Duane and Deanna Henderson went through all the stages of grief after their 5-month-old granddaughter died in 2004.
A victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Alexis “Lexi” Deanna Schiller went to sleep one night and never woke up. Her mother, father, toddler sister and grandparents never got the chance to watch her take her first step or babble her first word.
They cried. They raged.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world,” said Deanna Henderson, 43. “You don’t understand.”
But instead of letting the loss consume them, the Hendersons have created an outlet for dealing with a death that can’t be explained. SIDS claims about 2,500 infants a year in the United States, and its exact cause is still unknown.
After visiting Lexi’s grave, they noticed the many other small graves around hers that went neglected.
“We would put all kinds of stuff on hers, and the others would be empty,” Duane Henderson said. “It was kind of sad.”
So they began decorating and caring for nearly 100 gravestones in “Babyland,” an area at Pines Cemetery in Spokane Valley reserved for infants and small children.
Two to three times a year, usually in the spring, Memorial Day and at Christmas, they spruce up not only the tiny grave belonging to Lexi, but all the other small graves as well.
This week, they placed row after row of colorful plastic pinwheels next to graves etched with words like, “my little angel,” and “sweet cherub.” Next to one grave someone had already placed a single Hot Wheels toy car.
“It’s therapeutic,” Henderson said. “It really does make you think all the little babies are up in heaven together.”
At Easter, Duane Henderson noticed someone else put Easter eggs out on all the graves before he had a chance.
“We’d like to know who they are, so we can do it together,” he said. “We really found that it made us feel good.”
There are four similar infant burial areas in the 102-year-old Pines Cemetery that make up “Babyland.” Families pay just $500 instead of $1,000 for the half-size plots.
Greenwood Memorial Terrace calls it the “The Garden of Innocence,” and it’s “Babyland” at Fairmount Memorial Park and Spokane Memorial Gardens.
At Pines Cemetery, office manager Connie Vermillion said whenever she takes a family to look at the property for infants she warns them about the Hendersons’ generosity, and that they can expect to see the graves adorned with silk poinsettias at Christmas and plastic toys in the spring.
“I tell them it’s done only out of love,” Vermillion said. “We have so many mothers; it’s so hard.”
Recently a mother visited who hadn’t been to the cemetery in 25 years.
“She had to bring a friend because she could not until this time bring herself to the grave,” Vermillion said.
For the Hendersons, it was different. They live just up the road from the cemetery and initially would visit every day, although the visits are less frequent now.
They still have Lexi’s 4-year-old sister, Aaliyah, to dote on.
“When you lose one, you … you appreciate the one you have left,” Duane Henderson said.