Lowcountry family vows to be voice of change in wake of daughter's suicide

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comMay 6, 2014 

Dale and Clarissa Wills photographed in their home May 6, 2014, with a large portrait of Celeste Wills.

SARAH BOWMAN

Dale Wills wishes there was a pause button he could press -- one that would put a hold on life and give society time to help kids suffering with depression and bullying.

Even more, he and his wife, Clarissa, and daughters, Raven and Zoe, want a rewind button.

They would rewind to the morning of April 30 -- the day youngest daughter Celeste Wills, 12, took her life.

They would rewind to the months before that day so they could look for any signs they missed or see if there was anything they could have done to help the child who hid her considerable pain behind a smile.

"Here we are Wednesday evening when it happened and some friends came forward and said she had been bullied," Dale Wills said Tuesday from the family's Shell Point home. "So at that point we were questioning why, and we are still questioning why and we will always be asking why.

"That will be the question we are asking for the rest of our lives," he said. " Why?"

But the family knows they can't pause or rewind anything.

Now they can only move forward, they said.

WHO WAS CELESTE WILLS?

Celeste was an artist in every way, her mother said.

That was a trait the sixth-grader at Robert Smalls Middle School likely got from her mother, the owner of Beauty Marks Tattoos & Piercings in Beaufort.

Celeste drew, wrote and she played an instrument. And when she wasn't creating, she was reading. Her father said she could always be found with her nose in a book.

Celeste was an honors student at Robert Smalls, according to principal Denise Smith.

She wanted to grow up to go to New York University and to be a writer, Clarissa Wills said.

"She was very affectionate, very creative and very sensitive," her mother said. "She would give you her last penny if it meant helping you out."

Celeste spread that helpful, supportive spirit throughout her school and an online blog she authored.

Several classmates -- whose parents asked that their names not be used -- said Celeste would frequently stand up for students who were being teased or bullied.

Her blog was created to help those suffering with depression, bullying and suicidal thoughts, her parents and friends said.

"I have been told that she helped so many people," Clarissa Wills said.

But her parents wonder if she took on the weight of those she was trying to help and if that weight may have been too much to bear.

DID BULLYING PLAY A ROLE?

Celeste's parents said they were not aware she was being bullied -- she never mentioned it nor did any of her friends or faculty at the school.

Clarissa Wills said the family held frequent meetings and that no topic of discussion was off the table. They even discussed bullying and suicide within the last year.

There were no signs Celeste was struggling, her mother said.

But at a school-organized vigil Thursday night, many students and parents told Dale and Clarissa Wills that their daughter had been bullied.

It appears she was verbally teased most about her weight and her intelligence, Clarissa Wills said.

The family is working with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office in its investigation in to Celeste's death by gunshot and the factors that led to it. They have gathered all of her electronic devices -- laptop, cell phone and an iPad -- to see what they can find, Clarissa Wills said.

Celeste left no note, according to her parents.

Zoe, one of Celeste's older sister's, found the body in her parents' bedroom Wednesday afternoon when she got home from school.

Celeste used one of the family's guns to commit suicide. The Wills' home had been broken in to several times, and all three daughters were trained in the use of firearms for safety, Dale Wills said.

He rushed home when Zoe called him that day.

He tried to administer CPR, but it was too late.

After that, he continued to hold her, unwilling to let his youngest child go.

"We just could not and still cannot believe she did this on her own," Dale Wills said. "Everything you are taught about what to look for with depression and suicide, she wasn't doing that."

MOVING FORWARD

Celeste's parents said they do not blame anyone, including the school or its faculty.

"We're grieving, we're angry, it's normal to feel how we feel," Clarissa Wills said. "But right now our concern is how many kids can we save. Let's bring this to light; let's bring this awareness and let parents know."

The family said they want to work with the school, district and other groups to raise awareness about bullying in schools and teen depression and suicide.

Dale and Clarissa Wills said they do not know what the solution is.

But they think improved relationships and understanding among parents, children, teachers and students is an important start.

They said there also needs to be a culture where fellow students are not afraid to report when they see someone being bullied or teased. Dale Wills said one of Celeste's friends has apologized for not doing more.

But the family is comforted by how the community has responded and by the support they've received.

They hope their daughter's death will start a conversation about finding ways to reach the students who are depressed or are being bullied.

"I think we've started something," Clarissa Wills said.

"Celeste was on a mission to help people and I will be her vehicle to continue that and will be her voice."

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