Local families who have lost children gather around the Angel of Hope statue in historic Forrest Cemetery in Gadsden. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
On a special evening this past December, local families gathered at Gadsden’s Forrest Cemetery for a night of remembrance and celebration. Despite the cold temperature in the air, the event radiated warmth – signifying the efforts of a community to treasure, protect and preserve the most precious gift parents receive: their children.
Among those attending the service were Lauren Greene and Brandy Hamlin, who coordinated the event, along with Kelly Cochran. Greene’s husband Ben, Hamlin’s husband Jon and Kelly’s husband David also attended, standing in unison with multiple families congregating inside the cemetery’s gates. Greene, Hamlin and Cochran share a unique bond – likeminded individuals with compassionate and empathetic hearts, who each represent the indescribable and abundant love mothers possess for their children. While Green, Hamlin and Cochran mother extraordinary and vibrant souls in their children Rozlyn (Greene), Hunter “Bug” (Hamlin) and Max (Cochran), these three women illustrate a rare and mutual understanding as parents of children who no longer walk the earth.
Despite the fact that Rozlyn, Bug and Max passed away, their deaths do not discount the impact of their wondrous lives and powerful testimonies that continue to transform and influence individuals for the better. The event coincided with a monument residing at Forrest Cemetery known as the Angel of Hope – a bronze angel statue dedicated to honor and remember these children.
Greene discovered the Angel of Hope through Dothan resident Steve Hardwick, who fundraises for children battling cancer, as Rozlyn did. Intrigued by the premise, the Greenes traveled to Dothan to visit the statue and attend the city’s service. Hardwick, who was honored to have them present, mentioned he thought an angel existed in their area. After extensive research, the Greenes discovered Etowah County’s own Angel of Hope and planned a ceremony of their own.
The Angel of Hope concept originated with Richard Paul Evans’ 1993 novel The Christmas Box, which details the story of a young family who befriends a lonely widow while serving as her caretakers. In the novel, the widow – who lost a child – visits her daughter’s grave, marked with an angel statue, representing the unbreakable and cherished bond between mothers and their children.
Since the novel’s publication, parents nationwide sought out the monument appearing in The Christmas Box, which led Evans to commission the first Angel of Hope in Salt Lake City, Utah. Following the incredible response among grieving families, who connected with the statue’s comforting and hopeful presence, a ripple effect generated throughout the United States, with over 100 Angel of Hope memorials erected nationwide. Its poignant and powerful influence even reaches parents across the globe, as Angel of Hope statues appear in both Canada and Japan.
Each year, on December 6 – the date that correlates with the child’s passing in The Christmas Box – families who have experienced loss gather at Angel of Hope statues to remember their children and uplift and encourage one another. While traditions (such as performances, candlelight vigils, placing flowers or balloon releases) vary from angel to angel, the resounding sentimental assembly remains the same, with mothers and fathers worldwide treasuring their children’s legacies and supporting other parents’ mission that mirrors their own.
While most Angel of Hope statues are placed in parks, along boardwalks or other frequented public places, local parents are concerned with the current location of Gadsden’s monument. Though Forrest Cemetery proves a lovely and historic site, limited parking availability and challenges with accessibility arise often, preventing families from visiting the statue during certain hours or days. Likewise, Greene noted that some parents who have lost children do not feel comfortable in cemeteries, which would deter them from attending the memorial at its present spot.
Nevertheless, Greene, Hamlin and Cochran believe the Angel of Hope offers parents an important outlet – a peaceful and serene place they can attend to rediscover a sense of joy and dwell on God’s promises for the future. These three mothers envision Gadsden’s Angel of Hope as a beacon of inspiration and solace for parents, in a location that personifies its meaning and purpose. Green discussed her efforts to acquire permission from The Christmas Box International (which oversees the statues) and the City of Gadsden to move the statue to a more easily accessible location such as a local park, where she hopes to include seating for visitors, fresh seasonal flowers always in bloom and bricks engraved with the names of children who have passed away, signified as that family’s “angel.”
Another element the Angel of Hope reinforces is the companionship and connection among parents, especially those in Etowah County who understand the life-changing experience of losing a child and the grieving process that follows. Cochran, Hamlin and Greene exemplify the link between parents, the support system comprised of mothers and fathers who have all walked the same path and continue on the same journey. Cochran, Hamlin and Greene were familiar with one another prior to this new chapters in their lives, and now attend a grief group together with other local mothers.
