My sister Julie had beautiful blue eyes. Along with her curly hair they were one of her trademark, standout features. Whenever I first saw her after not seeing her for months I was always reminded of how much I loved her sparkly blue eyes. They really did light up when she laughed and smiled. I still find myself stopping to look at my pictures of her, gazing intently into those eyes. Not only do I stare because I miss looking into them, I also look hoping to discover some hint of the pain she kept so well hidden behind them. How did I not see it?
Recently, I’ve been searching the eyes of others who also died by suicide on a Facebook page called Putting a Face on Suicide (PAFOS). The page is a personal project started by Mike Purcell, who lost his 21-year old son, Christopher Lee Purcell to suicide in 2008. The mission of Putting a Face on Suicide is to pay tribute to those lost to suicide, and to humanize the statistics of suicide by putting a face to all the numbers. The volunteers at PAFOS solicit pictures of loved ones who have died by suicide. Their objective is to collect 99 photos of people who have died by suicide for each day of the year. 36,135 faces will represent 365 days of loss by suicide each year in the United States. They use the collected pictures in posters and tribute videos, which survivors are asked to use in their individual suicide awareness/prevention volunteer efforts.
The project is incredibly powerful. Every 40 seconds someone around the world dies by suicide. That’s 99 people every 66 minutes. Hearing or reading such devastating statistics is one thing. Seeing the human faces and reading about the people that have died by suicide is quite another. Looking at the faces, day after day is painful and sad. Every day my Facebook newsfeed is full of them. Every face represents so many things. The lives cut short, unrealized hopes and dreams, talents and skills that can no longer be shared. I look at each face and wonder how many people each one of them left behind. How many survivors did each of them leave to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of such a heart-wrenching loss? Every face reminds me that the world lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, lovers and friends. Most of the pictures show people smiling, happy, being goofy, seemingly full of life. They show living, breathing people who were loved and cherished and will be forever missed by those they left behind. My sister’s face is now among the hundreds of others featured on the page. Day 16 was lovingly dedicated to her. Below is the tribute I submitted along with her picture.
My sister was a delightful, smart, funny, talented woman, adored by all who were lucky enough to call her a friend. The energy of a room immediately changed when she walked in. People were always genuinely delighted to see her, and gravitated towards her because of her sincere interest in others. She was an adored aunt by her seven nieces and nephews. With no children of her own, she treated them all like her own children, taking a genuine interest in them and their lives.
Julie was a runner, having taken up the sport in high school when she ran cross-country and track. She completed several full and half marathons during her life, and inspired several others to start running, including me. She had a keen intelligence and after many years of stops and starts, proudly received her B.A. in English two years before her death. Julie was a model employee, loved and relied on by her employers because of her great work ethic. She worked for a small construction management firm as a construction Project Manager. She worked her way up the ranks, becoming a trusted and successful employee in a male-dominated field.
Julie's death devastated our family, changing all of us forever. Her death also changed my life's destiny. I'm now passionately committed to supporting other suicide survivors, and work to educate the public about suicide prevention, which I do as a volunteer field advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and as a member of the AFSP Utah Chapter.
My sister never understood how deeply she was loved by so many. Those of us who loved, and still do love her, want her remembered for the vibrant, talented woman she was. To us she will never be just a statistic. As my mom said recently, “She was more, so much more, than her final act. I want her remembered for who she was, not what she did.” I once heard some wonderful advice for suicide survivors on remembering and honoring the lives of their loved ones, “The final chapter doesn’t rewrite the entire story.”I thank the kind, generous people at PAFOS for showing the faces and telling the stories of lives lost to suicide. I’ll never stop missing my sister’s blue eyes, but hopefully sharing Julie’s picture and story will help show the world what was lost the day she, like so many others, took her life.