Belfast Telegraph

In wake of Dean's death, mums of William Westbury and Jamie Burns tell of their devastation and heartache

Why we wanted to send our love to Dean's heartbroken parents... we know only too well what it's like to lose a beloved son

Two mothers responded to our deeply moving interview with Rodney and Karen McIlwaine by telling Stephanie Bell how they are trying to cope with the devastation of losing their boys.

In a huge outpouring of love, thousands of Belfast Telegraph readers have penned poignant messages of support for the heartbroken parents of Dean McIlwaine after they spoke of their heartache at losing their son.

Among the many who expressed words of encouragement and sympathy for the couple after their moving interview in Monday's Belfast Telegraph were parents who had also lost a child.

Thousands of you responded to Karen and Rodney's moving story when they said they didn't know how they were going to carry on without their beloved boy.

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Dean McIlwaine with his girlfriend Demi-jo McMahon

Dean (22) had disappeared on July 13 and after extensive searches by hundreds of people in his local community in Newtownabbey, his body was found last Saturday during a planned search of Cave Hill.

At his funeral on Thursday attended by hundreds of people, Rev John Dickinson said Dean appeared to have everything going for him, "which makes what brings us here today all the more tragic". He added: "His parents and friends know so little about the last hours of his life and will probably never know exactly what happened, and we are not here today to speculate on that."

Among those offering words of comfort to Dean's distraught parents on our website and social media pages was Co Tyrone mum Andrena Westbury, who lost her 29-year-old son William to suicide four years ago.

There was also Belfast mum Lesley Burns, whose 23-year-old son Jamie died last November from a heart attack after taking just one illegal pill on a night out with friends.

Both empathised with the McIlwaines and had sincere words of advice and encouragement as they face the tough days, weeks, months and years ahead without Dean. We asked them to tell how they coped in the aftermath of such tragic loss and what advice they could offer to Dean's family. These are their stories.

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William with wife Nicola and their two children, Erin and Jamie-Lee
 

‘Although the pain’s tremendous, remember that he loved you all’

Andrena Westbury (50) from Donemana in Co Tyrone is mum to Natalie (27), Mattea (16) and Benjamin (14) and is a grandmother to son William's two children. He took his own life four years ago.

Last night Andrena urged the McIlwaines to never forget that Dean loved them and to try and "smile every day for him".

Sharing her own heartache, her thoughts were for Dean's family, whose pain she says she can understand.

"My heart goes out to them. They are going to feel so lonely and feel that nobody understands what they are going through, but we do," she says.

"It is devastating and for a long time it feels surreal.

"Even four years on it still feels that way for me.

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William Westbury with niece Olivia Gardiner at a family christening

"They will want to be alone and yet be comforted by people around them and I know the road ahead will be tough for them."

She had no idea her own son had any thoughts about taking his own life, and his death on December 10, 2012 stunned and devastated his whole family, who have struggled to carry on without him.

Keeping strong for her children and grandchildren has, Andrena says, helped her cope.

William bred and raced greyhounds for a living. He was also well-known for his love of Garth Brooks and was a regular singer of the US country star's songs in the local pubs.

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A treasured family picture of William

Andrena, a holistic therapist, says: "He had a young family and to us he seemed so happy.

"Everybody loved William and everybody loved to hear him sing. He was always laughing and was the heart and soul of the party.

"There is an ad on TV at the moment which shows young men all laughing together and then one leaves and when he is on his own you see a sad face. To me that must have been William, and we didn't know.

"No one can explain how it feels. When I got the call from my sister I just froze and then started screaming. I was thinking was it a dream, it didn't seem real and sometimes it still doesn't.

"I visit his grave and it's like he is not really there."

Andrena says she has got great comfort from a memory book which her daughter surprised her with as a Christmas gift.

She says she has given up asking why, and instead has found strength in knowing that she will meet her son again.

She says: "You can torture yourself asking why and what if and what could I have done? It doesn't help. I know when I pass and meet my son he will tell me what he needs to tell me.

"I don't look for answers anymore as that just stops you from living.

"You do need to be on your own to remember what you need to remember. Other people will have their own memories."

She adds: "When I am distraught I have just to look at the memory book my daughter gave me and it is full of all the good memories and I cry over it, and I laugh too.

"My heart goes out to Dean's family and I hope they find strength in the coming days. My advice would be that although the pain will be tremendous, please remember that he loved you all.

"Smile every day for him and remember all the good he brought to everyone's lives."

