July 5, 2016

Hot cars in the summer: a mother’s story


Mother tells her story of the steps that can lead to accidentally leaving a baby in a car.

Editor’s note: Each summer, Stephanie Gray’s honest story touches thousands of parents. She and her husband Aaron hope that sharing the story of their loss will be a reminder to you this summer. Please look before you lock. If you chose to comment, please be kind and respectful.


I learned on August 7, 2012, that ANY parent can accidentally leave a child in a car. That day, a Tuesday, began with my husband Aaron leaving for work while I finished feeding our sweet 5-month-old son, Joel, his morning bottle.

The morning was more hectic than usual.  My older sons had just started a new school year and were still trying to get into the swing of things.  Baby Joel was going to his second day of day care.  To make things more confusing, my kitchen was under major construction, it had been gutted, and most of my kitchen items were stacked all around my living room.

I took my two middle boys to school first.  It was about 7:50 a.m.  They attended an elementary school about a mile from my house, next door to the church where Joel attended day care.  After I dropped them off, I went back home to my oldest son, who was waiting there with baby Joel.  It was 8:00, and he and Joel did not begin school until 9:00.

I fed Joel some cereal and after he ate, he was very sleepy and fussy.  He usually went down for his morning nap by 8:30, but with the new routine he would be in the car at that time.  I loaded Joel in the back seat of my minivan, put his diaper bag in the floor board under his seat, and pulled the sun shade down to keep the bright August sun out of his little eyes.  My oldest son got in the back seat with Joel, and we began the approximate two-mile journey to the middle school.

Joel was fussy, so my son did what we always told him to do.  He put Joel’s pacifier in his mouth, and Joel was instantly quiet.  The drop-off line at the middle school took quite a bit longer than usual because it was a new school year, and many first-time parents were trying to maneuver the system.  By the time I dropped my older son off, it was close to 9:00.  I drove back toward my street and breathed a sigh of relief because for the first time in months I could work from home without having to juggle my four boys at the same time.

As I mentioned, this was the first full day of school for the older boys, and only the second day of day care for Joel. That coupled with my focus on my law practice made my routine completely new and different. I placed Joel’s diaper bag in the floorboard of the back seat and therefore I didn’t see it when I returned home. There was no reason for me to look in the back seat because I had dropped everyone off and I had no reminders to do so.

I worked steadily all day getting my law practice in order. It was 2:27 when I looked at the clock and realized I would be late picking up Joel at 2:30. When I arrived at the day care and went to the door, Joel’s teacher was at the entrance with another teacher and a couple of parents were exiting the building with their children.

I looked at her and said, “I am so sorry.” I realized Joel was not with her and asked her where he was.

She looked at me puzzled and said “He isn’t here – you didn’t drop him off this morning.”

I was so utterly confused that I responded, “Well where is he?”

It is very difficult to put into words the feelings within my body at this very moment.  I remember my thoughts kind of swirling in a frenzy in my brain and thinking, “My God! Where is my baby, he has not been with me all day, and he isn’t at home?” 

This thought process lasted maybe a second, but it seemed at that moment that time stood still. I was frozen with fear.  Then it hit me “the car!” and I ran to my minivan and pulled open the door where Joel’s car seat sat.

The first thing I remember thinking when I saw my sweet, helpless baby boy was “heat.” I will never forget the horrible image of my once chubby, healthy son as he lay lifeless in his car seat. I immediately pulled him from his seat, began screaming to the day care employees to call 911 as I ran him into the building and placed him in a sink.  I frantically splashed water on him and tried to rip his romper off of him.  Then a day care worker told me to lay him on one of the sleep mats so that she could administer CPR.

The scene that day only got worse as I called my husband in an hysterical panic to tell him what had happened, the firefighters rushed in only to tell me that my baby boy was gone, the police came to investigate, and the camera crews set up to get the breaking news of the attorney who left her baby in a hot car all day.  I was confined to the back of an ambulance and my husband was being held in the parking lot away from me.  We were both in shock and devastated beyond belief.

