Belfast Telegraph

Brave Belfast father vows to battle on with hard-hitting drug campaign a year after son's death

By Allan Preston

One year after north Belfast man Jamie Burns died of a drug overdose, his father has vowed to continue a hard-hitting campaign to save others.

On Monday at 5pm, a special service will be held at St Anne's Cathedral to mark the anniversary of Jamie's death.

His parents are also encouraging others who have lost loved ones through drugs, mental illness and suicide to attend.

Speaking yesterday, William Burns said he and his wife Lesley still struggle to sleep after losing their son and that daily reminders such as hearing his favourite song can be overwhelming.

The 23-year-old was out with friends in Belfast on November 20 last year when he took an ecstasy pill. His funeral was held four days later.

A post-mortem revealed he had an undiagnosed heart problem, which made him especially vulnerable to the toxic effects.

Determined not to shy away from the devastation his family has endured, Mr Burns delivered a powerful speech earlier this year during which he showed a sample of his son's ashes to the crowd.

"Although I had his ashes in my pocket, it wasn't until the last few seconds of the speech that I actually decided to do it," he said.

"It was as if he was telling me to be that blunt. The effects of drugs aren't nice, there's no sense sugar-coating anything."

"I've been out to about 10 or 12 houses, parents have asked me to come and speak to their son and daughter.

"I tell them exactly what it's like for the parents, or their sisters and brothers."

He added: "The Monday service is for Jamie, but I know from personal experience we have a lot of families in this country that have lost sons and daughters in the same circumstances.

"It's for them too."

Fr Gary Donegan, who served at Holy Cross Church in Ardoyne for 15 years, is conducting Monday's service alongside Rev Canon Mark Niblock from St Anne's Cathedral. "The thing that strikes me about William is his courage as a father," he said.

"I've been at the scenes of many tragic things that no-one should ever see, but when William held the remains of his son at the launch of the campaign I was aghast."

"Firstly because of the bluntness, but also the courage.

"Some people try to anaesthetise pain, but we can only begin to live the reality of loss if we face it."

He continued: "If there's any comfort, it's that there are probably people still walking around today who are only alive because of the one pill campaign, and there are families not going through this devastation and heartache.

"All of us make mistakes in life, but we have second chances. The tragedy with drug deaths is people don't get that second chance."

A large banner at the top of the Ardoyne Road with Jamie's picture and the message of the 'one pill will kill' campaign he inspired is now seen by thousands every day.

The group is hoping to unveil similar murals at other interface areas in the city and Monday's service will mark the start of a new six-week campaign.

Mr Burns has said the key warning to young people is centred on the pain caused to those left behind.

"I'm convinced that a year ago if there was someone like me in the public eye preaching about this, I know for a fact Jamie would be alive," he said.

"A story I tell is that one night I couldn't sleep and came downstairs at 3am; all I could hear was Jamie's mum upstairs crying her heart out, still."

"Even now there are certain songs which will make me cry. Half the World Away by Oasis was our song. Jamie loved Oasis and if that song ever came on we always sang it at the top of our voices. It's a very emotional song; when I heard it played during a rehearsal in St Anne's earlier I burst out crying."

He continued: "When I talk about that, you can see the kids start to understand.

"It's brutal, but it's the truth about what happens. That's why I talk about seeing Jamie in accident and emergency, identifying his body in the morgue and what happens afterwards.

"I don't want to give children nightmares, but I want them to understand. One parent told me there will always be kids who take drugs and won't listen and I can't help them. But the ones who stay to listen, those are the ones you have to reach."

Volunteer Tina Patrick said the response to the campaign had been heartening, with the message also resonating in areas like Bushmills, Ballymena and Lurgan.

"For me the service is open to all who have lost loved ones to drugs, mental health and suicide," she said.

Belfast Telegraph

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