by Jenny Derr
The effects of substance use disorder are so widespread, it truly is like throwing a brick in a pond – the ripples seemingly keep coming, a new one appearing as another moves out. That’s how the loss of Billy feels.
I often think of those beyond our immediate family who loved him and who are also impacted like the many ripples of this loss.
When it was confirmed that Billy died as a result of an overdose, it was so important to me that I tell the ones to whom he was closest. This was not an easy feat in today’s world of social media and instant news updates. I was very direct and asked that nothing be posted until we were able to reach those who loved him.
Victoria, his girlfriend, had just left for Italy with her family, where her niece was being christened. I didn’t know how to reach her, so I e-mailed her mom. I called Laila, his former girlfriend, who had just started a new job in Manhattan. I felt absolutely awful having to share this sad news. Jordan called Tucker, one of our dear neighbors, with whom all my kids are close. He was at our house within ten minutes.
I made sure someone called Tara. She was Billy’s girlfriend in high school and had been a big part of our family – still is. Of course making the calls to my family was just hell. I remembered thinking I would wait until morning to call them.
I think I called my sister at 5:30 in the morning. She was at the gym working out and said she knew as soon as she saw the call pop up. She called her boys, Billy’s cousins and best friends. And I called my parents – I think I called my parents? I have a big family, so we will typically call one or two and then they will call the others. Another way the ripple spreads. I called my brother-in-law, Mike, so he could tell my sister Jill directly; I didn’t want her to hear it over the phone.
Those first days are a blur; I don’t even remember how I let Billy’s friends in Boston know. I remember speaking to Evan, who was one of the first friends Billy made when he moved to Boston. Evan is the one who called me when Billy first relapsed in October 2015. Here was a kid, the same age as Billy, who had suffered so much loss himself.
In their circle of recovery, they referred to these serial losses as being akin to stepping over bodies. Can you even imagine? They had lost so many friends, and sadly so many are still dying. We had to ask Evan to identify Billy’s body. How? How did he do this and how did we ask? I am still haunted by this. It is a task no one should have to do, and here we had this young man go to the morgue and confirm what we already all knew. But we had to “check the box” for the official process of death.
The word started spreading, and the messages, calls, and texts began to pour in. In those early days, I would wake up and have a few seconds where my new reality hadn’t entered my mind yet, and then BOOM! It’s like getting punched. The tears would just stream down my cheeks.
I would wake early – often when no one else was up yet – and read through the many texts, Facebook posts and messages, and cards that had started to come in the mail. Those words of kindness and grace were so important. It was so meaningful to me to know the many ways Billy had loved and touched others. I heard from so many people I didn’t know, but I read and re-read each one and was comforted by those words. I had songs sent to me, which were so touching. Music is so closely connected to my heart and the songs were such a beautiful gesture.
We held Billy’s celebration of life at Hope Church in Richmond, VA. We thought we would have 300 people attend the service. One of the best pieces of advice we received during this time was to take our time planning the service, to give it the same intentional thought you would a wedding. We were lucky in a sense, as it took some time to bring Billy back home to Richmond from Boston. (That is a surreal and bizarre thing to write.) That time allowed those having to travel to make the trip.
Six of Billy’s Boston friends came – one flew in from California and one came off the road where he was campaigning for Bernie Sanders. Our neighbors, who don’t have kids of their own, opened their home so the guys had a place to sleep and could spend time at our house.
I absolutely LOVED having all the young people in our house. Jordan and Harrison did too. It helped make a hellish time a little less so. There ended up being over 700 people in attendance at Billy’s service. There were probably some who I’m still not even aware were there. Many of Billy’s childhood friends came, too – some who also travelled from many states and whose presence meant so very much to our family. I met friends I hadn’t met before, with whom I have stayed connected and for whom I am so grateful because they were connected to Billy…. And the ripples continue.
Victoria sang Amazing Grace. Billy loved her voice and would always secretly record her singing and then send me the videos. His cousins, Matthew and Mackenzie, spoke so beautifully of Billy. They captured the truest essence of who he was. His sister, Jordan, also spoke, and honored Billy so well. And I spoke. Never in a million years would I have imagined being able to do that. But I did.
Billy’s birthday is February 10. He would be 26. It is still so hard to believe he is gone. I miss him every day and will continue to advocate for those who are affected by the ripples of substance use disorder. I hope that people will remember him and maybe perform a random act of kindness. I think Billy would really appreciate that.