We are Amy and Jeff Githens, proud parents of John and Elliott. On May 2, 2014, our daughter, Elliott, drowned just weeks before her fifth birthday.
In May 2014, we were a normal family. By “normal,” we mean there wasn’t anything too exceptional about us. We were just two parents working full-time with two kids attending pre-school full-time. Nothing really stuck out about our family.
We loved our neighborhood, our friends and neighbors, and our larger community in Atlanta. The kids walked to school with our dog, got out of school mid-day and went on playdates, or explored the zoo or botanical gardens. When we got home from work, we’d go on walks, have family dinner, go through an average nighttime routine and go to bed before doing it all over again. Pretty normal.
Elliott was anything but average or normal. She was a force to be reckoned with. Her blue eyes saw the world as an opportunity to make friends and be nothing but exactly who she knew she was. She was outgoing but could also be shy. She loved the idea of being a ballerina but didn’t love hairbows and tutus. (In fact, she sat on the stage through the entirety of her first ballet recital.) Elliott stuck out—she was uniquely her.
Adored by her teachers, a friend to many and unapologetically authentic to herself, our daughter was on track to be the wonderful kid we dream she’d be today. Today, we find peace in memories of Elliott.
Here are our accounts of May 2, 2014.
Jeff: I was out of town for work and planned to visit my parents and some old friends before heading back to Atlanta. Before going to the pool, Amy called me, and I talked to her and the kids about going to the pool. Elliott was beyond excited to go. Amy said she literally went skipping in when they arrived. I told them all to have fun and that I missed them.
Amy: The evening before the worst day of my life, I took the kids to get bathing suits because they didn’t have suits that fit. Both kids had had swim lessons over the course of two summers, but swimming wasn’t a routine activity for our family. Elliott’s fifth birthday, June 1, was quickly approaching, and because she had asked for a pool party, we wanted to get some more swimming experience in before the big day.
May 2, 2014, was a Friday. So, after work, I got the kids ready and we headed to the pool. There was a party for the pool’s seasonal opening with a barbecue. Before going swimming, we waited in line for food and then ate together. After Elliott finished eating, she asked to go see friends she’d spotted when we arrived.
I told her, “Yes, you may go see your friends. But you may not get in the pool.” That was the last thing I said to my daughter.
I waited for John to finish eating and then go to the bathroom to change into his bathing suit. What happened next is a series of memories, like haunting snapshots, that will send chills down my spine for the rest of my life.
Together, John and I walked toward the pool. Before I could get a good view of what was going on, John asked me, “Mommy, why is Elliott in the pool?” My heart sank. After that split second—the moment that all parents fear but are also sure will never happen to them, happened—it was just chaos.
People began working CPR on my youngest child immediately as I stood next to her. Someone called 9-1-1. The crowd of people helped get her to the ambulance, and at some point, I fainted. And then I remember riding to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.
Jeff: Amidst the chaos, Amy lost her phone. And I had been working all day up to this point, so I left my phone in my car. When I checked my phone, I had multiple missed calls from our neighbors and a cryptic voicemail about Elliott being in an accident. I panicked and was overcome with worry. I was able to reach Amy at the hospital after a while, and she told me that Elliott’s care team was able to get a pulse and that she had regained consciousness a couple of times. It wasn’t much, but it was a bit of hope.
I frantically tried to find a quick way back to Atlanta. My dad and I were able to get on a plane, and I boarded the plane while holding onto that shred of hope. Without contact for the duration of the flight, I landed in Atlanta and was met by friends and neighbors who told me to call Amy. My wife had to tell me the gut-wrenching, earth-shattering news that our girl had not survived. And the next day we shared the news with John.
The day our daughter drowned—surrounded by people, with the confidence of multiple summers’ swim lessons—has shifted the course of our entire lives. We now have a nearly 12-year-old son. The things we never had to worry about before are the things that keep us up at night. We used to worry about work, but now we worry that anything that can go wrong will, and we’re constantly on edge.
There are many things we’ve wondered over the past 6 years about what we could change for a different outcome. But dwelling on things outside our control hasn’t brought us any peace, comfort or closure. Instead, we want our loss to help other families, so they never stay up at night wondering “what if?”
Our message for parents is to be informed, be prepared and be diligent. No one can protect your child like you can. Not a lifeguard, not a friend, not a sibling or another family member. And time isn’t something to gamble with. Drowning is quick and often silent.
That’s why we believe, support and spread Strong4Life’s message of Arm’s Reach, Eye’s Reach. Parents—always keep children younger than age 6 within arm’s reach around water. And keep kids 6 and older, who can confidently swim two laps of the pool, within eye’s reach.
Grabbing a towel or sunscreen, running to the restroom, or tending to another child for even 30 seconds is not ever going to be worth the risk. And no amount of swim lessons or flotation devices is a substitute for a parent’s careful supervision.
Our girl has now been in Heaven longer than she was with us. Every year, when the weather gets warm and we see pools open and see bathing suit ads, we think of Elliott. We know if she were here today, she’d be a bright, outgoing, confident and hopeful young girl. We hope sharing our story ensures hope for more families as they take part in summer fun.
This summer, don’t fall into a false sense of security. Practice Arm’s Reach, Eye’s Reach.