It’s finally May, and every time I open it, my Facebook feed is filled with the promise of youth: flowing prom gowns and tuxedos and then flowing graduation gowns and mortar boards. Spring has sprung, and with it, those timeless end-of-school celebrations. But with every bright and bubbly celebration comes the possibility for dark; that a tragedy will occur at one of these celebratory times is somewhere in the country is inevitable. This week, in my community, it was the death of a teenage girl in a car accident on the way to prom. It was four o’clock in the afternoon; on the way to photos before dinner, the celebration had not even begun. Thankfully, teen drunk driving was NOT a factor in this case.
But teen drunk driving was in the picture the night 18-year-old Brian Hoeflinger died in 2013, four months before his high school graduation.
Brian was a whip-smart honors student with a huge GPA and giant ACT scores who had been accepted to his dream college. But none of that mattered the night of February 2, 2013, when Brian chose to drink vodka at a party. The vodka rendered Brian’s smarts ineffective, and ultimately swept away his life and potential.
Yesterday I came across a heart-wrenching Facebook post that Brian’s parents had written to the graduating class of 2018, in memory of their son and his too-short life, but also—and this may seem cruel, but the more I read the letter, the more I realize how true it is—in memory of the ONE bad decision he made that ended his life. They’ve written this letter about the dangers of underage drinking and teen drunk driving, they say, “in hopes that we can save at least one graduating senior and their family from an unnecessary tragedy due to alcohol this prom and graduation season. Every senior should make it to graduation day!”
The letter, posted on their Facebook page Brian Matters, has been shared over 56,000 times and reads as follows:
To the Graduating Class of 2018:
Our son Brian Hoeflinger died in a tragic car accident four months before graduating high school at the young age of 18. He was a kid just like you who had hopes and aspirations of going to college and having a full happy life.
On the night he died, he was at a party with friends drinking vodka and ended up driving intoxicated. I remember the phone call we received late that night when we learned Brian had been in a car accident. The sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach and the frantic racing of your heart when you don’t know if your child has been hurt or if he is even still alive. Your entire body trembles uncontrollably with fear as you anticipate what you will be told on the phone. We were told to come to the hospital immediately.
I remember the drive to the hospital. It was cold and snowing that night. We were so scared of what we were about to find out. How badly was our son Brian injured? When my wife and I arrived at the hospital, we were told Brian was dead. Our bodies were numb. We immediately felt empty and completely alone inside. “How can this nightmare be real?” is all you can think to yourself.
We were walked back to the room where Brian was. That image of our son lying there on a cold gurney dead at age 18 will never leave our minds for as long as we live. His pale lifeless body lying there almost as though he were asleep, wishing he were only asleep but knowing all to well that he was dead and never coming back home with us ever again. It is the worst singular feeling we have ever experienced in our lives.
The second worst feeling was telling our other three children at home about an hour later that their older brother Brian was dead and gone forever. The pain we inflicted upon them at that moment in the middle of the night was unthinkable. There are no words to give justice to what took place. At our children’s request, we took them to the hospital to see Brian. It would be the last time that they would ever get to see him so close to being alive. It was heartbreaking to watch Kevin, Julie and Christie say goodbye to their big brother forever that night. The lasting image of him lying there dead on a gurney in the emergency department permanently seared into their minds. That life we had with Brian is over now and an unwelcome new life without Brian has taken its place.
We tell you this story because Brian could be any one of you, if you choose to drink. And we say choose, because it is your choice and nobody else’s. Once you take your first drink of alcohol, you are not making the decisions, the alcohol is. You are putting yourself and others at risk for injury or, even worse, dying like Brian.
Now you may say that Brian was stupid and not a responsible person. You would never be that dumb or make that mistake and it could never happen to you. Well, Brian used to say that too and look how it turned out for him. Let us tell you, Brian was not a stupid person. He had a 4.5 GPA, 32 ACT score, was a 4 handicap golfer, and was accepted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was his first choice in colleges. Brian always made good decisions until alcohol was involved. You see, you can’t make good decisions when you drink alcohol. No matter how much you think you can, you can’t. Brian proved that.
