After her own grueling journey when her son went through cancer treatment, Kentucky mom of two Tara Coombs is now determined to bring awareness and comfort for grieving parents by giving them a tangible reminder of the children they have lost.
When Coombs's son Owen, now 3, was diagnosed with stage 4 Wilms tumor, a form of childhood cancer that begins in the kidneys, she experienced firsthand how hard it is mentally, physically and emotionally to watch a child go through treatment for a serious illness. Owen is now in remission, but Coombs could not stop thinking about what parents who lose their children go through in the process.
At the suggestion of her sister-in-law and to help her find connection with other moms coping with childhood cancer, Coombs joined social media app TikTok last summer. After following mom Rachel Hodgson and her daughter Tessa's eventually fatal fight with cancer through the app, Coombs was moved to reach out to Hodgson and offer to make her a quilt of Tessa's onesies and footed pajamas.
"I have been sewing my whole life. I have never done it for money; it's just something that makes me happy," Coombs told TODAY Parents. After Hodgson sent her a big box of Tessa's clothing, Coombs made a blanket for both her and her other daughter.
After Coombs posted several videos about making Baby Tessa's blanket, "things just blew up," she explained. Requests from grieving parents poured in — first, from parents who lost children to cancer, then parents who suffered pregnancy losses or stillbirths or who lost children in accidents.
Coombs has been making memory quilts for each child using clothing and details sent by their families. She even tries to make sure each blanket smells like the child, 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, she said, is opening the box of the children's belongings for the first time.
"It does take a mental toll," Coombs said. "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 have to do that?"
She makes the quilts as a labor of love, she said. "These children's stories need to be told, and these parents need to know that their kids will not be forgotten."
Coombs never charges the families for supplies or labor when making the blankets, and she relies on donations from followers to help fund her efforts.
"When we went through Owen's cancer treatment, we were hit so hard mentally and hit so hard financially," she said. "I cannot imagine what it would feel like for a parent who has had to go through this and then still not keep their child? They had the mental toll, the financial toll, and now they don't have their child anymore?
"Parents have just been through the wringer with the battles they have endured. The last thing they should worry about paying for is a blanket that is going to bring them some type of comfort."
When she makes the quilts, Coombs is mindful that her materials are sacred to the families she supports. She handles the clothing with care, and she assures the families she never expects them to publicly post about receiving them. She also declines to make "surprise" blankets for grieving parents from well-meaning friends or family members.
"Parents need to be able to emotionally have whatever feelings that they need to have, and those feelings are valid no matter what they are," she said. "This is not a good idea for a surprise. Once their kids' clothes are cut up and put into a blanket, there's no going back. They have to be ready."
Now, Coombs is trying to figure out how to support more families. Her current waitlist is in the thousands, but she is determined to keep going and to bring awareness to a cause that hits so close to home. "Only 4% of government funding for cancer research goes to childhood cancer, which is appalling" she said. "That's not OK."
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