On June 8, 2017 at 11:40 p.m., Leslie and Andrew Burman met their daughter, Willow Irene, for the first time.
Leslie described this moment as the saddest and happiest of her life; as only a few hours before, she learned that Willow’s heart was no longer beating.
One in four pregnancies in the United States will end in a miscarriage or stillbirth. This heartbreaking experience is historically associated with stigma and isolation, as families struggle to share their stories with those around them.
For Leslie, the painful loss was coupled with a powerful sense of purpose.
“There wasn’t a medical reason as to why she was stillborn. So, I believe that she is a part of our lives, because we have always had the potential to give back and share our love with other people,” Leslie said, “If there is one thing that I would hope for, it’s that she would be a reflection of the good in us.”
Leslie reached out to organizations that provided her support and began finding ways to support them in return. Recruiting friends for a 5K race, raising money through LulaRoe parties and selling tickets for a fundraiser gala.
BeLikeThe Willow Movement
As October approached, Leslie began brainstorming ways she could empower others to make a difference on a larger scale during Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Leslie created a calendar filled with suggestions for various acts of kindness, from leaving a larger than normal tip at a restaurant to bringing flowers to a nursing home. She felt vulnerable as she invited friends, family and her community on social media to consider joining her in this endeavor that would be called the BeLikeTheWillow Movement.
“We hope to lead by example, to always be like the Willow tree, able to bend without breaking under the weight of the storms that come our way,” Leslie said.
The initiative gained momentum through social media and the BeLikeTheWillow Movement was born. When Oct. 1 rolled around, Leslie was blown away by the responses she witnessed.
In 2017, nearly 400 people reached out to her for more information on getting involved in the BeLikeTheWillow Movement, which now has over 4,500 Facebook followers. Participants across the country engaged in acts of kindness and shared them on social media. In one month, Leslie empowered people to give flowers to strangers, buy donuts for coworkers, donate goods to people in need, write letters of encouragement and so much more. Hundreds of coloring books were donated to Akron Children’s Hospital. Preschool classes at the local elementary school collected more than 175 books to donate to the area library.
Many of the initiatives benefited the organizations that blessed Leslie and her family during their grieving process with Willow. Leslie reached out and asked how the Movement could help.
“I can remember when the nurses brought me a blanket, or when I took my stuffed elephant home, or seeing the hand and foot molds in the days after,” Leslie said. “It was such a comfort.”
One of these organizations is Forget-Me-Not Baskets Inc., a non-profit that provides resources to families who have suffered loss during pregnancy or childbirth. In 2017, Leslie asked for movement participants to purchase nine plush elephants for these baskets. Since then, the BeLikeTheWillow Movement has donated more than 1,345 plush elephants for Forget-Me-Not Baskets Inc.
Another primary beneficiary of the BeLikeTheWillow Movement is Ashlie’s Embrace, a nonprofit dedicated to outfitting hospitals with CuddleCotsTM. CuddleCotsTM are apparatuses that allow families to spend more time with their babies after a stillbirth. At Aultman Hospital, Leslie and her family were able to have access to a CuddleCotTM, allowing them to take their time to say goodbye to Willow.
Melinda Wiles MSN, RN, CPLC, was the acting Outreach and Bereavement Coordinator at Aultman Birth Center when Willow was delivered.
Melinda said, “When we implemented it (the CuddleCotTM), I wasn’t sure how much it would change things. Once I saw it in action, I was so impressed.”
Leslie stated that the CuddleCotTM drastically impacted her hospital experience with Willow.
“I didn’t realize that in that moment, the saddest and happiest moment of my life as I looked at our newborn, that I would become so connected to that piece of equipment,” she said. “Because of the CuddleCotTM, our families were able to hold Willow … each member of the family, having as much time as they needed.”
According to Erin Maroon, founder and CEO of Ashlie’s Embrace, there are fewer than 1,000 CuddleCotsTM in the United States. As part of the BeLikeTheWillow Movement, Leslie devised the “Green Heart Giver Program” to raise money for Ashlie’s Embrace.
Since 2017, the BeLikeTheWillow Movement participants have raised more than $42,000 – enough for 16 CuddleCotsTM in seven different states to be placed in facilities in Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Indiana, Louisiana and Virginia.
Acts Of Kindness
Hundreds of participants engaged in acts of kindness for the BeLikeTheWillow Movement in October and shared them on social media.
Tiffany Whitmer is a nurse at Aultman Hospital who cared for the Burman family during their hospital stay with Willow.
“I am able to see the way the Ashlie’s Embrace and Forget-Me-Not touch lives up close. And the Willow Movement has just expanded that to a beautiful outpouring of love for families in need. Not to mention, all of the people touched in October by each activity on the calendar,” Tiffany said.
Tiffany shared that she felt inspired to join the BeLikeTheWillow Movement with her own family.
“I knew from the moment I met Willow, she would do great things,” she said. “The movement has inspired my kids and I to attempt a Willow’s Day activity every month. I love seeing my children want to do our Willow’s day activity on their own doing. At age four, my son Zach wanted to do a toy drive for kids that don’t have toys. So we did. He collected over 120 toys.”
The movement focuses on paying it forward – counting on the principle that kindness begets more kindness.
“Sharing what you’re doing can make it a ripple effect,” Leslie said. “Seeing someone else doing something good, can make you want to step forward and do something good.”
Knowing that one in four pregnanices experience miscarriage or infant loss, the Burman family is open about their experience in hopes of comforting families who are on similar journeys.
“I think the thing that impacted me the most were the people who reached out and shared their own experiences,” Leslie said. “There are a lot of people who feel alone when they go through this.”
Countless women spoke with Leslie over social media and in person, sharing ways the BeLikeTheWillow Movement helped them cope with their own losses.
Erin Maroon agreed that sometimes the best way to cope with grief is to take action and make a difference. After losing her own daughter, Erin chose to make a difference by founding Ashlie’s Embrace to help other mothers and families.
“Child loss at any stage is isolating,” Erin said. “It happens more than we want to talk about, but the louder our voices are, the less isolated other women might feel.”
How To Get Involved
It is very simple to join in this wonderful movement. Just like her group page – BeLikeTheWillow Movement – on Facebook. There you will find an instructional video and directions on how to register to participate in the fifth year of the BeLikeTheWillow Movement (FREE). Once you visit the website and click “Join The 2021 Movement”, you will sign up for the days on the calendar.
“I encourage all to post your experiences on the BeLikeTheWillow Movement Facebook page, and then share on your personal page,” noted Leslie. “Please tag me. I love seeing all of you be so awesome.”