One year after tragic loss, ‘Brian still matters’Written by Bailey G. Dick | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“We stood there for a moment in disbelief, not knowing what to feel or do. My body and my mind were painfully numb. There are no words to describe precisely what we were feeling. Our beautiful, smart, happy boy, who had brought so much love and happiness into our lives for 18 years, was dead.”
One year ago, Feb. 2, Brian and Cindy Hoeflinger faced a nightmare when their son, Brian, was killed in a drunken driving accident.
As the Hoeflingers grieved the loss of their son, they were also moved to act in the hopes that no other family would have to feel the pain they do. They have shared their journey in speaking events, as well as a book, “The Night He Died: The Harsh Reality of Teenage Drinking” (excerpts of which are included in this article).
As they face the coming year, the Hoeflingers are prepared to continue the work they have already begun.
“His face looked beautiful, with no scratches, cuts, or burns. He looked just the way he had always looked. I did not pull the sheets back, because I wanted to remember my son the way I always envisioned him and not the way the car accident left him.”
His father continues to remember the son who lived, rather than the one who lay in the hospital that night.
“Brian was such a neat person. All the ideas he had. And the enthusiasm. And the determination. Those are all good qualities for any kid to have. He’s a role model for how he lived his life,” Hoeflinger said.
Brian was 18. A senior at Ottawa Hills High School, he was an avid golfer and aspiring orthodontist who maintained a 4.5 GPA and scored a 32 on his ACT. He prayed three times a day. He was accepted to his dream school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But who Brian was far exceeded what appeared on his college applications, according to his mother, Cindy.
“He accepted others. He didn’t judge. And people saw that. He didn’t judge people because they weren’t as good at golf, or they weren’t as smart or they couldn’t score as high on a test. He had this spirituality, too. And he had a lot of love. Like any teenage kid, he kind of masked it. But it wasn’t masked for his friends,” she said.
The Hoeflingers want to be sure that the manner in which their son died does not detract from who he was in life.
“It doesn’t take it away when you talk to his friends. I told the kids that the least of what Brian stood for became a part of his legacy. It’s unfortunate for him, and it’s unfortunate for us,” Cindy said. “But I think that for everybody else, Brian’s legacy is all those important things that he was. Underneath it all, Brian was just a kid like everybody else.”
On a mission
Although the Hoeflingers have been active in initiatives to prevent teen drinking during the past year, they don’t want who Brian was to be reduced by their efforts.
“I think Brian would be proud of the difference we are trying to make. But I don’t think this whole alcohol thing is Brian’s mission,” Cindy said. “I think Brian’s impact is bigger than that, and different than that. I think Brian has affected everyone in a positive way as he lived his own life, because people choose to remember him the way he was in life.
“Now, the alcohol awareness is our mission, like it or not,” she added.
“As we walked out of the room, a state trooper stopped us to give his condolences and explained to us that Brian’s car had struck a tree at high speed. The cause was unknown. He was wearing his seatbelt, and the air bags had deployed. … ‘Could Brian have been drinking?’ he asked. We couldn’t imagine Brian drinking. No one had said anything about alcohol. ‘Brian does not — did not — drink,’ I said, and we walked away.
In the midst of tragedy, after losing their firstborn son, the Hoeflingers dove headfirst into efforts to combat underage drinking.
“One of the hardest things has been exposing ourselves and our truth. And exposing that Brian was drinking and making it be known publicly that he was drinking, and that he died as a result of his drinking. We’re not ashamed of it. Brian was a good kid and he made a mistake. But if we can get more people to admit that there’s a problem out there, I think change can happen,” Hoeflinger said.
Between the speaking engagements at schools, talking with lawmakers in Columbus and appearing on a national talk show, the Hoeflingers have already spread their message on a local, state and national level.
During the past year, the Hoeflingers have also spoken to thousands of high-schoolers at speaking engagements across the Toledo area.
Hoeflinger said they regularly receive emails and Facebook messages from students who attended the talks, as well as from their parents, saying the talk made an impact on them. Others have said they no longer plan to drink or hang out with kids who do.
