When news reports broadcast the discovery of a body in remote wilderness locations, Denise Cox's world stops for a while.
With each gruesome discovery she wonders: Could this be her sister?
So far, it's an answer Cox and the rest of her family are still waiting for as time marches on without answers in the case of 28-year-old mother of two Susan Cox Powell, who was last seen on Dec. 6, 2009.
"I hate when they find someone's remains. I lose a lot of sleep until they identify them," said Cox, 32, the older sister of Powell, in an interview from her home in Washington state. "I'm upset and frustrated that after two years we still have no answers. It is really hard with no closure and not knowing where my sister is."
So friends of the Coxes and Powell will do what they can, hosting service events and sharing memories.
Cox plans to spend time with her sister's children, Charlie, 6, and Braden, 4. The Cox family had limited interaction with the boys following Powell's disappearance as tensions rose between the woman's family and her husband, Josh, who is the only publicly named person of interest in the case. Josh Powell moved the boys back to his wife's and his own hometown of Puyallup, Wash., shortly after she disappeared.
But a judge in October granted temporary custody of the boys to Susan Powell's parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, after Washington child-protection workers removed them from the care of their father. The boys had been living with their father in the home of their grandfather, Steve Powell. But police arrested Steve Powell on Sept. 22 on charges of voyeurism and possessing child pornography. Police have said they are investigating who else living in the home may have known of Steve Powell's activities.
Time with the boys now is a chance to reconnect since the Powell and Cox families have clashed over Susan Powell's case, Cox said. She said she often shares memories of her sister with her nephews and keeps photos of the woman everywhere.
"Braden doesn't have as many memories as Charlie, but they both love looking at pictures of their mom," Cox said. "We can and do talk about my sister around the boys. I don't ever want them to forget her."
Cox said she wears a purple bracelet at all times, which serves as a conversation starter to people interested in learning more about her sister. A wolf necklace, symbolic of her sister's love of the animal, and a pin with Powell's photo also help Cox feel closer to her sister.
"I carry her with me constantly," she said.
In Utah, Powell's friends are also preparing for the unavoidable milestone marking two years since Powell vanished.
Kiirsi Hellewell, a close friend of Powell's as well as her neighbor in West Valley City, is organizing a drive to benefit the Christmas Box House, a shelter for children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect. Items will be collected at a Monday evening event.
No one imagined Powell's fate would be a point of contemplation two years after frantic phone calls first started circulating that she couldn't be found after her husband returned home claiming he'd taken the boys on a midnight camping trip, Hellewell said. She said she thinks of Powell daily as a series of "what ifs" roll through her mind.
"It doesn't get any easier with time. Every day I wake up with the nightmare of her disappearance still fresh in my mind. It feels like we really can't move forward without having answers and resolution," Hellewell said.
Anniversary events come with purple balloons, with posters that feature a smiling Powell, with shared tears and renewed pledges to bring her home. The mood is a mix of heavy hearts with fleeting bursts of optimism, that maybe, just maybe, Powell is out there when common sense seems to dictate that she's not coming back.
But as time passes, the stories at gatherings more often slip into the past tense.
"Susan loved to knit," friends recall. "Susan loved her boys."
Cox said speaking about her sister like she'll never return without knowing for certain that is the case is an ongoing challenge.
The family will observe the anniversary of Powell's disappearance quietly, Cox said. Her parents have been guarded in speaking to the media as the court case over the custody of their grandchildren continues.
Cox requested a day off from work for Dec. 6 a day she'll use to think of her sister.
"I don't know what happened to her, but I miss her. Life will never be the same without her," Cox said. "I will always hope for the best and expect the worst."
How to help
Friends and family of missing West Valley City woman Susan Cox Powell are gathering donations for the Christmas Box House, a shelter for children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect, and teen group homes in her honor.
Items will be collected on Monday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Hunter Library in West Valley City (4740 W. 4100 South). Donors may also give directly to Christmas Box House locations at: 3660 S. West Temple in Salt Lake City, 1181 Christmas Box Lane in Ogden, and 180 S. 300 East in Moab.
Donated items must be new. Needs include clothing, blankets, toys, games, stuffed animals, craft kits and art supplies, books, hygiene products, gift cards for community activities (movie passes, Lagoon tickets, restaurant gift certificates), gift cards for stores (Target, Walmart, etc.)
O Find more information about the event at heartsknitforsusan.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/susan-missing-two-years/