It has been 10 months since my sweet baby died and there are not many seconds that pass when I don’t think about him. I would do anything to have my baby back, but nothing can make that happen. Instead, my husband and I want to work tirelessly to prevent other parents from experiencing this pain. Please be aware of the dangers and tell everyone you know.

Written by Stephanie Gray, this story originally published on June 12, 2013.

Summer, Infants

Please read these hot vehicle safety tips from Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

67 thoughts on “Hot cars in the summer: a mother’s story”

  1. Tiffany says:

    I am so very, very sorry. I can’t imagine how painful this is. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Dana says:

    So sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine the pain you are going through.

  3. Aaron says:

    Tiffany thank you so much. Please do us a favor and share our story with everyone you know. Awareness is the answer to this terrible issue that seems to be growing!

  4. Aaron says:

    Dana, thank you so much. Please share our story with everyone you know!

  5. Kacie says:

    Love you guys. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Alyson @Vintage Sunshine says:

    Thank you for being brave enough to share your story. It is SO easy to forget when we’re in the middle of a crazy routine. My heart breaks for you & your family. I can’t even imagine and hope that are able to find peace within yourself.

  7. Summer Ennis says:

    I’m so so sorry for your loss! I cannot even imagine what you are going through… I pray for your families peace and healing and that your story can raise awareness and possibly save another family the same loss and pain. God bless you!

  8. Aaron says:

    Alyson and Summer, thank you so much for your thoughts and prayers! Please share this story on your social media and with all your friends and family. The answer to this issue is awareness which leads to preperation. Also please follow Joel Dixon Gray’s FB page for updates.

  9. Lena says:

    I’m so sorry for your tragic loss…

  10. Cynthia Manley says:

    I was so moved this morning by your story and by your courage in sharing it. Sending you wishes for peace.

  11. rwnielson says:

    I am so sorry. There are no words. I am in tears thinking about what you have gone through. I am so sorry.

  12. Aaron says:

    Lena, Cynthia, and RW, thank you so much for the kind words. You are correct in that there are no words to express how much pain we have gone through. If the three of you would do us a favor and share our story with as many people as possible. The key to stopping this is awareness and preperation!

  13. Kristin says:

    This story instantly put a knot in my stomach and tears in my eyes. My thoughts specifically go out to the mother and may she not feel the burden of guilt that she is probably feeling. This could happen to any great mom who might have a lot going on. I will be sharing your story with whoever I can. I also will be praying for your family!

  14. lucie says:

    I am so sorry for your loss.

    1. Karin says:

      I’m so sorry for your family’s loss. Unimaginably heartbreaking. I commend you for your bravery in sharing your story. I’m sure there are those who would judge you, but I do not. My sons are older, but I can easily see how something like this could have happened to us when they were babies. It could happen to anyone. May your story help another family, and may you find peace in your hearts.

  15. Aaron says:

    Kristin, you have hit the nail on the head, and I just hope that in time my wife can forgive herself, as she is her harshest critic. She is surounded by love, but this will take time. Thank you for sharing with your friends and family and thanks for the prayers! Aaron

  16. Aaron says:

    Thank you Lucie! Please share with everyone you can think of!

  17. tammylynne22 says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. So sad for your family. So moved by your courage. We lost our middle child, Alex at 8 weeks old. He died when he was sleeping in our bed (I left him there undisturbed). I know you’re going through a tough road- I have been there. It was 2 years ago. I have a blog if you’d like to read about some of it.

  18. Aaron says:

    Oh Tammy, I’m so sorry for your loss! I will take a look at your blog for sure. Please friend Joel Dixon Gray on facebook. This is the page where we will keep up with child safety issues, stats, etc. Thank you for your thoughts and we will be thinking about you and your family too!

  19. Jess says:

    Praying for peace and healing. I can’t even fathom the pain and guilt, and I applaud you for sharing your story. You are completely right- as a society we gawk at the idea that anyone could accidentally leave their child in the car- right until it happens to us or to someone we know. Life is busy and it’s hard to juggle our own lives, let alone one child, and every child from there on. I’ve heard of leaving your purse or phone in the backseat as a reminder- which I think is a great idea- but sometimes, crappy stuff just happens. I pray God heals your hearts and that you know that your sweet boy doesn’t have to face the sorrows of the earthly world.

