Ryan Reilly described it as like ripples unfurling across water. The edges expand, flow, stretching outward on and on.
Grief is like that, he said. It shifts over time, changes, affecting more than you ever imagined.
“As it gets further and further out, it seemingly impacts people in all kinds of different ways,” he said.
“Unless you’ve been through something like it, I don’t know that anyone can really, truly understand what victims’ families go through,” he said. “But I do think that ripple effect and how it touches different people and how they can deal with it has a long-lasting effect, on a community as a whole.”
Reilly and his family found themselves plunged into grief in March when his cousin, Cassie Pizzi, 33, was killed in what would be the city’s fourth homicide case of the year.
Her death remains under investigation. Reilly, born in Roanoke but now living in Tennessee, described her loss as painfully tragic for those she left behind.
“It’s unfathomable,” he said in an interview. “Homicide takes a piece of people away when they lose that loved one.”
Reilly’s path through grief led him to a new idea, one that’s still taking shape but which he hopes can be a source of healing for families and the Star City itself.
In remarks recently presented to the Roanoke City Council, he explained that his cousin’s middle name had been Starr.
“Many of us often look to the stars and the heavens for inner peace — strength and hope for better and brighter days,” he said at a council meeting Tuesday.
He went on to sketch out a proposal for a public art initiative and a memorial garden that he hoped could be a contemplative place for families and a catalyst for discussions about anti-violence.
He proposed commissioning a series of stars, each honoring a homicide victim, that could be made by local artists and funded in part by private sponsorships that he hopes to attract.
The stars could be placed around the city for one year and then moved to a memorial garden planted on city parkland, he said.
The goal would be multi-part: creating a “lasting and more permanent show of solidarity” with bereft families, raising awareness of the cases and encouraging dialogue about how to prevent further violence.
“This is where I feel this project can begin to bring about community healing and systemic change,” Reilly said, describing it as an outlet for both support and hope.
“It is when we are hopeful that our greatest ideas are brought to light,” he said. “This is our time for action.”
The details of the proposal are still in an early stage. Reilly has been working to develop the idea from his home in Tennessee while juggling work and other demands. Immediately after last week’s city council meeting, he left to make the seven-hour drive home and start an overnight shift at his job in a Nissan production plant.
Tuesday marked his first time publicly describing the proposal. He plans to meet with the city’s arts and culture coordinator for advice.
City Manager Bob Cowell also will be following up and said the city’s arts commission may be an apt partner for the initiative.
Vice Mayor Joe Cobb, whom Reilly contacted before the meeting, said he admired Reilly’s work to channel his family’s loss into the cultivation of something positive.
In a year of many hardships, opportunities for community and meaningful action are needed, he said.
“I think this vision for how to remember these lives and for the city to honor them, tying it in with the star, which is our iconic symbol, is something great,” Cobb said. “I think it’s something our city could rally around.”
Cobb said he was hopeful that a public-private partnership could be formed around the idea.
“It’s just getting all the pieces together.”
In the coming weeks, Reilly said, he’d like to connect with local businesses interested in aiding the project as well as reach out to families of other homicide victims.
Ten people have been killed in nine cases this year in Roanoke. That includes six fatal shootings, two cases of blunt-force trauma and a double homicide that happened in a home in southeast Roanoke in the spring.
The youngest of the victims was 3 years old. The oldest was 63. Seven of the cases remain open investigations. Last year at this point, 11 people had been killed in 10 incidents in the city.
Cassie Pizzi’s death was discovered in the early morning of March 27. Her family was told she had blunt-force trauma injuries. They remain hopeful for an arrest in the case.
The ripple effects of her loss are still unfolding, radiating outward, in ways yet to be seen. Reilly said he hoped to help guide its direction into something meaningful, both for his cousin’s memory and for the wider community affected by violence.
A star trail and memorial garden could become a larger fundraising vehicle for violence prevention work, he noted.
One idea that resonated with him was supporting and expanding access to counseling programs that can help people deal with underlying issues that, if left unaddressed, can fuel violence.
That type of work could dovetail with the ongoing efforts the city is engaged in to try to disrupt the cycle of violence through initiatives like its gun violence task force, Reilly said.
Most importantly, he said, he hoped the overall project could be a means of promoting healing.
Working on the proposal has been a form of that for him — helping him process his grief by honoring the memory of his cousin and other victims.
“These people were all someone’s son or daughter or mother or father,” he said. “Their families deserve to know that their loved ones are not forgotten. That they still have a voice even after passing.”