Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of child loss which may be triggering to some.
“My husband and I met the old fashioned way – on Tinder – when we were both living in Iowa City in the fall of 2017. Faris is originally from Jordan and had just moved to the U.S. as a pediatrics resident, and I was a PhD student. After we finally found the time to meet up, we’ve been together ever since! We were engaged for four full days in December of 2018 before we eloped because we were just so excited to start our lives together. Soon after, we moved to Cincinnati, Ohio because Faris matched into their neonatology fellowship.
My husband is literally a baby doctor (he’s a NICU fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital), so we’ve always known we wanted to have kids. While we were still dating, I found out I had a cervical adenocarcinoma, and after a few appointments with my oncologist, and surgery to remove it, I began to think more urgently about my reproductive future. We started trying to conceive a few months after we got married and found out I was pregnant in the fall of 2019.
It was a race to remotely finish my dissertation while starting a new job as an adjunct professor and gestating, but I successfully defended and earned my PhD from the University of Iowa (while I was extremely pregnant). Aside from some severe first trimester nausea, I had an uneventful pregnancy and an easy delivery, even while laboring in a mask mid-pandemic (shoutout to epidurals). He arrived right on his due date of May 6, 2020. We didn’t find out gender or pick a name ahead of time, so it was fun to have a team of folks waiting to see who would come out. We instantly knew he was a Sami, a name we chose from a list of ideas we’d been working on that worked in both of our native languages (Arabic and English).
He wasn’t an ‘easy’ baby (are any babies easy?), but he was the light of our life. Sami was colicky for the first few months and was a major velcro baby who never wanted to be set down. He never slept more than three consecutive hours, but we never let him cry it out. At the time, it felt like torture waking up that often to feed or rock him back to sleep, over and over again, every night. But in hindsight, we treasure those middle of the night memories, and think about how many more hours it gave us with our sweet guy in our arms. Once he learned to sit up, babble, and move around, he was so much happier – you could tell he had been so frustrated by not being able to do those things before!
Sami was one of the brightest lights I’ve ever known, and absolutely full of personality. He was chatty and loved to say ‘dada’ (never ‘mama’) and try to say ‘cat.’ He loved crawling after one of his three cats, and was surprisingly gentle with them from the time he was very small. He had the sweetest laugh, loved to be tickled, and enjoyed playing with puppets.
He loved the Halloween season, especially yard inflatables and scary decorations. He spent so much time looking at our neighbors’ yard inflatables, they came over and gave him his own (a giant ghost that popped out of a big pumpkin with a ‘Happy Halloween’ banner) so he could look at it every day. On Halloween, we were finally able to gather with both sets of his vaccinated, quarantined grandparents at once – the only time all of us were able to get together – and he absolutely loved being the center of attention.
He was a pandemic baby, before the vaccines rolled out, but we didn’t want his interactions with the world to feel completely limited. We took walks every day with him in his baby carrier, facing outward to look at the world (never facing inward, and rarely just sitting in a stroller). He wanted to see and experience everything. We took him to the outdoor parts of the Cincinnati Zoo, where he got to see giraffes in real life (his favorite animal) and stare at more people than he’d ever seen at once.
Our favorite thing to do as a family was go to the Village Green, a park by our small downtown area, and sit in the grass to listen to live music among our neighbors and maybe get an ice cream cone from Cowboy Cones. He was way too young for ice cream, but we were way too indulgent, so we always let him have a bite. We don’t regret it.
Sami passed away when he was just over 8 months old, on January 12, 2021. I was preparing to return to work part-time to teach just one class (I’m a professor), and we had set up a nanny share with some friends across town who had a reliable and experienced nanny with a long resume and a great list of references. Childcare made us nervous in a pandemic, but we had a solid contract with our ‘bubble.’ The first week, I stayed upstairs in their house while Sami adjusted to being taken care of by a new person for the first time. It was a rough adjustment for all of us, so I decided to step out the next week, just for an hour or two, to see if that helped him adjust.
I set him up in a high chair next to his baby friend and he was happily digging into his yogurt with his nanny when I left him alone for the very first time. Almost as soon as I returned home and sat down to work on my syllabus, I got a series of text messages that he wasn’t breathing and they were performing CPR and had called 911. I rushed back across town, calling my husband along the way. He met the EMT’s and Sami downstairs in the emergency room of the hospital where he was working, and I came in soon after. We watched a huge team of my husband’s colleagues try to revive him, but nothing worked. He was gone.