He is now frozen in time at the age 18 with no chance to move forward or to make a difference in the lives of others. As for you, you are very much alive and able to make your destiny what you want. This is a very defining time in your life because at this moment you are able to choose the path in life you wish to follow. At this moment, you have the chance to help change the future by taking a stand against drinking, especially drinking and driving. You are able to define who you are and to make a difference now. It is your time to be a leader that others will want to follow.
It is a privilege to be alive and to be able to make a difference in the lives of others. Brian lost that chance with a bad decision and we’re sure he wouldn’t make that same mistake twice. But for Brian, there is no second chance. No chance to redo things. As for you, you still have the chance to make a difference in your life and in the lives of others. If we could ask you to remember just one thing from this letter, it would be to have fun without drinking. Be a leader and make it cool not to drink. You can do it. We know you can.
And lastly, but most importantly, don’t Drink and Drive or ride with someone who has been drinking. If you could feel for only a brief moment the extreme anguish and pain that we as a family feel over Brian’s death every moment of every day, then you would understand what drinking can cost you and your family. Please think about it.
Think about what Brian lost, all his hopes, dreams and ultimately his life, as a result of alcohol. Please don’t make the same mistake. Stay safe and make it to graduation. Don’t put your family through what we are going through.
The Hoeflinger family
Brian would have graduated June 6, 2013 from Ottawa Hills High School in Toledo, Ohio. He would be 23 years old now. As you are going through the fun and excitement of these final days, preparing for prom, graduation ceremonies and all the parties of your friends, think of us. There are no memories of senior prom for us or pictures of his graduation that we have. During graduation, we sat in the audience, not the proud parents of a wonderful son accepting his diploma with his classmates, but the parents choking back tears of grief and regret that he was not there. We are the parents who were never able to visit their son at college or who will never meet the wife and grandchildren that could have been. We are the siblings mourning the death of the brother that we all looked up to but will never see again. For us, this is the harsh reality of teenage drinking.
The above letter is part of a book that we wrote shortly after Brian’s death. The book is titled, “The Night He Died: The Harsh Reality of Teenage Drinking.” The book is real life. Have your kids read it. Their perspective on drinking alcohol will change. I promise.
Most Importantly, Please Share this Post with all your Facebook friends in hopes that we can save at least one graduating senior and their family from an unnecessary tragedy due to alcohol this prom and graduation season. Every senior should make it to graduation day!
Parents, ALL of the Hoeflinger family’s words here are important, but these in particular are the ones I BEG you to discuss with your kids. They bear repeating:
“You would never be that dumb or make that mistake and it could never happen to you. Well, Brian used to say that too and look how it turned out for him. Let us tell you, Brian was not a stupid person. He had a 4.5 GPA, 32 ACT score, was a 4 handicap golfer, and was accepted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was his first choice in colleges. Brian always made good decisions until alcohol was involved. You see, you can’t make good decisions when you drink alcohol. No matter how much you think you can, you can’t. Brian proved that.”
Because of the nature of my job, I tell tragic stories like these much more often than I want to. And then, more often than not, I sit my teenager down and have him read the article I’ve written and then we talk about it. I preface these talks by saying, “Hey Joshua, it’s time to have an Awkward Talk With Mom!” He will groan and sigh and then we’ll talk. And not every time, but SOMETIMES he even tells me “thank you” for bringing it up. It’s not because I don’t trust him. He, like Brian, is a super smart kid. But he’s a teenager. A teenager whose brain, science says, has trouble discerning the consequences to choices like underage drinking. One bad decision to drink makes it impossible to make the NEXT decision in a smart, responsible way. It’s the FIRST decision to drink that leads to teen drunk driving. Because by then, the ability to be rational about whether or not one should get behind the wheel is GONE, when you’re an 18-year-old who feels now more than ever, invincible.
So talk to your kids. Because Brian’s parents are right. It could be your kid, or mine, just as much as it was, unimaginably, theirs.