The following is an essay by Kiirsi Hellewell, the best friend of missing Utah mom Susan Powell, about her journey to the Sunday funeral of Powell’s two young boys, Charlie,7, and Braden,5. The boys were killed by their father, Josh Powell, earlier this month. Read the eulogies delivered at the funeral here.
Driving from Utah to Washington is a long, arduous trip—especially with kids. It takes 14 hours if you don’t stop much. If you leave just before midnight, it feels even longer.
My husband John and I packed up our three children and left late Thursday night. It was not good timing for us—so many activities filled our schedule in the week ahead and both of us were sick. But we knew we had to get to Puyallup, no matter what it took. It was like an invisible pull. We wanted to be with Susan’s family and so many who were grieving the loss of those beautiful, precious little boys.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and met up with some friends who had also made the long journey from Utah. With the kids safely in the next room watching a movie, we were finally able to cry together, talk about how angry we felt, share our feelings.
Friday night we gathered with Susan’s family and some other friends to talk, visit and watch the TV shows focused on Susan’s case that night. It was my first chance to see Susan’s parents since all this had happened and I was amazed, but not surprised, to see them doing their best to smile, to talk with us, to share some of their feelings. They are the kind of people who put their arms around everyone and make you feel loved and part of their family, just like Susan always did. Their faith is uplifting and supporting them to help them get through not only losing their daughter and still not knowing where she is, but losing their two sweet grandsons, too.
Saturday morning we woke up early to get ready for the funeral. Driving to the church in Tacoma was a quiet, reflective experience as we watched the police escorts riding ahead to stop traffic as we passed each intersection.
We were taken to a smaller chapel area to visit with Susan’s family and friends while we waited for the funeral to begin. A friend of mine flew in from Maine to come to the funeral. She never knew Susan, but she has helped for the past two years with searches, maps, and many other aspects of the search for Susan. And now she flew across the country to be with us on this day of sadness and grief for Susan’s boys. I knew that so many others from across the world wished they could be there, too.
As I walked into the auditorium where the funeral would be held, I looked up and saw three large screens with pictures of Susan and her boys on them. And I started to cry.
My faith has been a solid anchor to hold onto this week, the one thing that makes this great loss and evil thing that’s happened even the tiniest bit bearable. Because of my deep faith, I know that Susan and her boys are together. But seeing them on the screen like that made it suddenly real: my beautiful friend was finally reunited with her boys, the boys she loved more than life itself and everything else in the world put together. It was hard to stop the tears after that.
The service was fitting and sweet as we heard the boys’ teachers talk about their personalities and share little stories from their lives. I hadn’t seen Charlie and Braden since they were 2 and 4, since Josh abruptly moved them to Washington without giving any of us who loved them a chance to say goodbye. I loved hearing these teachers, who saw Charlie and Braden every day, give a recent accounting of the boys they had become. They sounded like wonderful, smart, creative boys. I ached for the loss of not knowing them these past 2 years and missing out on the rest of their lives.
We had to leave the funeral far too soon, though I really wanted to stay behind and thank the amazing people who had come to celebrate the lives of Charlie and Braden. I’ve made so many wonderful friends the past two years online and really wanted to meet them in person. The police escort led us to another church for a private funeral in the afternoon.
That evening, 12 of us who had traveled up from Utah went to a candlelight vigil in Graham at the site of the burned house where Charlie and Braden lost their lives. I had a lot of time to think on the drive up from Utah, and I had decided I wanted to visit this place. I wanted to stand on the last spot Charlie and Braden stood on. I wanted to visit the memorial I’d seen pictures of on the news, and I really wanted to thank and embrace the people who planned this event.
We arrived too late, unfortunately, to meet most of the 100 people who had come to the vigil earlier. But a few were left. We hugged each other and cried together. And we visited the fence—the barrier police put up to keep people from getting too close to the house. During the vigil last night, visitors wrote notes on cards and tied them to the fence with purple ribbon (Susan’s favorite color). As my friends and I read these rain-soaked messages to Charlie and Braden, we couldn’t stop the tears. But unlike some of the bitter and angry tears of earlier in the week, these were healing tears, just like the beautiful letters to the boys.
One one side of the fence, we could see the burned shell of a house cordoned off by police tape. A reminder of the horrific, evil act that took place there last Sunday. On our side of the fence, there was nothing but messages and gifts of hope, faith and love.
“RIP you beautiful angels. You are now with your mommy again and forever.”
“I am sorry Braden and Charlie” (written by a child)
“We spent two years falling in love with you two boys and now a lifetime to remember.”
“May God and your mommy hold you in their warm and loving arms.”
“Hug your mommy!”
“Forever in our hearts. Your mom loves you”
“So thankful you are now home in your mother’s arms what a joyous day it is.”
That’s the image I want to take away with me when I leave this place, not remembering the boys in fear and sorrow, but remembering their sweet, beautiful smiles and their excitement and love for life. I believe Susan was waiting for them with her arms held wide. And for her, that reunion was the most joyous day.
I will not stop looking for Susan until we find her. Neither will her parents. Their resolve and determination is unshakable. But until then and for the rest of my life, when the sadness threatens to take over, I will close my eyes and imagine Susan and her boys—three beautiful people whose smiles light up their whole faces, their arms around each other, together forever.