Those left behind: Extreme measures weren’t enough to save Belchertown teen from opioids  

  • Belchertown Police Sgt. Neil Lozier, as a member of the department’s Drug Addiction and Recovery Team, worked with the Holmes family in trying to find help for Caleb Holmes, who died in 2018 of an opioid overdose. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David and Sheryl Holmes of Belchertown put up a sign David made the Christmas after their son Caleb Holmes died of an opioid overdose. They kept it up long after the holidays because they felt they needed to be reminded of the message. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sheryl and David Holmes look at a piece of artwork created by their son Caleb. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sheryl Holmes made keepsakes for her children in memory of their brother Caleb, who died of an opioid overdose in 2018. “Where is everyone?” he often called out, upon returning home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sheryl Holmes made keepsakes for her children in memory of their brother Caleb, who died of an opioid overdose in 2018. “Where is everyone?” he often called out, upon returning home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 10/24/2019 12:26:01 PM

Sheryl and David Holmes took drastic steps when they realized their son Caleb was in trouble with opioids. They removed his bedroom door from its hinges. They called police for help. They asked a judge to order him into treatment.

And despite those efforts, they couldn’t save Caleb.

At 3 a.m. May 27, 2018, their dog, Ginger, awoke them barking at the door, where a Belchertown police officer stood knocking. The officer had little information, telling Sheryl and David Holmes only that they were needed at Baystate Mary Lane Hospital in Ware. Caleb had been taken there.

“It was a very quiet ride to the hospital,” said Sheryl. “We didn’t talk at all.”

David forced himself not to imagine what might be ahead. “I have no facts,” he recalled thinking to himself. 

At the hospital, a nurse greeted them, led them to the chapel, opened the door.

“That’s when I knew,” said Sheryl. “I looked at her and said, ‘This is really bad, isn’t it?’ She said, ‘This is really bad.’”

Their son had been found unconscious by a friend and transported to the hospital. Doctors were unable to revive him.

Caleb’s parents believe their son’s addiction was ignited after shoulder surgery for a torn ligament — he was a football player and on the wrestling team. This injury led to the use of opioids for pain. Sheryl Holmes, who years earlier had survived colon cancer, said she did not know at the time that the prescription actually put her son at risk.

“I’ve had seven surgeries, and it just didn’t occur to me,” she said. “I noticed his need for the pain pills.”

‘We knew what we had to do’

There are nine children in the Holmes family. Sheryl homeschooled each one, with the exception of Caleb during his high school years. He opted to attend Belchertown High School in part to play sports, which his mother calls his “shining moment.” He loved wrestling, and he loved to play football. Academics were not his favorite, she said.

So when Caleb became depressed because he was unable to return to sports after that surgery, it was understandable. This depression came on top of anxiety and the obsessive compulsive disorder he’d battled for much of his life. He began spending more time with his friends, neglected routines at home, and was prone to mood swings and occasional angry outbursts.

Sheryl Holmes found herself searching Caleb’s room looking for clues about what was going on with her son.

“What we didn’t know was that he was addicted,” she said. “It turns you into a crazy parent.”

When she confronted Caleb with evidence from her searches, he brushed off her concerns. Once when she found pills, he told her he’d been holding them for a friend.

“You don’t want it to be happening, so as a parent, you kind of take it as, ‘OK, it’s not that bad,’” she said. 

There was a turning point when the drug use became so disruptive it could no longer be explained away. Caleb’s parents tried convincing him to seek treatment, but he refused. One day in November of 2017, they discovered him passed out in his room. There were drugs on his bed. 

“We knew what we had to do. As a parent you don’t want to do it,” said David Holmes. They called police.

Caleb initially seemed cooperative when police roused him, so his parents hoped he would agree to go to treatment. When he didn’t, they went to Belchertown District Court with a Section 35 petition, which is a request for a judge to order involuntary treatment for substance use disorder.

Driven to the courthouse by police, Caleb came into the hearing in shackles. 

“That was heart-wrenching,” said David.

Caleb’s lawyer told the judge his client did not want to be forced into treatment.

David Holmes told the judge he and Sheryl feared for Caleb’s life. He described a crash in October in which Caleb drove his car between two telephone poles, plowed across a field and ended up in a pond. 

The judge agreed their son’s life was in danger, which led to his commitment to a treatment program in Brockton for people 13-19 years old.

“We felt a lot of relief,” said Sheryl Holmes, “because, in our idealistic parent minds, we thought, ‘Finally, he’s going to get the help he needs. He’s young. He can turn this around.’”

Caleb’s six weeks in the treatment center coincided with Christmas in 2017. The Holmes family — large enough to field a soccer team — packed into two cars for the 100-mile drive to visit him on Christmas Day. Caleb walked into the waiting area to hug each family member, happy they had come.

“He was a very simple guy. He loved home, he loved his large family,” said Sheryl. Caleb had a habit of bellowing when he walked in the door: “Where is everyone?” 

After he left that treatment center, he moved to a Belchertown-based sober house, Honest Beginnings — an independent residence where people live together while working on their recovery and supporting one another in not using substances — where he lived for six more weeks. 

When the time came for Caleb to return home to his family, David Holmes had reservations. He worried about Caleb’s influence on his younger sisters. After some discussion, Caleb did return home, where Sheryl and David felt they had the old Caleb back again. 

But they were still wary. They knew about relapse.

Is he breathing? 

If ever David and Sheryl Holmes need reassurance that they did everything they could to save Caleb’s life, the answer is a phone call away. All they have to do is reach out to Belchertown Police Sgt. Neil Lozier.

