'I did not know that drowning was this quiet and this silent': Nicole Hughes on the day her son died

Nicole Hughes went on holidays to the beach every year for the last seven years. In the summer of 2017, they returned to the holiday home with their three children and five close family friends. On June 10th, her three-year-old son Levi slipped out of the house and moments later, Nicole saw her son face down in the swimming pool.


“Every night at bedtime, even if I was tired, I sang the song “The Best Day” by Taylor Swift, to my kids. It is a song to her mother, describing all of the best days they had together, but I turned it into a bedtime song, our special ritual. I started singing it to my daughters when they were little. When I was pregnant with Levi, we knew he was a boy, because of the line “God smiles on my little brother; inside and out, he’s better than I am.” I ended every night with this song. Levi would even sing along with me, only remembering a few words here and there but nodding along and grinning.”

It all happened so fast.

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“We were cleaning up after dinner. I had just shared a brownie with him- a very small one with one bite for each of us. I ran down the stairs screaming as loud as I could and jumped in the water. One of our friends had come out, then all of our friends poured out of the room cause I was screaming. One of them jumped over the balcony and into the water and we reached Levi at the same time. The other half of the brownie was still in my mouth, that's how fast it all happened. We had five anesthesiologists and an ophthalmologist on our trip. They started CPR immediately and intubated him all before the ambulance even arrived. They got a pulse back, he was airlifted, but we lost him.”

Nicole, an English teacher, says they had always been hugely water safety conscious. The children always wore life jackets around water and the girls were getting swimming lessons. “In those split seconds after I saw him, it was intermingled with shock and disbelief. That’s what I kept thinking, how did he just drown? I don’t understand,” she wrote in her very honest and moving online blogs. “I did not know that drowning was this quiet and this silent.”

Irish Water Safety statistics show that around 133 people drown every year in Ireland. Children can drown in seconds and in total silence in a very small amount of water. The HSE warns parents "never to leave your child alone near, with or in water inside or outside your home. While obvious water sources include swimming pools, sea, rivers, lakes, etc, there are many potential water sources around the home.

These may include but are not limited to, baths, sinks, toilets, mop buckets, basins, paddling pools, water barrels, garden ponds, water features, water troughs. Remember - anything that collects water can be a source of drowning danger. Teach your child to swim as soon as is appropriate - but remember, a child who is able to swim still needs constant responsible adult supervision in and near water."

Nicole says that Levi’s death has made her question everything;

“How can a life end in an instant? Why would this baby be ripped from our family, leaving an emptiness that can never be filled? How can I ever love, again, when I now know that tragedy may always be lurking right around the corner?

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I miss him. I miss his future: taking him to the first day of playschool this year, choosing a Halloween costume, learning to ride a bike... If crying in bed all day would bring him back, my husband and I would stay in bed sobbing every second.” Drowning is one of the biggest killers for children aged between one and four years old. Also in June last year, the baby daughter of US Olympian, Bode Miller drowned in the pool of a neighbour's house.

His wife Morgan Miller wrote an emotional post on Instagram to try to raise more awareness about water safety. “I pray to God no other parent feels this pain. My heart is with you @nicolehughes8 as we walk this journey together. We talk about vaccinations, car seats, organic foods, screen time, etc at length…but not the number one risk your children’s’ lives face…a silent killer. It takes SECONDS. Please share and help us spread awareness. It’s the first step to preventing these types of tragedies. #drowning#drowningprevention#truthaboutdrowning.”

Now, after her son’s tragic death, Nicole has chosen to channel her grief into educating parents about some of the misconceptions about children and water safety. She also created a Water Guardian card to remind designated adults that “constant supervision is the best way to prevent drowning”. The family recently established a nonprofit charity, called Levi's Legacy to raise awareness around water safety. Nicole said in Levi’s eulogy that she wanted him to know that every day was the best day with him.

“Levi, even in your final moments, there was such happiness. When I put on your neon yellow crab-hunting shirt, the one that matched your daddy’s and all of our friends, you were thrilled, ecstatic. Crab-hunting night is the highlight of the week. You told me, matter-of-factly, as if I didn’t know: “This is not my jammie shirt. This is my crab-hunting shirt!” My last image is of you jumping up and down, laughing at a TV show with friends. In the upcoming months and years and this lifetime without you, I think we will find small comfort in the memories of this final “best day.”

Our lives are never going to be the same for having held you, loved you, chased after you. This pain feels unbearable, but we will take it if it is the price we have to pay for getting to share so many best days with you."

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Here is more information on children and water safety

Images via the Hughes family blog.

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