As Naya Rivera’s family and friends mourn the death of the Glee star, there’s one detail from the actress’s final moments that’s gut-wrenching. It appears she saved the life of her 4-year-old son, Josey Dorsey, over her own. But to those who knew her, that Rivera’s last act was a selfless one doesn’t come as a surprise.
Rivera’s body was recovered on Monday, five days after she went missing at Lake Piru. The 33-year-old actress never returned from a swimming excursion with her son as investigators believe she drowned in a tragic accident. One working theory about what led to her death is that the pontoon boat she rented started to drift away while the two were in the water due to afternoon currents.
“We believe it was mid-afternoon when she disappeared, the idea perhaps being that the boat started drifting — it was unanchored — and that she mustered enough energy to get her son back on to the boat, but not enough to save herself,” Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said at Monday’s press conference.
The boy told investigators that he and his mom were swimming when he last saw her as she “boosted him” onto the deck of the boat from behind. “He told investigators that he looked back and saw her disappear under the surface of the water,” Ayub noted.
According to someone who was close to Rivera, that working theory sounds believable.
“Josey was her world. She would do anything for that boy, including giving her own life for his. That's who she was,” one friend tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Everyone is absolutely devastated.”
A second source close to Rivera tells Yahoo, “Josey changed her life, she loved him so much. This is just all heartbreaking.”
While Rivera is best known for playing Santana Lopez on Fox’s Glee, it was being a mom that was her favorite role. Rivera welcomed Josey in 2015 with ex-husband, Ryan Dorsey, and took to motherhood immediately.
“It's very early mornings, but I am so excited every morning, it's like Christmas,” she told Entertainment Tonight in 2016. “I get up, like, 10 minutes earlier to go wake him up and he always greets me with a smile. It's just so amazing to see.”
While promoting her memoir Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up!, Rivera said the love she felt for her son is “a love never found anywhere or with anyone else.”
“It’s made me a much more observant person,” Rivera, then 29, told Mini Magazine in 2016, adding the thing that surprised her the most is “how truly selfless you become.”
“I hope to instill good morals and values in him,” she added. “I want to teach him to be confident but kind, strong but not proud, and to always be in love with life.”
Rivera and Dorsey had an on-again, off-again relationship but finalized their divorce in 2018. However, her son remained her priority as the two navigated co-parenting.
“He’s my number one priority,” she told Momtastic in 2017. “It’s always going to have its challenges logistically, but Josey is our priority. We’re his parents. If everybody looks at it that way it alleviates some of the drama. Doing what’s best for Josey is really what it all boils down to.”
In the same interview, Rivera said “the unconditional love” she has for her son is what surprised her most about being a mom.
“You hear about it and you think, ‘Well, obviously I’m going to love my child.’ But it’s so deep. Even after Josey goes to bed, I find myself thinking of him and looking at pictures of him and it almost brings me to tears half the time, because the love that I have for him is so amazing,” she said.
Although Rivera continued acting after Glee ended in 2015, most recently starring in Step Up: High Water, she continued to branch out professionally. In addition to her book, Rivera founded the gender-neutral kids’ lifestyle brand JOJO&IZZY.
“First and foremost, everything I do is for Josey,” Rivera told People in 2018.
“Josey inspires me in so many ways that it felt natural to want to create this for him and I,” she said. “Starting this company from the ground up is something I’m really, really proud of. I know that my son is proud of it too. It’s a sweet bond that we share together.”
Rivera and Josey’s sweet bond is something she’s being remembered for by friends and co-stars.
“If you were fortunate enough to have known her, you’ll know that her most natural talent of all was being a mother,” Glee’s Kevin McHale wrote on Twitter. “The way that she loved her boy, it was truly Naya at her most peaceful. I’m thankful that Naya got that beautiful little boy got back on that boat. I’m thankful he will have a strong family around him to protect him and tell him about his incredible mom.”
Amber Riley honored her former co-star by sharing a touching video of Rivera and Josey singing together.
In an emotional statement on Tuesday, Glee creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan called Rivera “one of the most talented, special stars we would ever have the pleasure of working with," and revealed they are setting up a college fund for her son.
“Our hearts go out to her family, especially her mom, Yolanda, who was a big part of the Glee family and her son Josey. The three of us are currently in the process of creating a college fund for the beautiful son Naya loved most of all,” they said in a statement provided to Yahoo Entertainment.
An investigation into Rivera’s death is ongoing. A cause of death has not officially been released pending an autopsy report.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan’s statement.]
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