“Here’s what people need to know and what I hope they never find out,” said Cochran, addressing the reoccurring question that arises when individuals wonder why she still attends a grief group, years after Max’s death. “Grief never goes away. It just changes. I will never not grieve. If you see me smiling, I’m still grieving. It doesn’t go away, but you find a new normal. I feel like a large part of grieving, grieving healthy and getting through it is helping other people.”
Helping others and ministering comfort and consolation to one another, encouraging parents and families to cling to hope and the promise of peace remains a vital component of the women’s lives. As Christians, Hamlin, Cochran and Greene rely upon their trust in God to fulfill all His promises as the Bible teaches: to remain near to the broken hearted, to grant those who mourn joy and to draw closer to them as they draw closer to Him.
“I’ve learned strength from Kelly and Lauren,” said Hamlin, sharing that everyone grieves differently and each mother in their group brings a unique strength to aid others. “You learn from some of the other moms how strong they are in their faith. That helps and it’s grown my faith. Bug saved me…through his death, I’ve changed my walk. Before, I was that lukewarm Christian who went to church on Sunday every once in awhile, pulled my Bible off the shelf and that’s all it was. Just like a check in the box. Now, I’ve got to read my Bible every day. I have to ask God to take the bad thoughts and replace them with good. It’s a discipline. It’s like fitness or working out…I have to work out my faith every day. It’s the same with grief.”
Hamlin attested to her testimony, giving God the glory for standing on her two feet today, using her story and Bug’s to reach others. Cochran and Greene illustrated how witnessing other parents standing, six months to years down the road, gives them hope. When they think they cannot continue on, they realize through God, they can and will.
Hamlin, Greene and Cochran offered a few words of advice to other parents experiencing similar situations, encouraging mothers to attend their group and the community to consider the importance of the Angel of Hope and its meaning for residents in Etowah County. Cochran noted that Barbara Hill, a friend who also lost a child, told her to stick with what she knew as truth. The two truths Cochran settled regarding her relationship with God were that despite everything, God still loves her and she can always trust Him, especially to guide her through this.
“It’s okay to not be okay,” said Hamlin, who discussed the mixed emotions that arise with grief. “Whatever you’re feeling, whatever is going on, just lay it down and go with it. The sun comes up tomorrow, and it’s a new day. Don’t stay stuck where you are, because tomorrow may be brighter. That’s how I’ve always tried to help people…just because you’re struggling today doesn’t mean you’re going to be struggling tomorrow. God’s put people in my path that I’ve been able to help, but in turn it’s helped me.”
“You feel like nobody understands when it happens and it just hurts, but you learn to hold it together somehow,” said Greene. “I can fight through it, where I didn’t think that was ever going to be possible. Sometimes at group we laugh and sometimes it’s deep…there are times when it needs to be deep. No matter what, I think about things that happened [where God was present]. If I just tell people when Rozlyn did this and she shouldn’t have been able to do that, there’s God right there.”
Cochran noted that the group is not what people might imagine. It is a priceless collection of friends who celebrate one another’s progress, who support one another as they overcome struggles, who pray for one another and who protect each other at all cost, reminding one another that God’s promise of abundant life is forever present. As the Angel of Hope represents the endurance of parents worldwide and a place of reflection, its hopeful and joyful symbolism nurtures healing. Its mission mirrors the actions of individuals such as Hamlin, Cochran and Greene who strive to extend comforting hands to all around them, honoring their children’s remarkable legacies with every kind word and each consoling embrace – uplifting others as God ministers to them.
“God gives us certain things we need, if we ever do have a doubt,” said Greene, reiterating Cochran’s depiction of earthly reminders God gives to comfort them. “Even when Rozlyn passed away, there were so many things I felt He knew I needed. He’s personal and seeing other people helps us. [When it comes to the Angel of Hope] even just the placement of flowers, representing that as their day, makes you feel, ‘that’s my child.’ They exist.”
“We would not have chosen this…ever,” said Cochran, who chooses not to waste this experience and discovers the beauty in each day. “But we are squeezing any bit of purpose we can from our pain and we’re hoping that Rozlyn, Bug and Max – though they’re not physically with us anymore, they are…they left a legacy and we are carrying that out for them. They’re still touching lives. They’re still alive.”