After months of searching for answers, we still don’t know exactly what happened. He was awake, so it wasn’t SIDS, which is how my cousins unfortunately lost their son a decade and a half ago. Every test has been normal, so we assume it must have been an arrhythmia. He slept with an Owlet monitor on every night which never detected anything abnormal, and my husband is a literal baby doctor. There’s a stethoscope hanging on the back of Sami’s door, and two kinds of thermometers in the top drawer of his dresser, because that’s the level of medical helicopter parents we were. But there were no signs, and there’s still no explanation after months of texting and a full genetic panel from all three of us. It’s hard to know how to move on from that. When there is literally no explanation, how can anyone determine it won’t happen to us again in the future?
On the drive home from the hospital – which was excruciating – my husband and I immediately talked about how we needed to be transparent and honest with each other about how we were feeling at all times, and not be afraid to ask for help. I think that understanding between us was important, and still is.
We’re still figuring out how to cope with the grief. After Sami died, our house was so still and quiet, and we were staying up all night with no schedule or purpose. We impulsively got a pandemic puppy, Captain, just to bring some liveliness to our household. I thought it was a manic grief decision at the time, but it turned out to be a great move that really helped give us something to care about. If you’re going to be sad, you might as well be sad with a puppy.
I also bought a treadmill (grief is expensive) because I needed a physical outlet and all the gyms were closed. On Valentine’s Day, about a month after Sami died, I started a running streak. I ran at least a mile a day (often more) for 252 days straight without stopping – the same number of days Sami was alive. I wanted a way to consciously think about what that amount of time felt like, to feel it physically. I ran through injury, mild post-COVID-vaccine fatigue, and just plain not-feeling-like-it-that-day. I finished my running streak last week, which was a strange feeling. I think what surprised me most is that my body kept going, even though it feels like my heart should have stopped when Sami’s did.
My cousins, who have unfortunately also experienced the loss of their own child around 15 years ago, pooled resources with my family and overnight shipped us necklaces with Sami’s photo. The back reads, ‘Some people only dream of angels… I held one in my hands.’ Having something to wear, a token that was physically with us at all times, helped more than you’d think it might. We rarely take them off.
After binge watching every season of The Great Pottery Throwdown (among a lot of other, lesser quality reality TV), we signed up for six weeks of pottery classes. Having something artistic and a bit physical to do for three hours a week was a great distraction for us.
Our mental health was, of course, decimated in the wake of Sami’s loss. It is hard to find a reason to go on living, especially when he was our first and only child. We tried to find a therapist right away, and the process was a complete disaster. My husband’s outsourced Employee Assistance Program kept pairing us with people who weren’t accepting new clients, or with people who were a comically bad fit, like a ‘fitness therapist.’ (Probably a great fit for some people, but not two people who lost a child just days earlier).
After a grief-Google, I found a ‘bereavement specialist’ listed on his employer’s website and spilled my guts to this poor woman over the phone. I don’t even think I called the right specialist in the right department, but she was a trained social worker who was the first professional to really listen to me and make my grief feel heard and understood. I later found out she had also lost a child, and it was honestly encouraging to see she was somehow still standing. She helped to tide us over until we found a permanent therapist. We finally found a good match at a private practice, which costs almost as much as our mortgage each month, but it’s worth it for us.
We are fortunate to have resources, education, and family support not everyone has access to. There are some really wonderful programs out there for parents who have lost children, to help then heal holistically and gain access to resources they might not have access to, but even then, not everyone can afford to impulse buy puppies and exercise equipment, or even work in a supportive environment. I think a lot about the tools and resources that have made my life feel at all liveable over the past nine months, and wonder how people without those resources make it through.
I really resent narratives about grief making you a better person. I think we were already good people before this, and our son was the best person of all. Now he’s completely gone. I think ‘resilience’ is just a way to mark that something horrible has happened to you. My husband hates when anyone tells him this will make him a better doctor – he was already a great doctor. In a lot of ways, I think it has made me less empathetic to other people and their issues. But there’s also a sort of invincibility that comes along with the worst thing possible happening to you, and somehow figuring out a way to carry on. We have also been met with a tremendous amount of kindness, often from complete strangers, which inspired us to think about the role of kindness and community as a part of Sami’s legacy.
When we have children, we have a certain type of plan for what parenting means to each of us. We try to guide them and show them the world, and in the process, they fundamentally change us. But any parent could tell you those ‘plans’ never quite turn out exactly how we think they are going to. Losing a child is the most extreme example of that. So, how do we parent when we no longer have a child? I think instead of guiding a child, we now guide their legacy, and are a sort of delegate for how they will be represented in a world they no longer physically inhabit. If I fall apart, or let this destroy my remaining family in any way, that’s doing a disservice to Sami’s legacy, which should be one of joy and happiness. It is gutting, debilitating, to lose him. I would give up anyone and everyone else in my life to have Sami back in a heartbeat. But I was so lucky to be his mom and to have eight uninterrupted months with him, and I need to honor that.
