Family revisits 18-year-old YouTube sensation's life, death

Nicole Villalpando

Published: Friday, Nov. 1 2013 7:00 a.m. MDT

''Reality sets in and you have this paralyzed feeling," Shawn Breedlove says. "Oh, that really did happen. Ben's not here."

By 9 a.m. the next morning people were starting to gather at the Breedloves' house. They mentioned the videos to Deanne and Shawn. The Breedloves didn't know what they were talking about. Later that morning, they sat down and watched it. Where other people saw the joy in his face, they saw the hint of sadness that was there. Yet they see this as the way Ben let them know that he was OK and they should be, too. "My son was alive," Shawn Breedlove says of watching the video. "He was telling us about his experience. He was reminding us that he's OK."

They believe there is a reason the video did not get discovered before Ben died. "Had we seen the video, we would have thought he had been depressed," Deanne says. "... We would have thought we should get him some help. I believe God kept it private so we didn't interfere."

Within 24 hours, the news media had descended on the family and Deanne and Shawn let them in. They knew others were grieving, too.

''None of us really wanted to do anything but be with each other, but we knew Ben did a great job of sending a message in the video," Shawn Breedlove says. They felt responsible to tell the story as Ben told it, he says.

People, including celebrities, began posting and tweeting messages of love for Ben. Some wrote that Ben Breedlove changed their lives. Some made videos in the same vein as Ben's.

More than 1,500 people attended Ben's funeral and 58,000 watched it through live streaming.

All the love that was shown for Ben and the family during the funeral and the days before and after "was a gift to us," Deanne Breedlove says. "People were so kind."

She remembers sitting at the funeral and being so proud of her son and of Ally, who spoke, but also so sad. "It's a very sweet thing to see people honor your child, but the service was a goodbye to a child, that was really hard."

Writing Ben's life

Almost immediately the Breedloves were approached about turning Ben's story into a book. Ally says she didn't know whom she could trust. Instead, she went back to college at Texas Christian University. She says she had unrealistic expectations of herself, and thought she could continue to make the same grades as she had. "I was stressed out," she says. "I felt like I was in a fog most of the time."

She left school and thought of writing the book as an opportunity for an internship. It took about a year to finish.

She decided she didn't want to write it from a first-person perspective because there were events she didn't witness.

''It was very therapeutic," she says. "I believe that life is a gift, and every day is a new opportunity to do something with it. That's what Ben did. Every day he woke up and lived life to the fullest."

The family wanted to stay close to what Ben would have wanted. "We got to tell the story exactly how we wanted to tell it," Deanne Breedlove says.

And while Ally was doing her research, the family got to know him even better through sharing their memories and from friends' stories.

''Everything I learned made me appreciate him more," Deanne Breedlove says.

The family attended the Westlake High School graduation that spring, and the school graduated Ben posthumously.

There are constant reminders of the loss. When his friends come home from college, it reminds Deanne that he should have been coming home, too.

The lead-up to the next Christmas was a hard time, but on the actual day, they were surrounded by family.

Ben's friends still come to visit, and sometimes they ask if they can have something from Ben's room. Eventually, the Breedloves decided to give Jake that bigger room; after all, if Ben had gone to college like his friends, Jake would have gotten it.

Ben's experience and the video that he left for them were a big help, especially for Jake, who told his family in the days after Ben's death: "I'm almost happier than I've ever been ... because I know that Ben is happier than he's ever been before," Ally Breedlove writes in the book.

''Every time I feel like I'm missing Ben," she says, "I picture him in heaven rolling his eyes at us. The last thing he wants is for us to be sad about him, and I know he's more alive now than he's ever been."

Ben Breedlove left a family, but he also left the world a question: Do you believe in angels or God?

His answer: I do.

''When Will the Heaven Begin?: This is Ben Breedlove's Story"

Ally Breedlove with Ken Abraham

$15, New American Library

Nicole Villalpando writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: nvillalpando(at)statesman.com.

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