  20. Pingback: Hot cars and kids: Look before you lock | NewsCut | Minnesota Public Radio News
  21. Tracie B. says:

    I saw this post through a friend’s Facebook page. I am so sorry for your loss! Its so easy for people to say this would never happen to them, but no one is immune. We are all susceptible to getting caught up in the moment & forgetting everything we need to remember. Thank you so much for sharing this & reminding us of the importance to pay attention. Praying for peace & comfort. May God bless you as you try to heal!

  22. Aaron says:

    The brain studies that I have read so far state that the brain does not distinguish between items that it forgets, in other words these items are not prioritized. Anyone who has done something as simple as locking key in their car or lost their wallet is capable of doing this exact same thing. Tracie and Jess, I appreciate your kind words. If you both would be kind enough to share our story we can help make a difference!

  23. Melissa says:

    I am so extremely sorry for your loss. Praying for your family.

  24. Lacie says:

    Tears…I am so sorry for your loss. We were going to an auction one day and was running late. I jumped in the car with my daughter and mother in law. My husband in his truck with his dad and our 3 year old son. We beat them there and got out and started walking around. My husband and his dad got out and starting looking around at a John deer tractor. We met up about 30 minutes later and we were just standing there and Rick asked, where’s aiden? My heart dropped! At first I thought omg u left him at home. But Shawn ran as fast as he could to his truck opened the back seat and there he was asleep and pouring sweat. It was well over 100 degrees that day. He was ok! So hot and sweaty. I still couldn’t believe the simplistic mistake of forgetting our son. It can happen to anyone. We were very fortunate.

  25. Lisa says:

    I remember this in the news… I am so very sorry for your loss. I pray for peace for you and your family. Thank you for sharing your story.

  26. Rachel Lenda says:

    Praying for you all. My husband has left our baby in the car on a hot day after d
    ropping me and the older girls off at a restaurant. When he got there I noticed he did not have the baby. He immediately ran to the car and thankfully she was fine but it made us aware of how easy this can happen.

  27. Nanny says:

    My prayers and thoughts are with and your family. May God bless you with the peace that surpasses all human comprehension.

  28. Genie says:

    Stephanie and Aaron, blessings and peace to you and yours. The pain of your experience is unfathomable, and the gift you give others with your brave story is beyond price. May God bring you healing every day of your lives. Love to you all.

    1. aaron says:

      Thank you Genie for the kind words. Please share our story with everyone you know.

  29. Renee says:

    Wow. Thank you so much for sharing! I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I remember seeing your story on the news shortly after it happened and my first thought was instantly one of empathy. I could TOTALLY see myself in your position. I can completely relate to that feeling of the “mommy fog” while getting everyone to where they need to be and getting used to new routines. Yours is a story in which ANY of us could easily find ourselves. I am so very sorry for your pain. PLEASE know that your courage and determination to spare others from such a horrific tragedy will not be in vain. Interestingly, people are much more likely to remember YOUR story than whether or not they remembered to take their own baby out of the car. Lives will undoubtedly be saved because of you. I’m sure that’s hardly enough to heal your heart but I pray that God’s peace that surpasses all understanding will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus. Thank you for sharing, Stephanie. God bless you and your amazing family and friends for coming alongside you through this journey.

  30. Aaron says:

    Thank you so much Renee. We are hoping that by saving others we are able to gain some peace in our hearts. Your kind words are so touching and heart felt. Please share our story with everyone you know.

  31. Aaron says:

    Rachel we have heard so many stories like this since Joel died and we are so happy that your baby was ok. Please share our story with everyone you konw, as you truely understand how “easy” this can happen to people.

  32. Aaron says:

    Lacie I’m so that Aiden was ok. Please share our story and let your friends and family know how this can happen to anyone.

  33. R. Ann says:

    That happened to friends of mine. It’s not about being negligent. It’s more about we’re all so busy trying to do everything we have to do and drop off our kids at all the places they have to go. Bless their hearts!!! Prayers going up!