Because we don’t know exactly how Sami died, we struggled with an appropriate way to memorialize him. Often when we lose loved ones, we donate to a source that might prevent others from the same struggle. But I think Sami’s life’s work was fostering joy and kindness. We thought back to how much fun we had on the Village Green in our town, and how it was one of the few spaces that let us gather safely among neighbors and feel like a normal family in the middle of a pandemic. We thought about the neighbors (mostly strangers, as we’ve still only lived here for two years and most of it has been in a pandemic) who prayed over us and dropped off food and continue to show up for us. Community spaces are important for building the type of world we want to live in.
So, we set up a memorial fund for Sami, the Sami Colpean Al-Gharaibeh Memorial Fund, through our town’s Wyoming Community Fund. It started as a fundraiser for a community garden in his honor, but we outraised our fundraising goal within a week. Our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors really came through. One complete stranger in the UK (from my anonymous online mom subreddit, the May2020Bumpers group) funded $10,000 through a grant with her employer. We’ve never even met! The kindness of strangers will floor you, and Sami’s photos and story are so magnetic he attracts that kind of good from the world. We kept his fund open to feed into a larger Village Green Revitalization Project, where they will revamp our primary community space to include an accessible stage for performances, flanked on one side by his garden, and an improved space for the community to gather.
As we looked forward to how to celebrate his life, I knew I wanted to create a day full of of kindness toward our community to memorialize his birthday. We created Sami cards with his picture and a reminder strangers care about each other and we need to take care of our communities, and included the hashtag #ShineOnSami so we could follow along. When friends and members of my Reddit mom group asked, we mailed them out all over the country (to 16 different states), and sent print and digital copies to family and friends around the world in Canada, Australia, and Jordan.
In our own town, we did small seed funds of $100 at our local coffee shop, bakery, and ice cream shop and had them pay it forward for the first customers of the day. We were happy to see our neighbors paying it forward for each other throughout the day, long after we ran out of Sami cards to hand out and our own seed fund had been spent. Other local businesses wrote him happy birthday messages on their signs or passed out party favors like frisbees with Sami cards attached. Our local ice cream shop, which now has a flavor named after him, had a dozen balloons out front. It was a difficult day, but sitting anonymously outside the ice cream shop and listening to kids talk to their parents about acts of kindness they could do for someone because of Sami’s message was really special.
A woman who owns a local print shop shares a birthday with Sami and reached out to say she got a card after her husband stopped at the bakery to buy her a birthday treat, and had his order paid for by our fund. She offered to print us more cards to help spread his story. A neighbor recently passed some of them out along with free ice cream coupons at a church event they held for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Month earlier in October. We plan to honor his birthday with another big #ShineOnSami Day each year, but also try to hand out a card or just do something nice for a stranger when we are feeling especially low. It’s a way to feel close to his glow and warm energy when we really miss him.
I’m not a particularly religious or superstitious person, but I think there is power in opening ourselves up to signs. For us, thinking through what would bring Sami joy helps us to honor his legacy in ways that make our life somehow feel livable, even through this immense pain. I choose to interpret the stranger coincidences since his loss to his intervention in our paths, somehow – signs he wants us to be okay.
When I was offered a new job just weeks after he passed, I was conflicted about whether or not I was ready for a transition that major. But as soon as I hung up from getting the offer, I got a beautiful hand-drawn ink portrait of Sami in the mail from a total stranger in my internet mom group. That’s a sign of the powerful generosity of strangers you don’t even realize are looking out for you, but the timing also felt too on the nose to not be a sign. A friend who also lost her eight month old son just called to tell me she received a small grief gift in the mail from me, a charm for her car with her son’s name, on the same day she bought a new car and was having mixed feelings about making such a big decision. The gift was from me, but the timing was all her son looking out for her.
My biggest advice is that survival mode is okay. You don’t owe anyone a particular reaction or explanation, and you don’t need to honor any sort of obligation. Just take care of yourself and your immediate family however you need to. You don’t need to respond to kind emails, or write thank you notes, or take or return any phone calls. Focus all of your energy on protecting yourself and the people closest to you, and don’t feel bad about it. My husband and I just had to worry about ourselves and each other, and it made things feel a bit less overwhelming. People will understand, and if they don’t, they’re not really your people. Open up only to what you are ready for, whenever you are ready for it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Michelle Colpean of Wyoming, OH. You can follow Michelle’s journey on Instagram and visit Sami’s memorial fund website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories about coping with child loss here:
‘Sweet boy, Mommy and Daddy love you so much.’ His silent 3-pound body was wrapped in a blanket.’: Parents of child loss know they will see son ‘in heaven,’ celebrate living twin’s life while grieving their loss
SHARE this story on Facebook to remind others to take the time to love what matters most.