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Mom couldn't find her infant son's grave until a 'hero' police officer helped

“I had been searching for Elijah for all these years.”
/ Source: TODAY

At 1 a.m. on March 31, 2011, Fortunate Higgins received a text message from the babysitter alerting her that something was wrong with her 6-month-old son, Elijah. Higgins left her night-shift job so she could rush to the hospital.

“I just thought he was sick,” the care manager for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities told TODAY Parents. “I went home and got a diaper bag and of course I packed his clothes, diapers, formula — everything.”

Higgins had no idea that despite CPR and treatment from paramedics and doctors, Elijah had died.

“I was in a state of confusion because I thought they were taking me to see my child,” recalled Higgins, 38, of Hyde Park, New York. “The doctor walks in and just told me that Elijah’s heart had stopped.”

Elijah always smiled and was a healthy, strong baby. His mom felt stunned when she learned that his heart had stopped.
Elijah always smiled and was a healthy, strong baby. His mom felt stunned when she learned that his heart had stopped. Courtesy Fortunate Higgins

Higgins felt devastated and alone. Originally from Uganda, she had no family members nearby to support her and her surviving 3-year-old son, Ethan. Her friends from work and the African community arranged a funeral for Elijah, but she felt unmoored and unsure of everything that was happening.

A few days after Elijah died, she visited the police department where Lieutenant Jim Janso helped her understand her son's autopsy report. She learned that her son had died of sudden infant death syndrome, and she discovered that Janso felt personally connected to the family. He had tried to save Elijah by performing CPR on him.

“He was very comforting,” Higgins said.

She remembers feeling grateful for Janso's kind and thoughtful demeanor at that time, but her grief was all-consuming. She felt confused by the strange funeral customs in the United States and worried because she couldn't afford a headstone for her son’s burial site. Because of that, Elijah was buried in an unmarked grave.

Higgins kept a photograph that she thought would help her find the unmarked grave — but every time she tried to find Elijah, she'd get lost. Her grief was compounded by the fact that she didn't know where her son was.

“I was crying so much — all the time — and praying,” Higgins said.

Fortunate Higgins with her son, Elijah
Fortunate Higgins felt confused by unusual funeral traditions in the United States and overwhelmed by grief. In the chaos following her son Elijah's death, she couldn't find his unmarked grave. Courtesy Fortunate Higgins

In 2015 — four years after Elijah's death — Higgins was taking graduate classes, including a class focused on grief. She felt inspired to renew her attempts to find her son’s grave. Then she received a call from a Poughkeepsie Journal reporter who was working on a story about a police officer who had started a fundraiser to purchase a headstone for Elijah. Higgins, who shared her story with Humans of New York on Tuesday, felt stunned.

“I told him that I had been searching for Elijah for all these years. I didn’t know where he was,” she said. “But Janso had been visiting. He had never stopped visiting my son through the years.”

The two met in 2015, and Higgins felt a surge of relief from finally knowing where her son was buried. She calls Janso her “hero.”

“I look at it as a miracle,” she said. “All that weight I was carrying had been lifted. ... I don’t really have the words to express it.”

While she always felt Elijah had a lasting legacy because she donated her son's heart, Higgins is grateful that he is commemorated at spot she can visit.

Baby Elijah Higgins with his family
Fortunate Higgins always felt like her son Elijah lived on because she donated his heart. Now that he finally has a tombstone, she feels relieved to have a place where she can spend time with him. Courtesy Fortunate Higgins

“I connect with him,” she said. “Now there is a special place that I go.”

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