The Day I Lost my Daughter

There is nothing better than Daddy-daughter night at the mall. It’s a night of holding hands, shopping, ice cream and “sometimes treats”, and laughing all the way with my four year old.

It was pure magic, until we hit the big department store. While we were looking at shiny new toys, I wandered into the next aisle of electronics. She was now engrossed in a TV show on one of the thousand TVs.

I returned to show Jack what I found.
“Hey Jack, should we buy one of these?”
Silence. Nothing but chatter from the TVs.

“Jack?” I called out. Nothing.
“Jack?”, a little more panicked now.
I had my back turned for literally 10 seconds.
Where did she go?

I moved like a trained navy seal “Call of Duty” special-ops agent. I searched aisle by aisle. I walked fast, didn’t run, but walked crazy like those Olympic walkers.

Nothing.  How could she have gotten far?  She is fast, but only when motivated by Hello Kitty or candy.

Candy? Dammit. Strangers have candy. Creepy men with white vans and no windows have candy.

My panic became very real. It had been maybe 45 seconds now. My pulse quickened. I felt hot and flushed and suddenly very sweaty.  I saw every person in that store as a possible suspect (I didn’t see them as possible help).

I need to find my daughter.

I hate to admit that, in reflecting back to that awful 3 minutes, I was hesitant to ask for help because I didn’t want to be judged by strangers as a neglectful, bumbling dad, possibly perpetuating the stereo-type of absent-minded dad, a stereotype good dads fight daily.

I’m a great involved dad!
I write a parenting column!
I have a parenting book coming out!
I AM the Dad vibe guy!
But right now, this superdad had lost his daughter.

Should I alert the store staff? We always tell the kids to look for someone with a name tag. Maybe she was at customer service. There might be more judgement from staff, but surely I can’t be the first parent to lose a child in their giant confusing store.

No. She can’t be that far.

My steps had become clumsy as the fear was driving the ship now. With every second that ticked, the worst case scenarios kept getting more and more nefarious.

Think. Think.

Fight or flight adrenalin was pumping through me and I was getting bloody frantic. I thought about the exits out of the store. There were 3. I do this exit search ever since my wife and I started watching “The Walking Dead”. If there is a massive zombie attack, I need to know where my exits are. This data was useful now during this massive panic attack!

Think Jeff Think.

I should initiate a Nation Wide AMBER alert?  They could lock down the entire mall!  How would that look?

No,the creepy child collector may already be outside, a lockdown would only slow down the pursuit.

I need help. I need to call in reinforcements.

I need to swallow my stupid pride and ego and find my daughter. I saw another family and asked if they had seen a little girl with a purple shirt. They had not, but thankfully became involved in the search.

I felt embarrassed but grateful for the extra eyes. Other strangers and staff joined the search party and we fanned out like lava through every aisle of that wretched store.

Time elapsed – 2 minutes now. 2 minutes without my daughter. Would I ever hug her again?

Suddenly, like a bolt of dumb lightning, I remembered the pillow aisle where we had played on a previous trip to this store. Surely she would not have gone all the way back there? I ran to the sleep section like I was escaping prison.

I saw the blanket racks. I hit the deck, and laid down on my belly and looked under all the racks.


Wait. I saw a shoe. Was it a shoe? Or am I hoping that is a shoe? Is my mind playing sick tricks? Was it a purple piece of paper?

Then I heard a giggle.  I ran and pulled back the blankets to reveal my beautiful smiling daughter.

“Hiya daddy! You found me! Why are you so sweaty?”

In less than 3 minutes, I had experienced the entire range of human emotion; worry, confusion, terror, anger, embarrassment, sadness, grief, joy, relief, and then anger again!!

I hugged her tighter than every before. If I’m being truthful, I probably hugged her a little too tight as my anger, fear, and worry faded away.

I saved the long lecture and lesson for a calmer time later that night. I had my daughter back. My search party rejoiced in our sweet reunion. Through tears of joy and relief, I gave the nameless strangers (*that were briefly suspects), thumbs up and waves as I still clung to my little girl.

Today, I recognize the sheer panic and absolute fear in the faces of parents who have temporarily lost a child. I get involved immediately and offer to help. Perhaps it is instant karma or “paying it forward”, but I am grateful for the help I received and for my good fortune and happy ending.

I also recognize the fear and worry in a child that has lost his/her parents. I step back from the child and tell them that I am going to find someone to help. Then I notify a store employee. I help indirectly because I am a stranger and I do not want to cause the child to panic and run.

Obviously we try to always keep an eye on our children. But if we do get separated at the mall or amusement park, we have 3 strict rules which we constantly remind the kids BEFORE we go (to try and set everyone up for success).

1. If you get lost, STAY in a public place where you can be seen. Don’t hide or go anywhere with ANYONE. We have a meeting place, “If we get lost, come right here!”, a fountain, the Ferris wheel, customer service, etc.

2. Call out to Dad or Mom.  It’s ok to yell out ANYWHERE if you are lost and scared. Being silent makes you harder to find.

3. If it’s a store and you get lost, look for someone with a uniform, or name tag.  A cashier is perfect.

If they can’t find someone with a name tag, then search for a woman with children. I hate to admit this, but statistically she is least likely to harm them. She can help and maybe even call your cell phone if your kids know the number.

If you want to read more, this site, along with many other “Kid Safety” sites, have great tips for lost children; whether it’s at the mall, amusement park, or even out in nature.

I will never ever forget that awful day when I lost my daughter. I hope that you never have to endure the absolute panic I endured that day. Having a well rehearsed safety plan can really minimize the terror of losing a child.

Have you ever temporarily lost your child? Brave enough to share the details to keep the conversation going and potentially help prevent other lost children episodes? Please post here or send me an email at!