McCrabb: Nothing prepares a mother for the death of a child

Samantha ‘Sammi’ Cundiff, 21, diagnosed as a person with non-verbal autism, died May 3 at home.

One week before Mother’s Day, Samantha “Sammi” Cundiff and her mother couldn’t have been happier.

It was Sunday afternoon and that meant softball practice in the Dream Catcher’s league at Goldman Park followed by a Coke, Sammi’s favorite beverage. Sammie and her mother, Mary Cundiff, ran the bases together though Mary admitted it was more like a walk.

Quality mother-daughter time.

Then two days later, Sammi Girl, as her mother affectionately called her, was gone. Sammi, 21, a person diagnosed with non-verbal autism and epilepsy, had a massive seizure and died at home on May 3 despite her mother giving her mouth to mouth and Middletown paramedics’ best rescue efforts.

When Cundiff, 47, director of the food program at the Middletown Area Salvation Army, called me on Thursday to talk about Sammi, I asked how she was doing. Before the words were out of my mouth, I realized that was an inappropriately worded question.

Still she answered: “I’m still in shock. Doesn’t feel real.”

As a parent of a child with special needs, Cundiff, whose son, Andy, 27, also is autistic, said you always worry about who will continue caring for your child after you die. You never consider them dying first.

Cundiff said there’s a void in her heart. The chair where Sammi always sat is empty. There is no one to hug Sammi’s favorite Disney doll.

As an infant, Sammi couldn’t chew and she sucked on a bottle until she was 3. She had her first seizure when she 4. Mentally, she was always 2 to 3 years old, her mother said.

“It was like raising an adult toddler,” she said.

That meant Sammi received constant care from her mother and sister, Hannah, 19, a student at the University of Kentucky. Cundiff described Hannah as “the little, big sister.”

On Mother’s Day, Cundiff wanted to close the curtains and spend the day in bed. But she also wanted to be fair to her other two children.

“Very, very difficult” she called Mother’s Day. “I cry most days.”

On those dark days, Cundiff relies on her family, her closest friends and complete strangers. She has received sympathy cards, homemade meals, emails, phone calls and a GoFundMe account was established to pay for funeral expenses.

Sammi was ineligible for life insurance because of her medical history, her mother said.

“I’m so blessed,” she said when asked about the support. “I don’t know what I would do without them. They were here as soon as I called them. Everybody has been so good.”

Even those people Cundiff can’t figure out how they knew Sammi, a 2018 Middletown High School graduate. People gravitated toward Sammi and she returned the favor. It helped if you had an ice cold Coke in your hands.

“She loved the attention,” her mother said. “Dance was her favorite thing. Everybody loved her. It was crazy.”

Maybe they saw Sammi for what she was: A young lady with a child’s innocence.

“Since there were so many things Sammi didn’t understand, everything was a happy place to her,” Cundiff said. “She didn’t know bad things. She was a wild child. You had to hold onto her.”

Until you couldn’t.

Then, if you’re like Cundiff, you follow your faith.

“God had other plans for her,” she said. “She’s my angel looking down. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, but she was needed somewhere.”


4-6 p.m. May 23: Visitation, Salvation Army, 1914 First Ave., Middletown

6 p.m. May 23: Celebration of Life, Salvation Army with Maj. Jud Laidlaw officiating

11 a.m. May 24: Burial at Woodhill Cemetery, Franklin Twp.

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