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William and Lesley Burns hold the ashes of their son Jamie, who died aged just 23

‘Let the people around you comfort you’

Lesley Burns (49) and husband Billy (50), and their two daughters Gemma (26) and Courtney (19), from the Shore Road in Belfast are still in a state of shock at son Jamie's loss just nine months ago. Lesley says she cries every day for the young man, who died while enjoying a Saturday night out with friends in November.

The family has drawn some strength from a huge campaign launched by Billy in the days after his son's loss - #1pillwillkill.

The cross-community campaign untied politicians from all sides when it was launched in the weeks after Jamie's death. Since then Billy and - when she is strong enough - Lesley have spoken to youth groups, in schools and community centres trying to get the message out and prevent other young lives from being wasted.

Their youngest daughter Courtney has also spoken in assembly at her school, Belfast Royal Academy, where she has just done her A-levels.

As a family they believe Jamie wasn't into drugs, and that night when he took what is believed to have been an ecstasy tablet was a one-off.

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Jamie, who died aged just 23

Billy delivers a hard-hitting message to young people across the communities, carrying with him his son's ashes to hammer home to his audiences that death is a reality if they dabble with drugs.

Saving other young lives has become a crusade, but behind the public face is a family broken with grief.

Speaking for the first time about her son's death, Lesley's thoughts were with Dean McIlwaine's parents.

She says: "I can't express how sorry I am for them. I know exactly how it will be for them and it doesn't matter how they die, it still leaves the same hole in your heart.

"Dean seemed a popular wee guy like our Jamie was. They will be in shock. I think I am only now starting to come out of the shock.

"I still cry every single day and there are days when I can't leave the house and you don't even want to get up out of bed, but I would advise them to try and get up and get washed and try to carry on."

Lesley will never forget the rap on her door at 3.30am on the night her son died.

Police woke the couple and told them there had been an accident and they needed to get to hospital as soon as possible.

Within an hour of that call their son had passed away despite the best efforts of medical staff at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital to save him.

Lesley recalls: "You don't think it will ever come to your door. When we got to the hospital they let us in to see him for a minute and it was horrifying.

"There was blood everywhere from where they were trying to get at his veins. I hugged him and my last words to him were: 'I love you son, please don't leave me'.

"Not long after that the consultant came in and told us he had gone. I couldn't take it in. It was horrendous. It doesn't feel real, you just can't believe it.

"Jamie didn't take drugs. We believe that night was a one-off and all it took was once. His daddy came home, and doesn't know why, but he just started to write down all his emotions and that's where the campaign started."

Lesley says the family got through the next difficult days with the support of their local community on the Shore Road.

People lit candles outside the family home and gathered for a vigil, and throughout the week, as they waited for the post-mortem results, a constant stream of callers kept the family going.

Afterwards, and in the long months ever since, Lesley says it is the everyday things she misses so much - hearing Jamie's music as he washed his hair every night after work, the shouts of him and his dad watching football on the TV every Sunday afternoon and playing his Xbox in the evenings.

She says: "My house never stopped after Jamie died, it was like a pilgrimage. People were amazing.

"My husband is self-employed as a taxi driver, although he hasn't been able to work since.

"People knew he wasn't earning and they came with gifts and cards with money in them and paid for the funeral.

"Jamie knew so many people. He was shy as a child and even though he still had that timid side to his personality, when he grew up he was a real joker and was always very funny.

"He used to coach the young ones at Crusaders with his daddy and they have put up a memorial cup for him.

"He was a typical 23-year-old who liked a beer and the women and loved to go to Benedict's on a Saturday night.

"You don't live after it, you just exist. Nothing will ever be the same again.

"The campaign is something which I know Jamie would have been proud of. Billy has taken it to the schools and when he is speaking to the children he takes it right back to the wood and it is brutal, as he shows them Jamie's ashes.

"As well as the young people, we want to educate parents and grandparents. We didn't have a clue. We want to stop it happening to other families. You hear about these things on TV and you think it will never come to your doorstep, but it came to ours."

Thinking of Karen and Rodney McIlwaine as they face the future without Dean who was buried on Thursday, she said: "You can only take it one day at a time, even one hour at a time. Try and get yourself up and washed so as not to fall into depression.

"Let the people around you comfort you. It is going to be a long road ahead and nobody can tell you how you will feel, as everyone grieves differently.

"It is nine-and-a-half months since we lost Jamie and I still cry every day. It doesn't go away, your family life changes forever and we are broken."

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