The pair also had a speaking engagement with the Ohio Investigative Unit, where they told bar owners and liquor store employees what happened to their son after he was able to purchase vodka at a carryout.
Nicholas Thompson, a clerk at Foxx Liquor Store on Dorr Street, is accused of selling or furnishing intoxicating liquor to a minor in connection with Brian’s death. His trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 18.
The Hoeflingers have also met with lawmakers in Columbus in hopes of changing “social host” laws, which address hosts of parties where individuals drink underage.
“It was quite an experience to go talk to legislators in Columbus and have a chance to talk about the things we’d like to change, and talk about the things that happened with Brian and how the laws now fell through,” Hoeflinger said. “I see that as an avenue of change, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
The Hoeflingers were able to share Brian’s story on a national level when they were invited to be on “Katie,” the talk show hosted by Katie Couric.
“It was kind of a surreal experience, but something that was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was great to have the opportunity to speak to the nation about the problem of teenage drinking. It was another avenue to bring awareness on a national level,” Hoeflinger said.
As they look back on all the progress they have already made, the Hoeflingers know there are still hurdles they face.
“As you look back on it, we’ve done a lot of things. You don’t see it as you go along, but when you look back on the year, we’ve done a lot. I think there’s a lot more to come. It’s just going to take some time. First, we’ve got to get the problem out in the open and into the light, and that’s what we’re trying to do. And from there, we can try to change it,” Hoeflinger said.
“I know I wouldn’t feel better if we were sitting around doing nothing. But I can’t say that it makes me feel good either. Because every time I feel a little bit good, that nausea comes when I’m reminded of why I’m doing what I’m doing. And I’d give anything to have it back the way it was,” she said.
“When we arrived back home, I gathered the kids in the kitchen. I felt inhumane for the pain I was about to inflict upon them. I will never forget their reactions when I told them that Brian was dead. … They were all hurting so badly. The short time watching their reactions to Brian’s death seemed like an eternity. I didn’t know how to protect them from the pain they were experiencing.”
While the Hoeflingers have spent the past year as crusaders against underage drinking, they are first and foremost a family grieving the loss of their child.
“We’re just like everybody else. We’re just like any other parent. We have the same feelings and mourn the same loss that every parent would,” Hoeflinger said.
Hoeflinger said that Brian’s absence in the family is tangible.
“When we go on vacation, there’s always one missing.
“When I watch the kids anywhere, there should be four and there’s only three. There’s a part of us that is missing that can’t be replaced.
“So in that respect, our family will never be the same. There’s no way to ever replace that,” Hoeflinger said.
Cindy said memories of Brian come from unexpected places.
“I like Orbit Sweetmint gum. And guess who turned me on to it? Brian chewed it all the time. One day, I just started chewing it, and you just realize how much of an influence they have on your life. They were so interwoven in your life,” she said.
The couple is also focused on being very present to their children, Kevin, Julie and Christie.
“They feel that a lot of times, things are always about Brian, even though he’s dead, and that a lot of the focus is lost on them. As much as we try to go to all of their basketball games and activities, we do put a lot of time into this effort we’ve been making. And they’ve noticed it. We try to reassure them that we obviously love them, and understand that Brian is dead,” Hoeflinger said.
“I don’t think for our family, on a personal level, a lot of positives have come out of this. This was my oldest son. All of our efforts through the year have been wonderful and to the benefit of others, [but] there’s nothing that can replace his loss,” he added.
“To honor Brian, I needed to make something positive come from this tragedy. But more than this, there was a special kind of energy that had been associated with Brian’s death, an outpouring of love beyond what anyone could have anticipated. … Brian’s death brought together people across many communities and different age groups to share in a common sense of loss, as well as a sense of life — all-important life that binds us together as human beings.”
Hoeflinger awoke suddenly one night with a vision of a book about his son’s life mapped out in his head.
