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Orange County

Building a Monument to Memories

Grief: A woman hopes to place a statue of a childlike angel in a Lake Forest cemetery. There, those who have lost a child could meet for comfort, commiseration.

November 30, 2001|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lisa Biakanja was 24 when her baby daughter died of sudden infant death syndrome. She is 43 now, but still thinks about her child.

"After so many years, your family and friends don't want to hear about it anymore," said Biakanja, of Huntington Beach. "But we realize that we still need to talk about it, and that is healthy. I had her cremated, so I have no place to go."

That may change if Biakanja is successful in a campaign to create an Orange County monument to dead children where bereaved parents can meet to commiserate and grieve. "I think it will be great to have a place where parents can get together once a year just for support," Biakanja said this week.

A growing national movement has set Dec. 6 as a day for bereaved parents to gather and mourn their loss. Biakanja said the inspiration was a novel, "The Christmas Box," published in 1993. Written by Utah author Richard Paul Evans, the book is about a woman who loses a child and mourns the death at the base of a statue of a childlike angel.

Moved by reports that readers of his book--many of them grieving parents--were seeking a monument like the one he described, Evans commissioned an angel statue in a Salt Lake City cemetery in 1994. Such a statue once existed there, Evans said, but is believed to have been destroyed more than 50 years ago.

Twenty-six identical monuments have now been built by various parents groups across the nation, Evans said. The latest is scheduled to open today in Altamont, N.Y., and 118 others are in progress.

"I was completely surprised," said Evans, who set up a foundation to help people commission the statues but earns no profit from them. "I think it's fabulous. It's miraculous how this has taken on a life of its own and just keeps growing."

Biakanja, whose daughter was just 4 months old when she died in 1982, volunteers at the Guild for Infant Survival, a SIDS-related support group in Santa Ana. She learned of the angel monument two years ago at a conference in Salt Lake City. "We thought how wonderful it would be if we could do something like this in our area," she said.

Under the auspices of the nonprofit guild, she persuaded El Toro Memorial Park in Lake Forest to donate a small plot on a hill overlooking its children's section. By publicizing the campaign among local corporations and parents, she has collected $10,000--about half the statue's cost.

"This will be the first monument of its kind in Southern California," Biakanja said. The nearest is in San Jose.

The 5-foot-2-inch bronze statue of a girl with outstretched arms and wings would stand on a pedestal inscribed "Our Little Angel." Biakanja said she hopes to have the monument in place by next Dec. 6, the date of the fictional child's death in Evans' book. Parents groups estimate that as many as 26,000 now gather each year at the angel monuments nationwide to honor their dead children by leaving white flowers.

"It's definitely a source of comfort to parents who have experienced the death of a child," she said.

Therapists experienced in grief therapy agree.

"Any action people take to remember their child or feel that they are part of a group is a positive thing that will help them heal," said Sandra S. Grifman, a San Clemente clinical psychologist who works with bereaved parents.

Emily Kerr, a Laguna Hills licensed clinical social worker, also sees value in having a visual reminder. "I think it's a wonderful idea," she said of the angel statues. "It's wonderful to have a place to go where you can release your emotions, connect with other people and have a physical reminder that the child isn't lost and forgotten."

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