In these days of fear and sudden life changes, I’m transported back to 2005.
My 17-year-old son Chris suddenly died from meningococcal disease. My world turned upside down. Chris had been a healthy, happy, athletic kid. I struggled to grasp how he could be gone so suddenly.
On Feb. 15, 2005, Chris kicked the winning goal for Sabino High School in the Arizona State Soccer Championship. Two weeks later, on March 1, Chris complained of a headache.
He went to soccer practice but was sent home early after becoming noticeably more ill. I thought he had the flu.
The next morning, his dad found him lying on his bed. Chris’ last words were, “Dad, I can’t feel my feet.” He was rushed to the hospital and two hours later, when the lab tests showed meningococcal meningitis, the room emptied of all unnecessary personnel. Those remaining struggled futilely to revive Chris and we made the terrible decision to tell our son goodbye and let him go.
As I see the headlines each day, my heart breaks for the families who, too, are now experiencing sudden loss. Of course, the circumstances are different.
We lost Chris to a vaccine-preventable disease at a time when the CDC didn’t yet recommend the meningitis vaccine at age 11-12 (and again at 16).
Currently, a vaccine for COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, there’s an indescribable pain in losing a child – or a parent, sibling, or friend – to something you could never have seen coming.
Those first few weeks, months and even years were excruciating. I had to find new ways to make living not just possible — but joyful. I needed to add new memories for holidays and special times.
I had to live my “new normal” life. It was important to find things to look forward to, instead of constantly reliving the past. As time went on, the dark cloud of grief gradually began to lift.
The most important thing I learned was to let other people help me, and in so doing, I was helping them too. I attended a grief group and became friends with other moms who’d lost their kids. We shared books, meals, and tears — and laughs later on. I wrote letters to Chris in a journal and listed things for which I was grateful.
I got involved in vaccine advocacy, too, because working to prevent other families from experiencing what I did made me feel like I could give meaning to Chris’ death. When Arizona became the first state to mandate the meningitis vaccine at age 11-12, I thought of that as Chris’ law.
Grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience, and everyone’s timetable is different. Give yourself permission to feel devastated, hopeless, exhausted. Also, don’t feel guilty if you can smile. This is one of the hardest things to go through. It’s ongoing but you can survive. Even now, grief hits me suddenly – but the sadness doesn’t last as long.
Once you’re ready, I encourage you to reach out to others who’ve experienced similar loss during this time. Tragically, there is a large community suffering through a shared pain. Support from others who deeply understood my pain was an indescribable blessing to me in my darkest days.
After Chris died, I found this quote in his desk “Yesterday is the past. Tomorrow is the future. But today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” He lived his life that way and I try to do the same.
Leslie Maier is the president of the National Meningitis Association. NMA was founded by families impacted by meningitis and works to educate others about meningitis and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Learn more at nmaus.org
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