Unexplained: Sudden deaths leave grieving families without answers

Sudden unexplained death in childhood, or SUDC, leaves families struggling not only with the loss of a child, but also without any answers.

Pain of losing a child compounded by never knowing what went wrong

Sam Ross Doucett died suddenly in his sleep on May 6, 2017. Even after an autopsy and investigation, his death remained unexplained. (Rick Tizzard)

Sometimes it was Sam Ross Doucett's singing that woke his parents; other times they woke to the sound of the two-year-old in fits of giggles because he'd tossed his pillow or stuffed bear into his twin sister's bed.

But on May 6, 2017, no sound came from the little boy.

People just don't understand when you say to them, 'My son died in his sleep and we don't know why.'- Christa Reccord

That morning Blake Doucett and Christa Reccord woke to the sound of singing from little Abigail, Sam's twin sister. Sam, the happy, healthy early bird, lay in his own bed, silent and motionless. 

His father tickled him and touched his back, but the toddler wouldn't wake up.

The little boy had died in his sleep. 

"The day Sam died, I didn't want to go [back] home," Doucett told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "I couldn't live there anymore, so we got it ready and sold it and moved ... because Sam died there." 

Sam's name has been added to a list of children in Canada who have died unexpectedly and without any known cause.

It's categorized as "sudden unexplained death in childhood" (SUDC), the rather clinical name given to a tragic phenomenon that leaves grieving families forever wondering what went wrong.
Blake Doucett, Christa Reccord and their daughter Abigail lost two-year-old Sam when the little boy died in his sleep nearly one year ago. (Hallie Cotnam)

'People just don't understand'

Nearly a year after Sam's death, despite an autopsy and thorough investigation, his parents still don't know the cause.

"People just don't understand when you say to them, 'My son died in his sleep and we don't know why,'" Reccord said.

In Canada, research into SUDC, which strikes children 12 months and older, is scarce. A recent petition submitted to the House of Commons is asking for a national SUDC Awareness Day on April 26.

It's an attempt to bring recognition to a phenomenon that can make families like Sam's feel like they're on their own. 

"There are many other families who are in this situation too, and there is not a lot known about this type of situation ... not a lot of awareness ... [and] there aren't really resources targeted to this kind of situation," Reccord said.

There are supports available to families who have lost a child, but it's rarely geared specifically toward those whose child died from SUDC.

In Ottawa, there are programs available through Roger Neilson House, but the U.S.-based organization Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood is the only group in North America dedicated to research and support for families who have experienced SUDC.
Abigail sometimes asks her parents where her twin brother is. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Remembering Sam

Reccord sometimes finds herself scrolling through her phone, looking at pictures and videos of Sam. Every once in a while, Abigail asks where her twin brother is.

"I think we can't say it hasn't fundamentally altered us," Reccord told Ottawa Morning. "I've tried not to let my anxiety get overwhelming, but there are [times] I wake up in the middle of the night."

Reccord and Doucett want Abigail to remember her brother. They show her pictures and tell her stories about him.

They speak of the way his little hands would grab more toys than they could hold, and how he'd giggle his heart out.

Reccord's favourite photo of Sam shows the boy in an oversized grey sweater, sitting on the beach. 

"It's just the essence of Sam, his curiosity. He's looking at the rocks, the wind is blowing in his hair, I don't know — it's a sweet expression," she said. 

"I can just imagine him picking up some of the stones from the beach ... [throwing them] into the ocean and giggling."