  34. Heather says:

    Thank God He is our judge(no one else) and He knows our hearts. He knows this was a tragic accident. I pray that His grace, mercy, and comfort overwhelm you and your family. I am so sorry for your loss. Look to Him. He is the All Mighty Healer! He is the Way! Knowing Jesus died for us and paid for our sins so that we live with Him eternally doesn’t make our life here on earth easier, but it gives us hope and a future.

  35. Leisa A. Hammett says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for your courage to come forward and share and to share your story so that others can know it could be any of us. I wish there was something of comfort I could say. There are no words, of course. I hope you know the beauty of your honest courage.

  36. Aaron says:

    R., Heather, and Leisa, thank you so much for your kind words. We can only hope that our outreach can save one or many lives, which will in turn help fill our hearts. If you all could please do us a favor and share our story with all of your friends and family. If you are on facebook please friend Joel Dixon Gray. This page will be used for information purposes.

  37. monica says:

    I think a great start would be to put in place a system where the day care guves the parents a phone call when a child isn’t there when they are supposed to be with an hour or two of the time they we’re supposed to have been dropped off. It may take just a mon or two out of their day but could save a life.

  38. Mary says:

    I wanted to let you know that I saw your story on social media and have shared it as requested. I admire you both very much for the work you are doing to help others, and I hope that your whole family has peace. And I thought of this, maybe you’ve heard it, called Bliss (I think it came from a episode of a show on tv, but I read it online and thought it was beautiful):

    No need for regrets,
    for mistakes made yesterday.
    The past is gone.
    No looming fate,
    no uncontrollable destiny.
    No hunger, no sickness, no fear, no death.
    Nothing ahead, nothing behind.
    Just stillness.
    Light, warmth.
    The pain you felt,
    the pain you may have caused others,
    it’s behind you.
    No looking back,
    no fear of what will come,
    just the pulse of time.
    Invigorating, soothing.
    Bask in my light.
    Take comfort knowing I am here.
    You will never be alone.

  39. Caitlin Congdon says:

    My son is a week younger than Joel was. I heard about this when it happened and was holding my son at the time. I was heartbroken for this family and have thought about them often. I have been praying for the family and especially the mother of this family. I am so thankful to find that she is able to share her story to educate others. I will continue to pray that she finds peace and is able to forgive herself. None of us know what we will or will not do – we must be slow to judge and quick to love and forgive (especially ourselves)!

  40. Aaron says:

    Monica, we encourage anyone looking for a daycare to insure they have a call back program for when a child doesn’t show, for this exact reason! Thank you Mary for the kind words! Caitlin, I am thankful for your response. I hope you have a routine in place that makes you look in the back everytime you get out of your car. Also, I love this statement and wish it were followed by more of society “…be slow to judge and quick to love…”! Awesome!!

  41. John F. Eldredge says:

    Another reminder is, if you have small children in the car, and have power windows, look before you close the back-seat windows. My father once told me a tragic story about a mother who accidentally closed a window while her toddler daughter had her head stuck out, and didn’t discover what had happened until several minutes later, by which time she had suffocated. The little girl had released her own seat belt. The pressure of the window kept the little girl from crying out.

  42. Aaron says:

    John, thanks for the ideas. Another issue (making up 28% of heat stroke deaths) is children getting stuck inside unattended vehicles. Children need to be taught how to get out of the front driver side door. This allows the parent to put child locks on without worrying the child cannot get out of the car.

  43. Kelly E. says:

    Your cousin watches my grandchildren; and I couldn’t ask for a better family for them to be around. It takes a lot of courage to get the word out and let other parents know your story. I have been holding you in prayer, loving you and your family and will always do so.

  44. Cynthia Manley says:

    Speaking on behalf of the Wishing Well team, I’d like to thank the Grays for sharing their story. I will keep you in my thoughts. I wish peace for your entire family, especially your wife. Take care.

  45. April Hughes says:

    Are the comments questioning this being deleted? I do not wish to compound the loss of a son but when you post things like this, you have to be prepared for the response. Nowhere in 5 hours of your “you time” did it occur to you “Hey, I never dropped him at daycare”. You don’t even sound apologetic, just like you’re justifying it. I don’t understand. Delete my comment, crucify me if you must but I cannot be the only one who is thinking this?

