Concord’s Burris family finds solace helping others after daughter’s death
From left: Julia, Janelle, Brian, Janice, and Jillian Burris, pictured after picking apples 10 days before Jillian killed herself.
There are butterflies on just about every surface in the Burris family’s Concord living room. There’s the stained glass sun-catcher in the window, and the one under a glass bell with flowers. There’s even a tiny one perched on the framed picture of daughter Jillian in the hallway.
And in the middle of the hutch, with a glowing light at its heart, a pink-stained glass butterfly holds some of Jillian’s ashes. She died in October from a self-inflicted brain injury at age 25. The day she arrived at Concord Hospital in grave condition, her family – dad Brian, mom Janice and her two younger sisters Janelle, 20, and Julia, 15 – agreed to donate her organs if she couldn’t be saved.
Earlier this month, they spoke at a conference about what it’s like to donate a family member’s organs and announced a fund in Jillian’s name to raise money for a Concord Hospital campaign that helps hospital employees in financial or personal crisis.
The family has never hid the fact that Jillian caused her own death.
“We would love for that never to happen again to anyone else, but we’re not really out there trying to spread the word about suicide prevention. It’s a big thing to tackle,” Janelle said.
Becoming a spokes-family for organ donation instead – and keeping their attention on the positive ripples Jillian’s death had on the world – has helped them heal.
“What we want to say, to other families,” Brian said, “is that once we knew they were not going to be able to save her, we knew that all the efforts they were putting in was to save other people.
“We feel that we’re helping not only to keep Jillian’s memory alive, but we continue to honor her gift,” he said. “We can’t take back that awful day, but we’re fortunate to have something so positive to hold onto that makes it just a little bit easier.”
Jillian struggled her whole life with depression and attention deficit disorder. A few weeks before her death, she shared Janelle’s disbelief of the suicide of Concord High School classmate Cote Laramie.
She often didn’t sleep well, worried she wouldn’t hear the alarm and would oversleep, and she worried about money and just generally “getting her shit together,” Janice said.
But she was a natural caregiver for others and jumped into becoming a licensed nursing assistant after high school. She worked for six years at Harris Hill Nursing Home before moving to work at Concord Hospital in 2011.
When they went to Disney World together a few years ago, Jillian was excited to find a memento for a Harris Hill resident who loved Disney movies, Janice said.
“Jillian couldn’t help herself in life. . . . But she gave her all to others. She gave so much of herself that she didn’t have any more for herself,” she said. “If you picture a mallard duck, how it looks so bright, but underneath, it’s pedaling so hard. If anything, that was Jillian. She had her troubles, but I don’t think we knew to that extent that she could do something like this. I don’t think we ever thought this, ever.”
And that’s Brian’s other message to families out there: be vigilant.
“If there’s any part of her story that could help someone else, maybe it’s that. I’m sure there’s families where you could say a person is definitely at risk, but there’s plenty of others like us where it seemingly comes out of nowhere,” he said.
The family is incredibly close and candid with each other. The older girls always could talk about their social lives with mom and Julia, even though she was younger.
Janice and her daughters all have the same initials, JMB, and the family has worked the letters into their license plates. One says B+4JMB; another 4JMB+B. Janelle requested 3rdJMB, since after her mother and Jillian, she was the third.
Without her sister, “life sucks,” she said. “It’s different, it’s weird. You constantly feel like something is missing.”
They used to do everything together, the five of them, even after Jillian moved out on her own: dinners, movies, ski trips, board game nights in their pajamas at home.
“When we go see a show now, or when we go skiing, we make reservations for one less,” Brian said. “That’s some reality hitting you there, when you’re booking a hotel and you say, ‘We need beds for five – no. No, for four.’ It hits hard.”
So the family is focusing on all the ways they’ve managed to keep Jillian’s memory alive. That’s why there are the butterflies around the house, reminiscent of the tattoos on Jillian’s shoulders.
“Even beyond the actual donation of the organs, there are so many things happening. There’s the fund, there’ll be more research at the hospital, more training, and people are going to be more educated, and maybe they’ll find different ways to get people to be donors.”
Once they told the hospital staff that Jillian was an organ donor, they never thought about changing their minds. They waited six days in the hospital, as the staff first tried to bring her back, and, when that proved impossible, kept her alive so the donations could be arranged.
“Once you start to think about the people on the other end who were receiving news that they’ve got a second chance at life coming at them, you think about what they must have been struggling with, and their families. How overjoyed they must be to have this chance. We would never take that chance back from them. We just hope that their dreams have come true,” Brian said.
They know where almost all her donated organs went. Her kidneys went far away, to a middle-aged woman who also works as a nurse, and to a teenaged boy who told the organ transplant team he’s looking forward to being able to play basketball again. Her liver saved a man roughly the same age as her father.
One of the hardest days was hearing that the man who was supposed to receive her heart didn’t survive the transplant operation. Speaking about it still brings Brian to tears.
“You can’t feel a kidney or a liver, but you can feel a heart beating,” he said. “We all dreamt about maybe someday meeting the recipient of her heart, and giving that person a hug, and feeling that heart beat again.”
Every summer, Brian has taken his daughters camping, just the four of them, because Janice doesn’t like to rough it quite as much as they do. This year, they’ll stay at a campground with a few more amenities than usual so she can go, too, to make the void of Jillian’s absence less palpable.
The four Burrises will enjoy campfire cuisine, will play Monopoly, and will mourn again when one of them wins the game Jillian always somehow won without cheating at all.
Later, when Julia is old enough, they’ll get their tattoos, and they’ll mourn again then, and again a little every time they see the marking they planned together, “B+4JMB Forever.”
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo
@cmonitor.com or on Twitter