A dad writes to his former self: “You had it all and you didn’t even realise it.”

On March 17, 2015, Greg and Catherine Hughes‘ son Riley died just one and a half days after being admitted to intensive care with whooping cough.

The Western Australian boy had only entered the world 32 days earlier, but he did so into a family that would turn his short life and their immense pain into a mission to promote vaccination via Light for Riley and Immunisation Foundation Australia.

Here Greg shares what he’s learned from Riley, from grief and from finding a path through it all.

An open letter to the me of March 18, 2015.


I’m sorry, truly I am. It’s shallow, hollow, meaningless and empty for me to say this to you right now. I know this because I’m you and you’re a wreck at this very moment.

Just a week ago you were still you – the old you. The you who was carefree, who saw no danger in the world and who truly lived the perfect and serene life. Married, middle class, pigeon pair and embarking on your journey without a concern. You had it all and you didn’t even realise it.

How quickly things change.

Image: Supplied.

On paper it was ‘only’ your son that passed away. The reality of it is far crueller. The old you died the day his heart stopped beating and the entire foundation of your existence has been destroyed. You’ve got an enormous uphill battle on your hands that I’d equate to something like trying to scale Everest using only your pinky finger as leverage.

In the weeks that come, certain people and institutions that you hold dear will fail you. Possessions you once cherished will become meaningless, locations you once frequented will become heartbreakingly painful memories and you’ll experience the emotional equivalent of being stranded on a desert island.

You’ll be tested in ways you never imagined possible. You’ll have people empathise with your situation by comparing it to the beloved family pet they had put down, you’ll have others tell you that ‘you can always have another one’ and I can assure you that there’s going to be more than one occasion where you need to walk away for the safety of the person who is completely and utterly disrespectful towards the memory of your child.


I’m not going to lie to you - this next three months you’ll experience will be the hardest of your life. Certain days will seem to drag on for almost an eternity. Seconds like hours, minutes like days and hours like lifetimes.

Your wife will feel like a stranger (through no fault of her own), your daughter’s anguish as the crippling reality of life without a sibling hits will utterly crush you and you’ll reach a low point you never imagined possible.

This is the horrible reality of grief - everyone handles it in their own way.

You’re probably reading this and wondering ‘What’s the point in continuing? Why bother if it’s as bad as you say it is?’

Let me tell you something - it does get easier.

whooping cough vaccination
Riley. Image: Supplied.

I wish I could navigate your journey with the knowledge I have now. I know that I would never hit the absolute rock bottom depths of despair that you have in store. For that I’m sorry, it’s not easy to tell people you’re hurting when it’s so ingrained into your psyche to keep your emotions in check.

On a positive note, for every person that lets you down, there’ll be another who comes through in ways you never imagined possible.

Friends will become family, acquaintances will become brothers and the help you’ll receive from certain individuals will restore your faith in humanity. You will find something so hauntingly beautiful in the occasional moments of silence you get during those brief intervals you’re not thinking about him, that hospital and that fucking disease. Of course in your fragile state, you’ll become self aware that you weren’t thinking about him and start self-loathing but that does dissipate with time.


You’re on the first steps of a path that so many desperately unlucky families have trodden before and sadly so many families will follow after. You’re not unique, your pain isn’t isolated and while you wouldn’t know it there are so many others enduring their own personal versions of the heartache you’re suffering.

Get a counsellor. Go with your wife, she’s done nothing wrong. She’s on the same path with the same destination as you - trouble is that both of you have totally different maps written in languages you don’t understand and you can’t help each other without the assistance of a translator. That grief counsellor is your tour guide to this awful journey and right now they’re your best friend.

Those moments you want to give up?


Step up. People need you. Your family need you. Your daughter, more than just about anyone - needs you.

Don’t self medicate. There’s a time coming where you decide you want to drink away the pain. Let me tell you, the pain intensifies, the irrational thoughts start beating like jungle drums and the hangover sucks.

Communication is the medication and you need to step outside your comfort zone.

"Your family need you." Image: Facebook.

Once you get through this black smog of anguish, you’ll come through the other end seeing things so differently. People and relationships are the cornerstone of everything important.

You’ll cherish the morning cuddles with your daughters (yes, daughters, there’s a rainbow one coming and she’s reckless, amazing, angry, loveable, hilarious and unique).


Your big one will be the embodiment of compassion and will constantly astound you with her caring nature.

Your little one will astound you with the distance she can throw pieces of chicken and her remarkable aim. You cherish this.

Not only that, but you’ll eventually come to the same place as your wife and you’ll communicate better than you ever have before (although she refuses to admit when she’s wrong - some things never change).

Lastly, and I know I don’t need to tell you this - but you need to keep going for him.

32 days. Thirty two fucking days. That’s all he got from this thing we call life and he deserved so much more. He was a victim of circumstance of which he had no choosing and you need to fight tooth and nail to honour the sacrifice that beautiful, incredible, perfect little man had to make.

He is your beacon, your purpose and your motivation.

Speak freely, speak openly and speak often. You’ll find yourself in a place of peace much sooner than I ever did.


Riley’s Dad.

This post was originally published on Greg Hughes' page Dad Minus One, and has been shared here with full permission. For more from Greg, please follow him via Facebook.