He wrote for a month or so, often in the middle of the night, about his son’s life, death and the journey that tragedy had forced his family to embark upon.
“It just came out of me,” Hoeflinger said. “I didn’t do it to try to heal myself. Maybe I got out feelings. But I think only time is healing.”
The book, “The Night He Died: The Harsh Reality of Teenage Drinking,” has already sold more than 800 copies. It is available in print and Kindle versions on the Brian Matters website, www.brianmatters.com.
Hoeflinger said he hopes the book will leave a profound impact on teens who are drinking, or may be tempted to drink, as well as parents who are hesitant to talk to their kids about the dangers of drinking.
“You hear about someone dying on TV, and it’s sad, but your life goes on. You don’t really want to give it a second thought. But when it happens to you, it stops your life and then you change. So the book was really to try to give them an insight into what a tragedy like this really does to a person and to our family, and how it’s changed us,” Hoeflinger said.
The book includes the story of the night Brian died, as well as excerpts from Hoeflinger’s journals, information on state laws and underage drinking statistics, and essays written by Brian.
“I think my book will save more lives than I could ever save as a neurosurgeon. That’s what it’s all about. I couldn’t save Brian’s life. But I think this book about teenage drinking will save lives. That’s really what the book is about,” Hoeflinger said.
The Hoeflingers are now hoping to bring Brian’s story to an even bigger audience with an event they are planning for area high school students.
The Brian Matters Challenge Run: The Race for Change will be held May 3. The Hoeflingers have sent letters about the run to 175 high schools to invite them to participate in the 5K-run/walk. A portion of the proceeds from the race will go back to the schools that have the highest percentage of student turnout at the race. The schools can use the award money for any healthy, alcohol and drug free activity.
In addition to the race, the event will also include an essay contest, where students are challenged to write about how they would prevent teens from using drugs and drinking.
The Hoeflingers are anticipating a big turnout for the event.
“I think this race can someday be as big as Race for the Cure,” Hoeflinger said.
Hope for change
The Brian N. Hoeflinger Fund has raised $120,000 in the past year. The Hoeflingers have donated $10,000 to Kids Unlimited, an organization that works with children in underprivileged communities.
“As I reflect back on what I have written so far, it makes me realize what a beautiful life Brian had and what a wonderful life we had with Brian in it. With him gone, our lives will never be the same. There will always be an emptiness where there used to be joy and happiness. Please keep this in mind as you read on, and never lose sight of how much you are loved by the people who surround you.”
As the wounds left by Brian’s death slowly heal, the Hoeflingers say they will continue to channel their loss into creating change.
“As time has gone on, it’s dulled the pain. It’s not as fresh and raw as it used to be. It’s always there, but it’s not as raw as it used to be,” Hoeflinger said. “Things just keep getting set in front of us, and we don’t know where this path is taking us. But we feel like we need to follow it.”
The family said they’ve seen hope for change in the midst of their own pain.
“In my mind, I’ve talked to enough kids now that I believe things are going to change. And that with time and persistence that this culture of teenage drinking will change. We’ve seen glimpses of that,” Hoeflinger said. “We’ve seen enough change in the past year that I think it’s worth it to continue this into the future as much as we can.”
Before he died, Brian wrote a paper for school that reflected what he had learned so far in his life called “Message in a Bottle.”
Judging by what Brian wrote, he would be proud of his parents.
In the last line of the essay, Brian wrote, “Even the smallest of accomplishments is greatly appreciated in the eyes of a positive person because it is another step in the right direction.”
To purchase “The Night He Died: The Harsh Reality of Teenage Drinking,” visit the website www.brianmatters.com.
Tags: Brian and Cindy Hoeflinger, Brian Hoeflinger, Columbus, drunken driving accident, Foxx Liquor Store, Katie Couric, Kids Unlimited, Nicholas Thompson, Ohio Investigative Unit, Ottawa Hills High School, The Brian Matters Challenge Run: The Race for Change, The Night He Died: The Harsh Reality of Teenage Drinking, underage drinking, vodka