Babies & newborns Pregnancy Women's health

Butterfly Garden Event at Sunnybrook: Still in our thoughts

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Written by Marie Sanderson

Every year, families who have lost a pregnancy or baby at Sunnybrook gather at Sunnybrook’s Women & Babies Butterfly Garden. Kelly Polci, a social worker with Sunnybrook’s Women & Babies Program works with a team of staff from the program to coordinate the annual event. We asked Kelly more about the Butterfly Garden event, which started in 2013.

Why was the Butterfly Garden event started?

The idea of having a butterfly garden was brought forward by a registered nurse in our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The staff in the Women & Babies Program care deeply about the bereavement care we provide. Having an annual memorial is our way of ensuring these families know that they are still in our thoughts; as are the babies they have lost. It is so important that we offer a sense of community as well as a space for reflection.

Who attends? Is it families who have recently lost a baby, or families where time has passed?

The Butterfly Garden Ceremony is open to any family who has lost a baby at Sunnybrook at any time in the woman’s pregnancy or thereafter. Family may include the bereaved mother or father but may also be a sibling, an aunt, uncle, gramma, grampa, or supportive friend. Families can remain on our email invite list and continue to come for as many years as they wish; and they often do. We welcome anyone for whom this event is important and healing.

Why are events like this important for families who have lost a baby?

The ceremony is important for so many reasons. Some do not feel well-supported or understood by friends and family and feel best understood by other members of this community. The ceremony is also an important way for some families to commemorate and acknowledge their child’s life and passing. The ceremony offers a safe space to let your tears flow and to feel accepted for however your grief is manifesting that day. Some families greatly value the care they received from Women & Babies Program staff. Sometimes, the staff here are the only people who met their child and who walked beside them through their darkest hour; so reconnecting with these people is very meaningful.

What tips can you offer for family and friends who have a loved one who has lost a baby?

We can feel really helpless when someone around us experiences a pregnancy or infant loss. Here are a few tips:

  1. Take your lead from the bereaved couple as to how you can be supportive to them at this time. Listen. Instead of assuming what would be helpful and dropping off the fifth lasagna at their doorstep, start by asking “What would be helpful and supportive to you?”
  2. Take your lead from them also in terms of how they are processing this life experience. For example, what language they use, and how they are making sense of this event if they can make sense of it at all. For example, do not tell them to “be strong” if they need to stay in a vulnerable, sad place. Do not tell them “everything happens for a reason” if this is not the language or way in which they are processing this. These comments can be hurtful.
  3. People can be uncertain about whether to acknowledge a loss for fear they may upset the bereaved couple. Generally, I encourage people to consider the timing and context of their acknowledgement but I find that people do want their baby to be acknowledged. If the baby was named, use that name wherever possible. If you are uncomfortable speaking to someone in person, sending a card may be your best approach.
  4. Remember that for many people, grief is forever. Never assume someone has “moved on” or that there isn’t still a place in that person’s thoughts for that baby. If you are close with the bereaved couple, consider checking-in months or years down the line, perhaps on an important holiday like the child’s date of birth or Mother’s Day to express to them that their loss, and theirbaby, is still in your thoughts.

What is the significance of a butterfly?

The butterfly is a long-standing symbol for perinatal grief. There are various reasons for this. Some note it is because butterflies are feminine and gentle. Others indicate that a baby may only be a part of one’s life a short while but has a great impact; like a beautiful butterfly we see in nature. Alternatively, the butterfly is considered a beautiful thing seen in nature that visits them and reminds them of baby’s life – like a ‘sign’ that baby is still present in our lives even after death. Finally, the butterfly is also a symbol of transformation much like families affected by perinatal loss are forever transformed.


The Butterfly Garden Remembrance Ceremony is held each September at Sunnybrook.
Details for the 2017 event can be found here.

About the author

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Marie Sanderson

Marie Sanderson is a Senior Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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