When drug abuse takes someone’s life, the cause of death rarely is mentioned in the obituary.
But Clay Shephard’s family put aside the grief and desire for privacy many feel after losing a loved one to drugs and turned his obituary into a wake-up call for other families.
“Our charismatic and beautiful son and brother died Sunday morning from a drug overdose,” is the unexpected first line of the obituary for the 22-year-old from Apex. It appears under a picture of a smiling young man in a plaid shirt.
The 465-word obituary, published May 20 in The News & Observer, three days after Shephard’s death, goes on to describe his struggles with addiction and his family’s efforts to help him.
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It offers advice to children who are struggling to seek help – and to parents to pay attention to their children’s hidden battles.
The Shephard family’s decision to address their son’s substance abuse problems in such a public way has garnered national attention.
More than 5,500 people from all over the country have signed a guest book for Shephard on the funeral home’s website, not just to offer condolences but to thank the family for shining light on a sensitive issue.
Many have been drawn to the straightforward way the Shephards addressed the complexities of addiction, love and loss – and their willingness to humanize an issue that, although not uncommon, often remains taboo.
“While we always felt we had some grip on Clay’s issues, his ability to hide and disguise his addiction proved superior to our parental (and sibling) sixth sense,” the family writes.
Dan Shephard, Clay’s father, said a week after the obituary was published that he wasn’t ready to speak at length about his son’s life, death and now his legacy.
But for all the pain of losing a son, he said, the family has been moved by the overwhelming and mostly positive reactions from thousands of strangers.
“We’re a pretty private family,” Dan Shephard said. “We never even thought of the Internet when we wrote it, to be honest. We just wanted to touch one family, save them from this.”
“Outwardly, Clay looked like he had it all,” his family wrote.
Clay Shephard was born Nov. 25, 1992, the youngest of four children raised in Apex. He graduated from Holly Springs High School and attended N.C. State University.
His family said he was smart, confident, athletic, witty and could have done anything he wanted in life.
But beneath Shephard’s broad smile and blue eyes was a sensitive man whose life changed when “drugs began to creep into (his) life while he was in high school.”
Clay went to rehab – successfully – several times, his family wrote, and forged a strong bond with his dad. But on May 17, his family wrote, “The craving that comes from true addiction was more than he could overcome.”
Friends, strangers react
The initial messages in the guest book were from friends and family. Some posted pictures or recalled memories of a boy who always seemed upbeat.
“Clay recently came into the restaurant I work at, and I hadn’t seen him probably since high school, and he was still as nice and as funny as I could remember,” wrote Thayer Corriveau of Holly Springs.
As the obituary spread on social media, dozens started sharing their own stories of losing children to addiction, or of their own personal struggles.
“This caught my eye because I have been addicted to drugs since I was 15, and this has really touched my heart to change my life,” wrote one person.
After reading Shephard’s obituary, Paul and Lorelei Milan of Raleigh had their own college-aged children read the obituary before holding a family discussion on drugs.
“Maybe they were less moved by it as teenagers than we were as parents, but at least we had that conversation,” Lorelei Milan said.
The Milans, who don’t know the Shephards, taped a copy of the obituary to the refrigerator of the vacation home they shared with friends over Memorial Day, hoping to spread the message.
The couple also wrote a letter to the editor in The News & Observer about the obituary. They intended to catch the attention of people who may not read the obituaries, Lorelei Milan said.
“I can’t imagine burying a child and then baring your heart to the world like that,” she said.
Alisa Wright Colopy, a fitness instructor and running coach in Cary, wrote in the guest book. She doesn’t know the family, either, but said she was touched, as a mother and as a former therapist who helped substance abuse patients.
Wright Colopy is an avid reader of obituaries, which she says is her way of paying respect to the deceased. She said obituaries almost always use euphemisms to address overdoses.
That’s because many people don’t understand addiction as a disease, she said, and view it with shame.
“So when his family came out with no shame in this, it was really atypical,” Colopy said. “And for families dealing with this, it can really lend a hand. I think this has potential to have healing power.”
“This note isn’t an attempt to assign blame for Clay’s death,” his family wrote. “It’s not to vent our anger and frustration at a world where drugs can be ordered and delivered through the Internet. We write this obituary in hope that it may provide an insight to those that need to change their behavior one night at a time.”
A growing problem
While his family’s honesty is unusual, Clay Shephard’s struggle wasn’t.
Drug overdoses killed 46,000 people in the United States in 2013. Among illnesses, only cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and a handful of other afflictions killed more.
Addiction hasn’t spared Apex, a bedroom community of 40,000 people, where crime rates are low. Eric Darden, a 23-year-old from Apex, died in February of a heroin overdose. Apex police charged William Mayhew, another young man from Apex, with murder, alleging he sold the drug to Darden.
The family didn’t disclose the specifics of Shephard’s drug addiction.
Through Shephard’s struggles with addiction, he had an occasional brush with the law related to substance use, although records indicate he was never convicted.
Tedi Newman, an Apex therapist who owns Peak City Counseling, said she is impressed the Shephard family is using their tragedy to get people talking about a deadly issue.
“It takes an awful situation and turns it around,” Newman said. “Not that it could ever erase this loss, but maybe it could help another family.”
Dan Shephard said that’s exactly what they wanted to do, along with making sure people know how much they loved their son, brother and friend.
“Despite these troubles, we can smile knowing that the last communication we had with Clay was a text and answer between mother and son to say, ‘I love you,’” they wrote. “Just as it should be.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran