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Angel's statue offers solace to the grieving

ArtSculptureArts and CultureRichard Paul Evans

Brandon Ty Garner died on the day he was born: July 1, 2011.

He came into the world at 24 weeks, 5 days. His lungs hadn't developed. He lived for six hours.

Very few people ever saw him.

Nearly a year and a half later, his parents remain swaddled in grief.

They visit his grave twice a week, even though it's an hour's drive from their Menifee home, and decorate it for each holiday he cannot share with them.

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Recently they put up a small Christmas tree, full of colorful lights and ornaments. They surrounded it with stuffed animals, some wearing Santa hats.

Most people, they say, do not understand.

But on the night of Dec. 6, Janet and Ty Garner, both 33, were far from alone in their sorrow.

At El Toro Memorial Park in Lake Forest, in the children's section where Brandon is buried, several hundred people gathered before a bronze angel on a pedestal.

Some stood. Some sat in camp chairs. Extended families huddled on blankets on the grass.

They held candles. They listened to songs. They let the tears fall freely. They didn't try to hold them in.

And when the time came, they lined up to speak the names of their lost children and to lay down white carnations on long green stems.

Children's voices squeaked: "My sister Emma." "My big brother Jack." Adult voices cracked and quivered at "our baby girl," "my great-grandson," "our beautiful, beautiful boy."

One young couple grieved for newborn twins who had died the month before. An older man remembered his son, a fire captain, who had died years back, fully grown.

For nearly 20 minutes the names kept coming, one lapping over the next, as flowers filled the angel's open hands and blanketed her feet.

Similar scenes played out at more than 100 angels across the country.

The Dec. 6 tradition started with a self-published book, "The Christmas Box," which has become a staple of grief support groups.

In the 1993 story by Richard Paul Evans, a woman never stops mourning her daughter, who died at age 3 on that day.

The fictional child's grave features a statue of an angel.

After Evans had one erected in Salt Lake City, others followed. (The statues can be ordered through his website.)

Lisa Biakanja led the effort to raise money for the Lake Forest statue. Her daughter Kristy, 4 months old, died of sudden infant death syndrome in 1982.

"I was only 24 years old. I didn't have any experience with death," she said. She had Kristy's ashes scattered — and then deeply regretted not having a physical place to mourn her.

The angel provides that, she said, as it does for parents who move and leave graves behind.

The naming may do even more.

After the ceremony, the Garners lingered at Brandon's grave with his parents and her mother and brother, until they were the last ones there and security guards began turning off all the lights.

Janet held Ty's hand. She's trying to get pregnant again.

"When we talk about him, you know, it's not always sad," she said of Brandon. "It always makes us smile when somebody says his name. It's the best thing when he's remembered."

"Mmm-hmmm," said her husband, pulling her close. "That will turn a whole day around."

[View the story "Grieving parents gather at a bronze angel" on Storify]

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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ArtSculptureArts and CultureRichard Paul Evans
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