An Iowa family is hoping to be reunited with a priceless, irreplaceable memento. After taking a road trip around Florida, a mother named Liz Atkinson was dismayed when she noticed a beloved stuffed elephant was missing. This wasn't a regular plushie separated from a kid–the toy belonged to her late son, Gabryel, and contains a portion of his ashes.
“Our son, Gabryel passed away before we could make it to Disney,” Atkinson wrote. “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.”
Bruce was a steady companion to Gabryel, who battled multiple illnesses and complications throughout his short life. “He had a skull reconstruction, and multiple airway surgeries, and the right middle lobe of his lung removed,” Atkinson told Today, adding that Gabryel was non-verbal and had developmental delays. The boy found comfort in the blue-and-red stuffed elephant that vibrated and played music, and was even by his side at the end. Gabryel passed away in April 2022 at age 7 after his digestive system deteriorated and he was taken to palliative care.
Making the most out of their time with Gabryel, the family traveled often, where Bruce was always a part of the adventure. The family took the plushie with them on every trip. “We took his medical equipment on family trips so Gabryel could experience life to its fullest,” said Atkinson. “He was the happiest kid. He loved football and cheered for both teams.”
As a tribute to their late son, the family took Bruce on their Florida trip. “We had jewelry made from his ashes and (the company) shipped the remainder back, inside plastic and mesh bags,” said Atkinson. At the eleventh hour, they decided to tuck a portion of his ashes in Bruce's pouch. “We figured Bruce would stay in our hotel room so we wouldn't lose him.”
However, when Sebastyan asked them to take Bruce on a parasailing trip, they said yes. “Bruce came on the boat parasailing with us with Cocoa Beach Parasailing 9am April 24 and Sebastyan held him on the boat. This is where the trip gets hazy in my memory due to emotions and grief,” wrote Atkinson.
While at first she didn't recall Sebastyan bringing him back to their vehicle, a Cocoa Beach Marina worker checked the security cameras, and saw the kid and the toy made it back to the car. This bit of information has narrowed the search for the family to the next leg of their Florida trip. “We drove over to Disney Springs April 24, stayed for a couple of hours and then stayed at The Palazzo in Kissimmee until April 25 and I don’t recall ever carrying him from the vehicle to our hotel room,” she stated, adding that they even checked at the places where they stopped, like Walgreens, and a Lego Store.
“[On] April 25 we drove over to Art of Animation and checked in and were there until April 30. Bruce wasn’t anywhere to be found,” the mom recalled. “He would have made it to Disney Springs with us which we know he didn’t go into with us because he was not packed in the 1 bag we brought in. This means he either fell out in the orange parking ramp there, somewhere at the palazzo, or if he made it into AOA-potentially was mixed into bedding that was changed by housekeeping.”
While she has reached out to every single place and even filled out a lost and found form on Disney’s page, no one has found him. “I feel sick, struggling to sleep. I’m desperate,” Atkinson wrote on Facebook. “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.
The feeling is even heavier for the mom, who works as a nurse. “Sebastyan is distraught and my husband and I feel guilty,” she says. “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.”
Fortunately, the story has caught wind, having been shared over 16,000 times on Facebook. Moved by the family's plight, some locals have gone out of their way to search for the stuffed elephant, as well as pinning photos of Bruce near the places where he was last seen. While Bruce's whereabouts are still unknown, Atkinson truly appreciates that people have volunteered to help the desperate family. “People I have never met have spent so much time helping—they've spent hours searching. There are not enough ‘thank yous' for everyone.”
An Iowa nurse is hoping to be reunited with a priceless, irreplaceable memento—a blue-and-red stuffed elephant that belonged to her late son, Gabryel, and contains a portion of his ashes.
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