I Never Imagined My Baby's Death Would Make Me The Target Of Anti-Vaxxers
“Shut up and grieve like a normal person.”
"Stop being an attention whore. Vaccines kill babies.”
"The blood of babies will be on your hands.”
I quickly slipped my phone back into my bag, trying to forget the cruel words. Anti-vaccine activists had been targeting my family all week, but I had bigger things to worry about. I smoothed out my black dress and slowly climbed out of the car into the warm sunshine, surrounded by family and friends.
It was time for my child’s funeral to begin.
As I sat during the funeral, my hand tightly gripping my husband’s hand, I thought back to the worst day of my life.
I had walked over to my baby son’s hospital bed, where he lay so still and tiny. The wires were gone now, the beeping had stopped, and he looked so peaceful. I took a big, shaky breath, trying to control myself so I could say goodbye properly. I bent down and stroked his pudgy cheek, now cold, and gave him a final gentle kiss on the forehead. I told him again how much I loved him, how sorry I was that this had happened, my voice breaking as the tears started falling again. I took a step back as my husband did the same, whispering and cuddling and crying.
And then, as the nurse had lovingly picked up his tiny bloated body and gave it a cuddle, we walked out. Our arms loaded with baby clothes and blankets and brochures about funeral planning, we headed to the car, the car with an empty baby seat, the car that was covered in parking tickets because we were too scared to leave our child for just a moment while he was fighting for his life.
He really did fight. “Riley” means “courageous”, and Riley was courageous. No child should have to suffer like he did -- the tubes, the wires, the needles, the blood tests, the intubation, the machines. It was all just too much for him. And now he was gone, killed by whooping cough just a few weeks before he could have had his first vaccine against it, and it was our turn to be courageous.
The first night without him, I passed out into a sleep with no dreams, just blackness. As I slowly woke in the morning, I was tempted to sink back into the blackness. It was the only relief from the grief I felt, and I wondered if I could sleep forever.
My sleep was interrupted as the news of Riley’s death had begun to spread. We had journalists knocking at our front door, wanting to know how it felt to lose a child to whooping cough before they were old enough to be vaccinated. Our hearts were broken but we wanted to share Riley with world. We wanted to feel that his life and death mattered, and we wanted other families to know that whooping cough can be deadly. And so, with red eyes and broken hearts, we spoke. We shared. We advocated. For Riley, and for the tens of thousands of other children who die from whooping cough globally each year. We truly believe that all children have a right to be kept safe from deadly preventable diseases.
Last week, Riley would have turned four. The week before, he would have started kindy. So many missed milestones, all because he contracted a disease that is sadly still prevalent in Australia.
Doctors have said that if he caught it a few weeks later, after he’d had just one round of vaccines, it probably would have been enough to save his life. And it was just two days after his death that our state health department announced the introduction of pregnancy vaccination to protect newborn babies like Riley from this disease. We were heartened by the progressive changes yet plagued by the realisation that it was all too late for Riley.
To this day, we continue to advocate for immunisation. And to this day, we still receive abuse and hatred from the anti-vaccination movement.
We’ve been told our child was a doll and that we are actors employed by “Big Pharma”. We’ve been told that our son never existed, or that Riley’s death was orchestrated by the health department in order to promote immunisation. We were even accused of murdering our child and blaming it on whooping cough to get away with it.
The conspiracies, the vitriol and the anti-vaccine lies mean little to us. Strangely enough, losing a child has strengthened us in a way. We have become tougher, more resilient and more thick-skinned. We will continue to share Riley’s story, and continue to advocate for immunisation, because we truly believe it’s important for the community to stand up against the anti-vaccine nonsense that often dominates the social media conversation.
Clearly, Riley’s death is an uncomfortable truth for anti-vax activists. They are so unsettled at the thought that a baby can die from a disease they refuse to vaccinate their own children against, that they resort to these ludicrous conspiracy theories just to make themselves feel better. What’s more, their moral compass is so askew that they have no problem abusing our family -- and others like us -- who have lost a child to a vaccine-preventable disease.
And when activists have to resort to these tactics to get their anti-vaccine message across, it becomes very obvious -- the anti-vaccine movement has no credibility whatsoever.
Inventing conspiracies and lying about a child’s death does nothing to further their movement, it simply demonstrates their struggle to grasp basic reality.
These days, I don’t let myself get upset when I talk about Riley’s death. It’s become matter-of-fact to me now, something I have talked about and repeated so many times it almost feels like someone else’s story.
But when I think back to Riley’s life -- the early morning cuddles, the big blue eyes peering up at me, the soft little hands that clasped at my fingers, the toy rabbit his sister chose for him -- that’s what really gets to me.
The tears start to come, and I am reminded that beneath all of our immunisation advocacy and activism simply lies two parents who desperately wish that their son had never died.