Mom Who Lost Her Son in Drowning Accident Describes the Heartbreak That Comes With a New School Year

Nicole Hughes, whose 3-year-old Levi lost his life during family vacation in June 2018, wrote about what grief feels like for her 14 months later.

Nicole Hughes and son Levi

Last summer, Nicole Hughes made national headlines as she worked to raise awareness about drowning. The grief-struck mom was compelled to take action after her 3-year-old son Levi lost his life in a drowning accident during a family vacation to Alabama in June 2018. It's been 14 months, but as Hughes wrote in an essay on Love What Matters, "when you have to sit in the front row at your child's funeral, each day after that is an eternity." And the beginning of a new school year has been especially challenging from Hughes.

“When I took my children back-to-school shopping this year, I only bought two backpacks instead of three," she wrote. "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 pre-K at the same school as his sisters, will not be choosing a backpack."

Hughes recalled that on June 10, 2018, Levi "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." She noted that she now knows that "a child under 30 pounds can drown in 30 seconds and that almost 70 percent of drowning occurs during a non-swim time."

Levi Hughes
Nicole Hughes

So, when Hughes and her two girls 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," and when she goes to hang the backpacks on the hooks by the family's garage door, "there will be one hook that is empty."

Hughes shared that Levi was supposed to be in pre-K at his sisters' school, "this treasured place where I am also a teacher." She had planned on this since she was pregnant with him. "There would be one drop off and the same school schedule," the grieving mom explained. "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."

One of the main lessons Hughes has learned in the year since her son passed is that the events she's most prepared for haven't been the most challenging. "I am braced and ready, almost daring the grief to come at me full force on the anniversary days or for each new ‘first,’" she wrote. "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."

Nicole Hughes and Levi
Nicole Hughes

School shopping proved to be one of those moments. "I naively thought I was ready, because I was prepared for it to be painful," Hughes explained. "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."

She has realized that "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."

The best way for her to deal with "the crushing weight" of these moments and seasons is to "take it one second at a time."

She admitted, "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. ... 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."

Hughes Family
Nicole Hughes

For Hughes, that goodness comes in the form of seeing her daughters thriving and moving into their respective next chapters.

She concluded, "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."

Hughes admitted that when she thinks about "months and years from now, still without Levi," she feels "paralyzed." But she is also "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."

You can learn more about Hughes' work to raise awareness and preempt drowning accidents by visiting the site of her non-profit Levi’s Legacy.

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