‘I only bought 2 backpacks instead of 3. I naively thought I was ready. But grief proved me wrong.’: Mom feels ‘paralyzed’ while back-to-school shopping after losing son to drowning accident

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“When I took my children back-to-school shopping this year, I only bought 2 backpacks instead of 3. My oldest daughter, Lily, chose a green backpack free of any childish characters, because she is 10 but would prefer to be 16. My younger daughter, Reese, chose a purple backpack with a ‘panda-corn,’ because she is 6 and wants to be 6 forever.

My son, Levi, who is supposed to be in preK at the same school as his sisters, will not be choosing a backpack. On June 10, 2018, while on vacation at an Alabama beach, he slipped away from us for a moment during a non-swim time and drowned. He had worn a life jacket or puddle jumper all day, but when we were cleaning up from dinner, he somehow got out of a room filled with adults and kids, down a spiral staircase, and fell into the pool. I now know that a child under 30 pounds can drown in 30 seconds and that almost 70% of drowning occurs during a non-swim time.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

So, when we went school shopping, there was no Paw Patrol backpack carried with pride throughout the Target store by a little boy so desperate to follow in his sisters’ footsteps. When I hang up their backpacks on the hooks by our garage door, there will be one hook that is empty.

Levi was supposed to be in preK at my daughters’ school this year, this treasured place where I am also a teacher. This was part of a plan that was made as soon as I became pregnant with him: all 3 in the same school. There would be one drop off and the same school schedule. And, there would be plenty of stolen hugs in the hallway, holding hands as they walked out to carline, and futile attempts by the adoring big sisters to calm the little brother who would most definitely be running through the hallways. Our family has looked forward to this for years. But, now the first day of school is approaching, and it is so very different than we could have ever imagined.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

My 14 months of grief may seem short, but when you have to sit in the front row at your child’s funeral, each day after that is an eternity. I have discovered, as I navigate this journey, that the events I am prepared for have not been the hardest ones. I am braced and ready, almost daring the grief to come at me full force on the anniversary days or for each new ‘first.’ It is the moments I am not expecting that knock me over, when I have let down my guard and am slammed with the sudden realization that he is gone. The moments like moving the dresser and finding one of his tiny Thomas the Train toys. Or when my daughter asks in the car, ‘Mom, how will we know what Levi wants from Santa this year? And, how will we get those toys to him?’ Those moments are the daggers to my heart, that strike without warning.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

We went back to school shopping, and I naively thought I was ready, because I was prepared for it to be painful. I navigated this tortuous path already last year, and I had more confidence going into this year. But, grief is ruthless, and it proved me wrong. My daughters were giddy, choosing colorful folders and carefully marking off items on their lists. We walked around the store, my 6-year-old daughter grinning as she proudly carried her school supplies, tiny arms overflowing with Kleenex boxes and crayons. The sounds echoed around me: the rustling of supplies, the chatter, the thud of Lysol wipes and pencil boxes being tossed into the cart. But, my head was swirling, and it took all of strength to stand there for my daughters.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

I have discovered the only way to manage this crushing weight is to take it one second at a time. When we were choosing school supplies, my mind tried to borrow even more grief from the future. I found myself already panicking as I thought about the actual first days of school. I will have to walk past the hallway with the PreK room and physically feel the empty hole from Levi’s absence. There will be no ‘Levi’ name sign in a cubby or a laminated name-tag on the Circle-Time rug. I shook my head and forced myself to just focus on the grief in front of me, to refuse to build on my panic.

Last year, as we led up to these back-to-school days, I thought my sadness would stem just from missing Levi. But, back to school felt extra crushing, and I quickly realized why. We were starting the first new season of life, the first in a lifetime of new ones ahead of us. We lost Levi at the very beginning of summer, but then Fall beckoned, and he was still not back.

The beginning of each new season since has been painful because I miss my son, but also because each transition reminds me that this loss of Levi is permanent.

One year has passed. We survived Halloween without him, his Christmas stocking went unopened, he did not pick out Valentines with candy attached in February. His first birthday and even the first anniversary of his death have passed. We somehow survived all of them, our hearts desperately missing a little boy. But, we have equal amounts of desperation to give our daughters the childhoods they deserve. So, we live these parallel lives of grieving our boy while also celebrating his sisters.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

Most of our days are ‘normal.’ I parent and do laundry, break up sibling fights, shuffle to dance class and softball games. But, some moments I am so overcome with anger at the unfairness of this tragedy. The abyss of darkness, that magnetic force of grief and bitterness, pulls me toward it.

The darkness is always waiting, looking for the weak moment to pounce. Grief is messy and complicated. But, one part of which I am clinging to above all else is that if you CHOOSE to see the light and goodness, you will find it.

As I stood in that Target aisle, I looked at my older daughters. They are not just surviving, but are thriving. 14 months ago, they stood on the edge of the balcony and watched as the world ended, watched as their parents begged to trade places with their little brother.

My husband and I have fought like Hell every single day since then to make sure they didn’t lose us, too. Our family, friends, and my daughters’ teachers have showed up for them again and again. We would never have survived this past year without every single person who has helped us carry the pieces of our shattered hearts. There is so much GOOD in these beautiful people in our lives. And, it’s working – our daughters are living full, happy lives.

I cannot fathom why I had to lose Levi, how the sudden death of a 3-year-old could ever be part of any plan. Yet, every day, I choose to see the goodness that still exists.

When school starts, I am supposed to have a little boy walking into the classroom, shooting sneaky glances back at me, proudly hanging his Paw Patrol backpack on the hook in the cubby marked ‘Levi.’ My little ‘Mama’s Boy’ is supposed to cling to my leg until I leave, and then throw a massive fit. His teacher is supposed to have to get Lily from her 5th grade class, his treasured Lily. She would pull him into her lap, dry his tears, and whisper promises of candy and slime-making as soon as school was out. He is supposed to pass Reese in the hall, on the way to Library and Spanish, giggling in delight at this marvel of seeing each other AT school. I know this is what is supposed to happen, because we have been planning it for years.

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

I desperately wish I had known the real truth about drowning before June 10, 2018: that it takes seconds and often happens when a child slips out during a non-swim time. I want nothing more than to rewrite my present chapter. Unfortunately, I cannot, but I can choose how my succeeding chapters will be written. There will be sadness, anger, and missed milestones. But, there will also be purpose and meaning, laughter and relationships, 1st grade reading and 5th grade fractions. Each day without Levi feels impossible. Grief will never stop following me, never stop trying to suffocate me with its darkness.

When I try to imagine months and years from now, still without Levi, I feel paralyzed. But, I am acutely aware that my present choices determine my future. So, I am choosing to breathe, to advocate, and to create meaning out of this devastating loss. Grief is powerful, but I am choosing to believe that the beauty in the midst of this tragedy is even stronger.”

Courtesy of Nicole Hughes

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Hughes of Tennessee. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website.Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read Nicole’s powerful backstory of losing her son to drowning:

‘Mom, why did we only get him for 3 years and not for a real, whole life?’: Mom urges parents to know ‘drowning happens, to real people, in seconds’ after son ‘slips away’ to pool 2 floors below

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