceremony offers space for parents grieving baby loss

Families honored the memories of their children by adorning Christmas trees with custom ornaments in Summerlin Hospital’s Healing Garden.
Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman

Chris and Samantha Tanaka lost their daughter this past September after she was delivered at 26 weeks with tiny lungs that wouldn’t allow her to breathe. 

She was named Sana Christel Tananka and was due for delivery in January, but her arrival came preterm.

“I was only six months pregnant at the time, so it was just too early,” Samantha Tanaka said. “They took extraordinary measures but … she passed away the same day.” 

The couple was among a crowd of about 30 people who attended the 17th annual Memory Tree and Candle Lighting Ceremony inside Summerlin Hospital on Dec. 8. The event is a part of the hospital's bereavement programs and helps families remember an infant, child or loss of a pregnancy during the holidays.

Nurses and hospital staff organized the ceremony inside the hospital’s Healing Garden that featured holiday-themed decorations, cheerful music and flameless candles. Families gathered to place memorial ornaments with the names of their beloved children and the death year or current year on tall Christmas trees in the garden. Two ornaments were dated back to 1964 and 1973.

“This is beautiful because we weren't sure if we were going to [be] able to put a picture of her on the Christmas tree,” Chris Tanaka said about his late daughter. “Didn’t know how sensitive the family was.”

The Tanakas placed their ornament, which featured a photo of Sana Christel Tananka after she was delivered, on the tree near a bulb that honored their delivery nurse’s son, who also died in infancy.

According to the nonprofit March For Dimes, which advocates for maternal and infant health, 11 percent of babies born in Nevada in 2022 were preterm, or born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. 

Nevada recently saw the most significant decline in its infant mortality (or death within the first year of birth) rate compared to other states, going from 194 deaths in 2021 to 154 deaths in 2022 — a 22 percent drop — despite a 3 percent increase nationwide.

Nevada is ranked 21st in the nation for infant mortality at nearly 6 deaths per 1,000 live births

Samantha Tanaka said she envisioned going through the holiday season with a growing belly but that drastically changed and left her feeling isolated in her grief.

“It was nice to be around people who have lost someone and continue to honor their memory and think of them — even though they're no longer here,” she said.

Early Ritter, a registered nurse and director of women’s services at Summerlin Hospital, said when someone suffers a baby loss they are abruptly cut off from a dream about their child growing up and moving through different stages of life. 

“All of a sudden, they come to a screeching halt,” Ritter said. “And so all of those hopes, dreams that they had, it sometimes makes it worse because … there's no way to hold on to anything.”

Ritter said sometimes people don’t know what to do to move forward and whether to let go or hold on. She said parents can experience anger, sadness, depression and denial.

“Some people just don't even feel anything,” Ritter said. “And then all of a sudden, Christmas hits. And oh my goodness — it really hurts them.”

She said the memory tree ceremony helps families “to remember their child and it gives them somewhere to land.”

Megan Dorsey, who has attended the event every year since 2019, lost her daughter Henley Ryan Dorsey at 36 weeks because the placenta was “incredibly small.” She was pregnant within a year of the loss and later gave birth to a son, Porter Dorsey, who is now 3.

Dorsey said she began attending the candlelight ceremony two months after losing her daughter and that it was “kind of amazing to find a group of people who had been through the same thing.”

“I went into my 36-week doctor's appointment and found out that there was no heartbeat, and she had been moving the night before,” she said. “And this memory tree [ceremony] is just a great way for a larger group of us, to get together and be able to remember our children and say their names out loud.”


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