A viral TikTok trend shares the stories of parents who are grieving and the seamstress who creates beauty out of sorrow.
Tara Coombs is a mom, seamstress, and influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok. So you might be surprised to hear about the “memory quilts” she shares with her audience.
Infant death is a taboo topic, and hardly what we’d expect to become a TikTok trend. And yet, that’s what Tara shares with her audience: the stories of many families who’ve lost a young child and entrust her with their clothes, so she can transform them from painful reminders of what the families have lost into something positive.
A recent article on Today highlights Coombs’ work making what she calls “memory quilts.” Families send her boxes with their deceased child’s clothes, photos, and other personal items to help her make a quilt that will capture something of the child’s uniqueness.
“She even tries to make sure each blanket smells like the child,” reporter Allison Slater Tate writes, “using the same baby lotion, shampoo or perfume the children used to scent the blankets before she sends them to their homes.”
“The hardest part of the process,” Coombs told Tate, “is opening the box of the children’s belongings for the first time.”
If it’s impossible to imagine the grief of a family that loses a child in infancy, it’s even more impossible to imagine a father and mother wondering, “What are we going to do with his clothes?” The closet and drawers need to be emptied. Can you simply throw away what’s left of a child who’s no longer there?
Instead of throwing those things away, they can be repurposed. Tara Coombs has come up with a practical way of helping a family find consolation in their mourning.
She’s always been a seamstress, as a hobby. But this particular project is something relatively new, born of her own experience as the mother of a gravely ill child.
The drama of a childhood tumor
Not that long ago, Coombs’ own son Owen was diagnosed with cancer. Owen is now 3 and in remission, but when Tara and her husband learned that he had a stage 4 Wilms tumor, they “experienced firsthand how hard it is mentally, physically and emotionally to watch a child go through treatment for a serious illness,” Today reports.
Tara goes on to explain to reporter Tate that the experience made her reflect that, if it was an exhausting trial for her and her husband, how much worse must it be for parents who go through the same difficulties of dealing with diagnosis and treatment, but whose children don’t survive.
It was a great relief that their son was healed after a long battle. But true gratitude is not a superficial, happy feeling; it’s a serious one. Often in cases such as this it’s closely tied with the vertigo of being aware that anything can be taken away from us. Even any of our loved ones can be taken from us prematurely. “Grateful” and “fragile” are sister adjectives of experience. They’re accompanied by an awareness that becomes solidarity (in the least hackneyed sense of the word).
We can be seamstresses, like Tara. We can stand alongside others when chasms open up.
That choice isn’t a given, either; Tara Coombs went through hell with her son, and she’d be more than entitled to move on once the enemy was defeated. But, honestly, can you move on from something like that? No, you can’t forget. But you could look away from the pain as much as possible.
Instead, Tara Coombs continues to open boxes that contain stories without a happy ending in this world. She daily touches clothes and photographs that speak of humanly insoluble contradictions (childhood-sickness-death). She touches fabrics wet with tears, for which she has no consoling answers.
She has a needle and thread to sew, so she tries to preserve in a new form a memory that shouldn’t be lost. Coombs told Today:
It does take a mental toll. Each one is a whole new story, a whole new loss. But I remind myself the parent has gone through this. Can you imagine how hard it is for a parent to send me that box, to go through their kid’s clothes and pack it up and send it to me? The trust that they have to do that?
She never charges for the quilts she makes; they’re a labor of love. “These children’s stories need to be told, and these parents need to know that their kids will not be forgotten,” she told Today reporter Tate.
Tara relies on donations to help cover the costs of her work, and has more petitions than she can handle. She’s hoping to use her newfound visibility to raise awareness of childhood cancer and the need to do more research to find a cure.
TikTok and the taboo of death
I have many misconceptions about TikTok because I’m not really familiar with it. I was sure that a topic like infant mortality would be immediately rejected. However, we should probably stop reasoning according to the straight lines of preconceptions, and get used to the fact that humanity is a hairpin, a crooked perspective.
Indeed, Tara Coombs’ TikTok videos have hundreds of thousands of followers. They show, in a matter of seconds, the stories of children who are gone and whose clothes are turned into quilts. They are quick snippets of hope thrown into the virtual amusement park. Wasted? I would’ve said so, before immersing myself in the story.
The fact that the theme of death is popular on the social network of the very young is a positive sign. Perhaps it’s a frontier we should explore: There where we are curious about the end of life, we can begin a great discourse on life itself. We aren’t immortal, but yet, we are.
Doing it in short fragments rather than with long explanations is perhaps an even more sensible challenge. Sometimes we idolize intellectual discourse, with a beginning and end and long sections. We’d love to be the authors of our own story, from beginning to end.
But—following the example of Tara Coombs—we are instead patchwork blankets, mismatched pieces (in color and size) sewn together. It’s not a bad thing at all to take into account that the sense of the story is in God’s hands; we can lay on the table scraps of true testimonies, frayed at the edges. He’ll patch it all up. We shouldn’t discard anything that’s in the “drawer” of each day.