Becca Peden remembers kissing her husband and baby goodbye and leaving for work. Isaac was 3 months old and just starting to smile.

"It was the best time in my life," Peden recalled.

It all changed so suddenly, so inexplicably. When Peden returned to her apartment that night, she found her husband, Chris, on the floor, desperately trying to administer CPR to Isaac, who had stopped breathing and was unresponsive.

Isaac died 18 months ago, but his legacy lives on through the Baby Angels Foundation. The statewide initiative, founded by grieving moms Peden, 28, of Burnsville, and Serena Gragert, 25, of Brooklyn Center, offers support to families who have lost children to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Sudden Unexplained Death of an Infant (SUDI) or positional suffocation.

"These parents needed to do something altruistic, to give meaning to their child's life and experience," said Kathleen Fernbach, Minnesota SID Center director.

The SID Center will benefit from Baby Angels' 5K Run/Walk to Remember next Sunday, beginning at 11 a.m. at Bunker Hills Regional Park in Coon Rapids.

Their stories are sad, yet powerful, with messages of strength that emerge from sorrow.

"A piece of my heart is gone, and I'm not sure it will ever be whole again," said Gragert, whose baby, Xander, was 7 weeks old when he experienced breathing problems on Jan. 25, 2008. "It's safe to say that I am not the same Serena I was before he died."

Perfectly healthy

Xander -- short for Alexander -- and his brother, Dominic, had been dropped off that Friday morning at day care. When Serena returned home from her psychology class, her husband, Sean, told her they had to get to the hospital immediately: Xander was having trouble breathing. A check the day before found Xander perfectly healthy, his mother said.

Their baby was soon on life support. Serena remembers falling asleep Saturday night at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, watching the monitor that kept track of Xander's heartbeat. When she awoke Sunday morning, a doctor told her that her baby was brain-dead.

Serena and Sean read Xander the book "Love You Forever" and then held him in their arms as he died.

"We knew we'd have to take him off life support," Gragert said. "We got to say goodbye. ... Xander's death was ruled 'sudden unexplained infant death.' He was perfectly healthy."

SIDS is the major cause of death in infants between a month and a year of age, according to the SID Center at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. An estimated 2,100 babies die each year of SIDS in the United States.

In Minnesota, 30 to 50 infants die of SIDS each year -- or one of every 3,000 live births in the state. The deaths usually occur when babies are 2 to 4 months old, while the baby is sleeping. Death is silent, quick and without suffering, but it's also puzzling. The cause of SIDS is unknown, Fernbach said.

Still a mom

"Nothing prepares you," said Fernbach, who has worked at Children's Hospital since 1976. "At a time you've been so traumatized, feeling so completely out of control, a parent needs access to resources. You're still a mom or dad, but you don't know how to feel."

When Peden met Gragert at a support group at Children's Hospital, they almost immediately decided "we need to take care of the people left behind," Peden said.

Baby Angels has become their baby.

Through Facebook, they found other moms who had lost young children or who'd had miscarriages, "any kind of loss," Peden said. They talked about the importance of remembering they're still moms.

"After a while, people don't want to talk about your dead baby anymore," Peden said. "It makes them uncomfortable. I understand that.

"But I miss the little baby things," said Peden, who has no other children. "Being a mom was just fantastic. I wish I had a baby who cried full time, all the time, right now."

Gragert, who has since given birth to another son, Sylar, understands.

"People call us and say, 'I lost a son 30 years ago. I never thought it would happen to me,'" Gragert said. "But it does happen. And when it happens, you're so alone.

"Who would have thought that when we lost Xander that I'd be the one trying to offer support?"

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419