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Local family among those honoring deceased loved ones at candlelight vigil next week

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IDAHO FALLS – Every Christmas, six stockings can be seen hanging above the fireplace in Nick and Janna Birch’s Idaho Falls home — one for each of them and their three daughters, Brynlee, Kaia and Emma, and another one for Penelope.

Penelope is the name of their third daughter, who died a few minutes before birth in July 2018. She’s represented in family photos by a toy stuffed elephant.

Why an elephant? Nick tells his wife had purchased items with elephant print on them in anticipation of Penelope’s birth.

Janna, who is now a practicing attorney with Wright Law Offices, was incredibly busy at the time finishing up law school and studying for the bar exam.

“Life was hectic and the one thing that would take away from that crazy life she was living was preparing for the birth of her daughter,” Nick recalls. “She had set a little time aside to decorate a nursery.”

After only 23 weeks of pregnancy, Janna went into labor. A few minutes before delivery, the couple was crushed to learn their baby daughter had not survived.

“Having to go into the hospital, be with my wife and see her deliver this baby we had just lost was extraordinarily hard,” says Nick.

It was a blow they weren’t expecting and the grief consumed them for a while. Nick remembers feeling unsure of what to do and how to move forward.

During this time, they were contacted by Terry and Linda Hale, who host an annual Christmas Box Angel Vigil to support those who have lost a child. The Hales lost a grandchild many years ago and invited the Birch’s to honor their daughter’s memory at their event.

After losing Penelope, Nick and Janna went on to have a fourth daughter, Emma, who is now 2-years-old. Though they never had the chance to raise Penelope, they’ve never forgotten her and the couple says she continues to have a special place in their hearts.

Three years later, attending the vigil has become an annual tradition for Nick and his wife.

“Being able to be a part of that for the last few years, to go share and hear experiences (from others who have gone through similar things) is a strength and a comfort,” says Nick. “It’s an incredible event. I think it’s touching and moving every year.”

Nick is looking forward to sharing his story and giving some brief remarks at this year’s event, which is happening at Fielding Memorial Cemetery on Dec. 6.

angel statue
Christmas Box Angel statue at Fielding Memorial Cemetery in Idaho Falls. | Terry Hale

The Christmas Box Angel Vigil will be held in person this year after being held virtually last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The vigil got started in Idaho Falls 14 years ago and was inspired by Richard Paul Evans’ 1993 novel, “The Christmas Box,” which follows a young grieving mother after the loss of her child. In the book, the mother often visits an angel monument to grieve and heal.

This podcast was originally published on Dec. 24, 2017.

The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller and was made into a TV movie in 1995 starring Richard Thomas, Annette O’Toole and Maureen O’Hara. It also inspired a global movement of placing angel monuments in cemeteries. People gather around them every year for a candlelight vigil to honor their deceased loved ones.

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Terry says he’s excited for the return of this yearly gathering and he’s expecting a bigger crowd than ever.

“We want to get the tradition going again so we don’t lose it,” Terry says. “We want people to come out and not let COVID hold them back this year.”

The vigil is open to anyone and will begin at 6 p.m. at the base of the angel monument. After a greeting and lighting of the candles, Nick will give a few remarks. Those in attendance will lay a flower at the base of the statue and say their loved ones’ names. It will conclude with a musical number from a local choir.

“We try to hold it to half an hour because not once has it failed to be 20-degrees or less on Dec. 6,” says Terry.

Fielding Memorial Cemetery is on South Yellowstone Boulevard in Idaho Falls.

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