    1. Aaron Gray says:

      April please don’t feel special as I have responded to almost every comment here. Did you read the story? My wife thought about Joel on several occasions. She didn’t “forget”, in her mind she had dropped Joel off at daycare. If by “you time” you are referring to running a law practice helping veterans, then yes she was thinking about that too. Go ahead and judge, because surely someone with your confidence has all your bases covered, which means you can teach others how to prevent this type of tragedy. Who do you think my wife owes an apology? I know the only possibly person that could demand one and trust me she has done plenty and will continue to apologize to him. Please share our story whether you do so in judgement or protection of children, we only seek the results!

    2. Jessica Turner says:

      Hi April, I just wanted to let you know that we have not deleted any comments on this post. We would only delete a comment if it went against our community guidelines.
      -Jessica, Wishing Well Community Manager

  46. Scott says:

    Your story is truly a tragedy. Yet it seems tho you and your wife are trying to prevent her MISTAKE. You are in turn leaving out the point that she KILLED your son. That she should have to face justice. And a fine is not justice for KILLING (accedental or not) a child in such a torturous way..

  47. April Hughes says:

    Aaron-i will not condemn you or your wife for that matter, but you have to understand that the story above comes off as tragic but there is a sense of coldness in regards to the loss. Accidents happen, I personally have dealt with an event in my own family on this scale, while not the same type of incident, it was devastating and i had to deal with people’s comments not understanding how such a thing could happen, you can’t unless it has happened to you. I get that. There’s just something in this that makes my heart break and doesn’t sit well all at the same time. I cannot pinpoint it. I will share your story, and will tell people what i always have. always do a check of your car before getting in or out. its a good rule of thumb for many reasons.

    1. Aaron says:

      April, fair enough, we cannot expect everyone to sypathize for us, Scott is a good example. If pain, suffering, a life of guilt, (and Scott) the worst punishment either of you could imagine, then google my wife’s name and watch some of the videos we have done lately. Remorse is an understatment for the pain/guilt that my wife has and will always experience. We stuck our necks out for one reason and one reason only and that is to save lives. If one child lives because we shared our story (mistake) then we accept any negative that may come with it. April, I am sorry for whatever tragedy your family has experienced, as this pain is something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enaemy.

    2. Renee says:

      Wow Aaron, what an amazing witness you are of showing God’s love and forgiveness….not to your wife…that’s obvious by your comments above. Even more amazing is your love of people in general, specifically other families and the pain and devastation you are trying to spare them of by sharing your story. PLEASE don’t let comments from strangers like April and Scott derail you from your mission…and that is to save lives. NO ONE COULD POSSIBLY FATHOM YOUR SITUATION UNLESS THEY HAVE EXPERIENCED IT EXACTLY AS YOUR FAMILY HAS. Ironically, those kind of people will one day be judged by the same measure they use to judge others….and when when that time comes, they can only hope to receive a kind response similar to the one you gave them. Side note for April and Scott… just because it’s “cyber space” and not “face to face ” doesn’t mean you can say it. If THAT’S the place where your mind automatically goes then so be it. I’m all for free speech but you both are sadly inappropriate and quite frankly appalling. Surely you are not yet parents. Shame on you both.

    3. Renee says:

      p.s. Aaron, April and Scott appear to be engaged according to their fb profiles and neither have children from what I could tell. I rest my case.

  48. Tonya says:

    although im sorry for your still amazes me that it was just left alone and no actions were taking against her…I mean she left her 5 month old baby in the car ALL day…..if that was a lot of places she would’ve lost ALL her children not just the one…..I can only imangine what she does go threw in dealing with this,but maybe it’ll make her remember her other children and for them not to be left in the car ALL day…………sorry im not more sensitive.

  49. Aaron says:

    Renee, you put a smile on Stephanie’s face! Thank you for your quick research. I will tell you that I will not do anything to sacrifice our message, including getting into verbal battles with people who clearly “don’t get it”. Thanks for the awesome reply and thanks for helping fight the good fight.

