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Mom begs for help to find missing stuffed elephant that contains her son’s ashes

"His name is Bruce."
Gabryel Atkinson
Iowa mom Liz Atkinson is searching for a stuffed elephant that contains her late son Gabryel's ashes. Courtesy of Liz Atkinson
/ Source: TODAY

An anguished mother is searching for her late son's favorite stuffed elephant, which contains a portion of his ashes.

It went missing on a family vacation in Florida.

"I am completely desperate and hoping this blows up and we find our elephant!" Liz Atkinson, an emergency room nurse in Iowa, wrote in a May 6 Facebook post.

"Our son Gabryel passed away before we could make it to Disney," she wrote of the 7-year-old child. "For his birthday this year we took our surviving son, Sebastyan, on the trip. Gabryel was given this elephant in the NICU and it was at every surgery/procedure (over 50) and hospitalization (too many to count) with him. He slept with it every night and since his passing my husband and I have had it in our bed with us. His name is Bruce."

The toy, a pocket of which contained Gabryel's ashes, was packed in the family's luggage for the 12-day road trip through Florida in April. Somewhere along the way, Bruce disappeared.

In the post, Atkinson retraced the family's steps, starting at the Beachside Resort in Cocoa Beach where they went parasailing. After that, the family visited Disney Springs in Buena Vista, before heading to The Palazzo Lakeside Hotel in Kissimmee and Disney's Art of Animation Resort.

Atkinson tells that during her 20-week pregnancy scan, she and her husband Ande learned that Gabryel would be born with chromosomal anomalies that would likely be "incompatible with life."

Gabryel Atkinson
Bruce, a stuffed elephant that belonged to Liz Atkinson's late son Gabryel, went missing on a family trip to Florida. The toy contains the boy's ashes.Courtesy of Liz Atkinson

"We weren't ready to end the pregnancy — we wanted to fight for him," she says.

Gabryel was born at 31 weeks, battling illnesses and complications that Atkinson said "surgeons had only seen in textbooks," along with developmental delays. "He had a skull reconstruction, and multiple airway surgeries, and the right middle lobe of his lung removed," she says. "He was non-verbal."

The blue-and-red stuffed elephant that vibrated and played music comforted Gabryel, especially with post-surgical pain.

"We took his medical equipment on family trips so Gabryel could experience life to its fullest," says Atkinson. "He was the happiest kid. He loved football and cheered for both teams."

When Gabryel was 7 years old, his digestive system deteriorated, says Atkinson, and he started palliative care. Gabryel died on April 9, 2022, just 16 days before his 8th birthday, Bruce by his side.

The Atkinsons brought Bruce to Florida as a gesture to Gabryel; Tucking a portion of his ashes in Bruce's pouch was an eleventh-hour decision.

Gabryel Atkinson
Gabryel Atkinson died at age 7. His ashes were stored in his favorite stuffed animal that went missing on a family vacation. His family is asking for help in finding it. Courtesy of Liz Atkinson

"We had jewelry made from his ashes and (the company) shipped the remainder back, inside plastic and mesh bags," says Atkinson. "We figured Bruce would stay in our hotel room so we wouldn't lose him."

When Sebastyan, 6, asked to take Bruce parasailing, however, they said yes.

Although they can't recall seeing Bruce anywhere but the boat, Atkinson is confident that he wasn't left at the dock.

"Someone who works at the marina looked at (security) cameras and saw Sebastyan exit the boat and enter our car with Bruce," she explains. "When we pulled away, they said Bruce wasn't on the ground."

The couple searched their car and luggage and followed up with places they stopped — including Walgreens, a Lego store and Planet Hollywood — but no one has seen Bruce.

Family searches for stuffed elephant containing son's ashes during Disney World vacation
Gabryel Atkinson, who died at age 7, with his father Ande Atkinson.Courtesy of Liz Atkinson

"I feel sick, struggling to sleep. I’m desperate," Atkinson wrote on Facebook.

"Please no comments about (how) I shouldn’t have brought such a sentimental thing on a trip or how I should’ve known better," she wrote. "I struggle with OCD and everything always has a place in the suitcase and he’s been on every trip with us since our son was born. I never in a million years would’ve thought that struggling with grief would have impaired my memory enough to forget him somewhere and I tried very hard to make sure he was always in a bag or in my arms so this didn’t happen."

“My worst thoughts are Bruce being rained on, run over in a parking lot or if another child has Bruce and their mother washes it, she’ll discover human ashes,” says Atkinson.

"Sebastyan is distraught and my husband and I feel guilty," she says, adding, "I struggle with the idea of being a nurse and not being able to (save) my son — I've lost him and now I've lost some of his ashes ... there's no worse feeling for a mom."

Atkinson's Facebook post has been shared more than 11,000 times and, according to the mom, volunteers in Florida have pinned photos of Bruce all over town and are searching for him.

"People I have never met have spent so much time helping — they've spent hours searching," says Atkinson. "There are not enough 'thank yous' for everyone."