By Madoline Markham
Photos by Rebecca Wise
The first Saturday of November three years ago went on like many game days in the years past for Caitie and James Morgan. They left their daughter Caroline and son James—whose first birthday was the next day—with their grandparents and headed to Tuscaloosa to meet up with some of James’ work friends. They had no way of knowing what was to come the next day though.
The game ended late so the couple ended up spending the night at a friend’s house and setting an alarm to come back home to Mountain Brook early Sunday morning, Nov. 5, for birthday celebrations. But that morning James’ mom, who had been watching their kids, called, and Caitie and James couldn’t understand what she was saying as she spoke frantically. Baby James had passed away inexplicably in the middle of the night. Three years later, they still don’t have answers on what caused his death even after many tests.
In the dark days that followed a bright spot came when the Morgans’ neighbor Anna Harris brought her friend Cameron Cole over to their house—a moment that would be fortuitous in many ways in the years to come. The Morgans had never met him, but he shared with them the story of losing his son Cam at age 3 in the middle of the night with no explanation. “It gave us a glimmer of hope that he lost his son several years ago, and he’s still able to go help other people and able to get out of bed every day and live life,” Caitie recalls.
In the weeks to come the Morgans would become friends with the Coles, and Cameron would continue to text them to check in, send the resources to read and be a sounding board who could say, “Yeah, I get it.” Other couples, one from Dothan and one from Memphis, who had been through a similar journey, reached out to them as well. “It’s like this terrible fraternity that you don’t want to be in, but it’s helpful once you are in it because those people have truly been where you are and know how you feel,” Caitie says. “It’s something you can’t explain to anyone until you have been there yourself. “
As James and Caitie worked through their grief, they decided to do something special every year on Nov. 5 to honor their son and keep talking about him with their older daughter Caroline. “We wanted to move forward with him, not move on from him, because he is always going to be a part of our lives,” James explains. So that first year he took up running as a way to cope with stress and signed up for a marathon at Disney World on the one-year anniversary of the day they lost James.
By then their daughter Carlisle had been born. Just two weeks after James passed away, Caitie had found out she was pregnant—no small news for them especially since Caitie had had miscarriages and fertility issues. “Her being pregnant was a miracle,” James says. “It’s never happened that quickly for us.” That news, Caitie says, was also, “lightness in the middle of darkness.”
After the marathon, James and Caitie wanted to use their pain as way to help other people. “What has helped us the most? And how can we give that to people?” they thought. From there their minds went to the Coles and couples who helped them to know they weren’t the only ones going through what they were, and how they might not have met them if they didn’t have the community that surrounds them in Mountain Brook and Birmingham.
That’s when the idea for an app came to James. What better way could there be to help connect people with support at their fingertips anywhere? Sure, there were plenty of support networks available with message boards, but none they could find that could connect you with people who might be compatible with on a deeper level. “By having that immediate connection and not just that you share the same loss—but maybe you share a city and interests—it helps open up the wall to ask the hard questions: Is this normal? Did you feel this? What helped you? How did you keep living?” James says. For them this was a vital part of their grief journey alongside therapy, and they saw the app as a complement to professional counseling appointments to be an everyday check-in and support system.
One morning in 2018 James woke up around 4 a.m. ready to explore this app idea and started typing out all his ideas on a laptop. From there he started running the idea for an app past close friends and family members, and they began to team up with the Bethay family on the project. And as it turns out one of the members of a church small group the Morgans started in around that time happened to be the owner of Airship, a custom mobile app and software development company. “It felt like a god wink,” Caitie says. So they got him on board to bring their vision to life for what would be called the Buddys App that released this fall.
And it’s not just for grief. It connects people with life challenges in the realms of family and parenting, loss of a loved one, medical, mental health and relationships. Within those five areas are categories like anxiety, stress, divorce and loneliness. The end product allows a user to create a profile with your area of challenge plus your hobbies or personal interests that might be best to connect with those on a similar journey to you, and from there you can search for people with key words for either a life challenge like “loss of a son” or an interest like “cooking.” There are also areas of the app that suggest connections, message boards for broader topics and ways to create small groups of people to connect. And with a worldwide pandemic, the Morgans think the app is needed more than ever.
Even though its purposes sweep wider than their own, much of the app branding connects personally with the Morgan family too. Caitie’s dad passed away from cancer six years ago, and the app name itself honors his name, Buddy. Plus their logo, a butterfly, unites two letter Bs, one for Caitie’s dad Buddy and one for baby James who they called “little Buddy,” with a V that represent that baby James was the fifth in his family. Now every time their daughter Caroline, now 6, sees a butterfly she points it out, knowing its journey of transformation and its special significance for her family, and likes to draw them as well. The branding also incorporates sunset colors that make it feel both hopeful and calming.
As they launched the app this fall not long before what would have been baby James’ fourth birthday, the Morgans weren’t sure where its journey would take them. But they did know they were “taking our pain and hopefully helping other people,” James says. “Even before we launched the app, it was a success because it was helpful for us in our grieving process and our hopes to help others.” Indeed, a shining light in the darkness of 2020.
The Buddys App can be downloaded on the Apple App Store or Google Play. Learn more at buddysapp.com.