  50. Aaron Gray says:

    Tonya, we are not seeking out for people to be sensitive or even sympathetic, but I must address your concerns. It would seem to me that you would have at least clicked on the links above to research our whole story before making a negative comment. My wife was charged. DCS did get involved. You clearly have missed the point of the story, that she didn’t merely leave our child in the car she thought she had dropped him off. You all amaze me in thinking that in some way more punishment is the answer, when we are clearly showing that awareness and understanding that this does and will happen is the real answer/problem. Whatever your thoughts/opinions are please share our story with others in the hope that it may save another childs life. We are up to 12 deaths already this year, and I don’t think my kids in state’s custody or my wife in jail would have done a darn thing to prevent any of those!

  51. Kelly E. says:

    12 deaths, and when I first read this -it was at 10 this year. 1 is too many, and the car industries MUST have the research and capability to insert warning mechanisms in cars to prevent this! Stop blaming these parents, grandparents, and friends that this happens to-and start raising awareness and your voices-demanding that safety measures be installed in vehicles, especially minivans!! In the meantime, take the Grays’ suggestions (leaving your left shoe, purse, etc. in the backseat)and pass them on. We all think this couldn’t happen to us, but as a FALLIBLE human, mother of 3, and grandmother of 5-I know it can! I love you, Grays, with all my heart-and will continue praying for your family.

  52. Aaron says:

    Kelly you just gave me chill bumps! Thank you so much for the post and you are dead on. Until the cars are made to assist us with this there are several easy and FREE steps to take to prevent these tragedies. The latest was a child who was playing in a car and got locked in for less than 15 minutes (according to the caretaker)! Lock your cars when you get out of them, teach your children how to exit a locked car from the drivers door in case the child safety locks are on, etc. Thank you so much!

  53. d mills says:

    sad sad story and this is why i don’t have kids but i never even leave my pets out of my sight!

  54. Joey says:

    I didnt hear about this when it happened, but I did the same thing when my son was a baby but my neighbour saw him; it could have so easily been the same story. I cannot imagine what you went through and must continue to go through every single day of your life. I Pray that God has given you his grace to move on for the sake of your other children. But I will be praying for your needs regardless of what they may be.

  55. Vivian says:

    So sorry for your loss prayers to all !
    Couple weeks ago as I was thumbing through Pinterest, I noticed that a new mother had posted that when she placed her baby in her vehicle she took off one of her shoes & placed it under the car seat. So she was reminded when she got out from driving to get her shoe and her precious cargo out of the car!
    I thought it was a great idea thought I would share

  56. Robert Stafford says:

    I am so sorry for your loss and commend you for sharing your story…as the father of a now 4-year old son and admittedly forgetful I am always terrified of this tragedy happening to me. One thing I always do is whenever I put my son in his car seat, I adjust the rear view mirror so I have him in my view at all times. The way modern mirrors are made I can see him and watch traffic behind me as well. If my suggestion can help at lease ease a little worry for someone then we can give God a prayer of thanks.

  57. Leondra Vazquez-Marin says:

    I’m so sorry for you loss. Thank you for sharing I have 3 children myself. My prayers are with you guys. Trust in God he will turn your darkest days into brighter days…God bless you all..Thanks again for helping other parents.

  58. Danica says:

    Terrifying, mainly because it’s so relatable. I am so so sorry that this happened to your son, but it has made me more aware of the need to take precautions with my 14 month old twins. I am also so sorry for the terrible comments that others feel the need to leave. The “that will never happen to me” thought process comes from a place of pride, and I hope life never humbles them the way you guys have been.

  59. Vicki says:

    So sorry for your loss. One thing that could help, if a child doesn’t show up for daycare, they should call the parent. Usually a parent will let you know if the child won’t be there. I have a home daycare, if children don’t show up, I call or text the parents.

    1. My Southern Health says:

      It’s wonderful that you take this step, Vicki. Thank you for submitting this excellent point and for providing such a helpful service to the parents of the children in your home daycare. – Linda

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