Lozier is one of three Belchertown officers who are mobilized in the countywide Drug Addiction and Recovery Teams, known as the DART program, organized by the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition.

The DART program started in 2016 at the Northampton Police Department and has since spread to most Hampshire County departments. It pairs officers up with recovery coaches who support people in recovery to visit people who have overdosed. DART teams offer information and resources about treatment and other services. Sometimes, they work with families of people struggling with addiction.

In 2018, the year the DART program started in Belchertown, Sheryl reached out for help.

Lozier, who agreed to talk about his work with the Holmes family after receiving their permission, sat down for an interview the morning after working a night shift, a file with information about Caleb Holmes in his hand.

Beyond checking for dates of meetings, he didn’t need to consult the file — it was clear he was familiar with the family and their tragic loss. 

One of the visits to the family came on May 11, 2018, at the request of Sheryl Holmes, who was concerned about Caleb’s safety after his return home from Honest Beginnings. She knew he was vulnerable to relapse and wanted to take steps to counteract that.

“I remember that day very well,” Lozier said. He and Susan Daley, the recovery coach, spent an hour at the Holmes’ house.

He took note of the safeguards Sheryl and David had implemented, including their removal of Caleb’s bedroom door — steps he said he didn’t realize people took with adult children. He thought about his own very young children and saw similarities between parenting young children and parenting older children dealing with addiction.

“A parent is once again worrying about if they are breathing,” Lozier said. “You really are turning back the hands of the clock to a time when your child needs you the most: Are they breathing? Are they alive?”

Holmes asked Lozier about recovery support specifically for young people because her son felt he didn’t fit in at programs where the average age of participants was much older than he was. 

“I felt helpless, but I’m driven by the idea of finding an answer or a solution,” Lozier said. At the time, he told Sheryl Holmes that he’d return with a list of programs that might be suitable.

“I put together a pretty decent packet that I could give to Sheryl,” he said.

In the end, there wouldn’t be time to deliver it.

Showing up

In April, when a close friend died of an overdose, Caleb had been distraught. 

“From that point, I noticed that he looked like he was starting to use,” Sheryl said. “I think the stress and grief of his friend dying triggered his emotions, and he couldn’t handle his emotions, so he started using again.”

He was once again moody, couldn’t sleep and resisted basic family rules like letting them know if he’d be out later than planned.

“We think you’re using again,” Sheryl said to Caleb. “What’s going on?” 

This time, he didn’t deny it. Not only that, he told his parents he was scared. Sheryl felt some relief. 

“He was actually admitting that he had a problem,” she said. Later, they’d find out that he had confided his fears to his brother and a friend from the sober house as well.

Three days later, on May 27, 2018, Caleb Holmes died of an overdose.

When Neil Lozier found out, he called Daley. “Susan, what do we do?’’ he asked. Daley said she didn’t know.

 “What if it was one of your kids — would you want us to show up?” asked Lozier. 

Daley said she would.

“OK, let’s go,” Lozier said.

Lozier and Daley knocked on the Holmes’ door the day after their son died. 

“It was probably one of the hardest things I ever did,” said Lozier. “I recall saying to Sheryl, ‘You’re not supposed to bury your kids. I know you did everything you could.’”

As much as he felt his job was to solve problems, he knew this was something he could not fix, yet he still felt it was important that he show up.

“You could say whatever you want to somebody at that time, and they probably won’t remember it — but they’ll remember that you were there,” said Lozier.

Sheryl Holmes doesn’t remember what Lozier said, but she remembers he and Daley were among the first people who stopped by after their son died.

“You don’t expect a police officer to come to your house and express condolences in such a genuine way,” she said. “I don’t remember exactly his words, but they were just so sorry. It was comforting.”

Lozier says it was crushing to see a family he’d worked with lose their son, a cruel reminder that the program would not always succeed.

He attended Caleb Holmes’ funeral, which was packed with Belchertown High School students and athletes. 

“We’re there not only to support the person with substance use disorder, we’re there to support the family,” Lozier said. “I felt like I needed to go. I had made a connection, and I had a sense of loss in it.” 

Remembering Caleb

In the year that followed Caleb Holmes’ death, Sheryl, a writer and artist, relied on creative outlets to cope. She kept a blog, inthebattle.org, in which she described her family’s tragedy.

David, a state building inspector and on-call firefighter for Amherst, busied himself with house projects. At Christmastime, he made a wooden sign for their fence that read “Hope,” a sentiment they felt they needed to be reminded of as a family. After Christmas passed, they decided to keep it up. Hope was a message they wanted close at hand.

In the first year after Caleb’s death, Sheryl gave her children mementos each month in honor of their brother. One month, it was tiny urns with his ashes. Another month, it was a paper he’d written for school that described his childhood, including funny stories about his five brothers. She sketched an ink drawing of the maple tree in their front yard and wrote the words “Where is Everyone?” underneath and gave framed copies to each child.

When the family gathered for a hike on the one-year anniversary of his death, everyone wore one of Caleb’s shirts. 

The grief and loss have been unimaginable, but Sheryl and David Holmes said they’ve found solace in their spiritual life and among their friends at Christ Community Church in Belchertown. They carry a deep faith in God and believe they will be united with Caleb in heaven.

But, like other parents in their situation, they also feel deep guilt. 

“You feel like, because you’re the parent, there’s something else you could have done,” said Sheryl. “That’s the gut feeling you have, but there’s the head knowing that we did everything we possibly could do.”

Laurie Loisel, a former reporter and editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is director of outreach and education for the office of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan. Loisel wrote these stories for the Gazette in her capacity as an employee of the district attorney’s office.




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