updated 08/29/2012 AT 3:00 PM ET
•originally published 09/06/2012 AT 5:25 PM ET
For hours on Aug. 22, Melanie Tomas stood next to Joey Kovar’s coffin, refusing to leave his side, until the last of approximately 1,000 mourners finally left the Kosary Funeral Home in Evergreen Park, Ill., at 11 p.m.
Even now, more than two weeks after the wake for her off-and-on boyfriend – a reality star from MTV’s The Real World: Hollywood in 2008 – Tomas, 24, is struggling to make sense out of his sudden death at age 29.
“Joe was in the best mind frame and direction of his life,” Tomas, who is the mother of Kovar’s 2-year-old daughter Maira, tells PEOPLE. “That is why this is still such a shock. Never had I seen him so dedicated to his sobriety, religion, family and friends.”
Kovar was pronounced dead on the morning of Aug. 17 in the home of Stacey Achterhof, a pal who reportedly found him with blood coming out of his nose and ears. An autopsy was inconclusive and a final cause of death is pending the results of toxicology tests. No foul play is suspected.
Although the Chicago-area native had long battled drug and alcohol abuse – he was also a cast member on season 3 of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew – friends and family thought that he had tamed his demons.
“Joe’s final days were peaceful,” his brother David Kovar tells PEOPLE. “He had become such a happy person. I had not once worried that he was using again. I’m still very unsure of what exactly happened. I try not to think about it because I feel like it will eat me alive if I do.”
David and his brother consistently maintained an upbeat relationship – Joey was there for David when he told his family he was gay – but over the last two years, the pair became especially close.
“Something just clicked,” David says. “I had never felt so close to my brother in my life. We were always [contacting] each other to make sure we told each other we loved each other.”
Other friends and family members describe Joey as a loving father – he also has a 3-year-old boy with another former girlfriend – who regularly attended church, remained close to his grandparents and kept in top physical shape through diet and exercise. He was a personal trainer and bodybuilder with dreams of making it as a pro wrestler.
“Joey and Rodney King are the two who I didn’t expect to die,” Bob Forrest, 51, who counseled the TV personality on Celebrity Rehab, tells PEOPLE. “Jeff and Mike, you could expect it any day. They had such severe addictions.” Forrest says when he heard the news about Joey, he thought, “My god, you’re kidding me.”
According to a bio on the show’s website, “Joey had been abusing massive amounts of alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy, meth and, as part of his bodybuilding, steroids since he was a teenager and had come very close to death through an overdose.”
But he clearly had a predisposition for substance abuse – “an OCD personality type,” says Forrest – and a family history. Joey’s dad was an alcoholic who died at 39. The two did not have a relationship.
His addictive tendencies transferred to other aspects his life. “When he’d get sober, he’d work out so much,” Forrest says. “One time, his arms were as big as my head.”
He also had a hair-trigger for relapses, caused by everything from boredom to relationship problems.
“He would be sober three or four months and then go on a binge,” says Forrest. “That is a very difficult addict to treat. His binges would be about 7-10 days. When he was clean, he would have an evangelical fervor about being sober and he was very job-oriented.”
Joey’s troubles unraveled during the course of The Real World, with his castmates convinced he had reached a breaking point and needed help. A scene from the show depicts Joey yelling at his roommates, “I don’t give a [expletive] who you are [or] how tough you think you are. I don’t care. I will knock your ass out.”
After filming ended, Joey distanced himself from his reality pals.
Went Back Home
“We never really heard from Joey,” former Real World castmate Dave Star, 27, tells PEOPLE. “It felt like he just didn’t care to keep in contact. However, never at any time did I think he was running the risk of endangering himself that much. I did believe he was on a strongly supported road to recovery.”
When he eventually moved back home, Joey pursued his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Training at Purely Obsessed Wrestling World (POWW) in Lakemoor, Ill., he went on to become a commentator for the company’s show, Wrestlerage 9. Last November, he left POWW, saying he wanted to pursue movies, modeling and gigs at other wrestling companies.
“There was always a good feeling with him being around,” Jimmy Blaze, 39, the owner of POWW, tells PEOPLE. “He was very open about his past and his problems. His dream was to work around Hulk Hogan and Sting, two of his idols growing up. He loved wrestling, and anytime he was around it, you could see a bigger smile than his normal smile.”
For the last several years, Joey lived primarily with his grandparents, Eugene and Jennie Kovar, sleeping on the couch of their home in Evergreen Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
His Last Night
They saw him at around 10:30 p.m. the night before his early morning death, which was revealed when Achterhof called screaming on the phone. (Achterhof couldn’t be reached for comment). As with others, Joey’s grandfather was stunned.
“He was working in our yard on landscaping the past two weeks,” Eugene, 76, says. “Every morning, he would get up, and after he said his prayers, he’d do yard work from morning to night. He lived a normal life. He went to church all the time, whenever there were services.”
But even Eugene – who believed Joey had been sober for a while prior to his death – noticed his grandson always had some kind of problem.
“He got screwed so many times by so many people. Everybody who promised him something, it never came through. I don’t know why that was. He was supposed to be in a movie, do commercials, make special appearances. He was troubled every night. He was always on the phone about something.”
But nothing so serious, those close to Joey say, that can explain the mystery of his passing.
“Even though the motions of the wake and funeral have passed,” says on-and-off girlfriend Tomas, “I still feel this cannot be happening.”