Family photo
Dee Fournier and her older sister, Juli Stimus, who was murdered in 2002 by her estranged husband. This was their last photo together.

Dee Fournier has had more than 15 years to figure out how you get on with life after your big sister — Juli was the trailblazer, the adventurer, the storyteller — is murdered in a cruel brother-in-law’s final act of domestic violence.

Grief doesn't own a clock. Dee told me she’s still trying to work through it, still searching for meaning in her sister’s killing.

Juli was the oldest of five siblings and first to hit all the milestone, Dee said: to move away for college, to leave their home state of Maine, to travel abroad. She was brave and tough and she didn't stay inside her abusive marriage.

Juli was clearly funny and colorful and vibrant. In an email, Dee described how her sister told stories “so rich and vibrant in detail that if you were to repeat it, you’d have to ask yourself, 'Was I there? Did I dream it? Or did Juli tell this story?'"

Her killer will never be allowed to leave prison. And in the years since her sister died, Dee’s niece and nephew have hit milestones without either parent, but especially without their mom, her family filling gaps where Juli should have been. Those who loved Juli have all grieved and healed and grieved again in alternating fits and starts, as happens with fathomless loss. It's an endless process.

Dee’s met challenges in her own life, which she sometimes feels is her own cage. She writes about it, trying to express the mental maelstrom: “Of course, my bars were emotional ones. My marriage fell apart. No job held my interest. I even felt confined in the cities and states where I lived.” She describes a restless being who moved around a lot, leaving relationships and opportunities. “I guess I thought my happiness and peace were out there — somewhere else — waiting for me to find it.”

Like everyone contemplating living in the aftermath of great loss, she’s learning the truth of the old saw that “one step at a time” is actually all one can do — which she's been applying for some time now. Over the years, she's developed a habit that has helped her immensely: her “photo therapy walks,” where she puts on her hiking boots and grabs her camera and heads outside, preferably toward nearby mountains and trails. She says she passionately needs “to be outside, to breathe clean air and catch the sunrise on top of a mountain.”

Yet, what about Juli? What about other women — and sometimes men — who live in fear because intimate partners are controlling and abusive and sometimes murderous? Dee Fournier has longed since her sister died to do something concrete about that, in memory of Juli, but also for herself.

This year, she thinks she's ready and she has a plan and friends to back her up. In April, she tells me, she’s going to take a big step — or, actually, to venture on the first of many, many steps. She plans to hike the American Discovery Trail, which stretches 4,834 miles from California to Delaware. From there, she’ll walk another 633 miles back to Maine, where her own journey began and her family waits.

She's calling it "Dee Goes from Trial to Trail" and hopes to gain some public support.

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She and a small support team are making arrangements so that along the way she can spend a few minutes here and there at domestic violence shelters and visit with some of the women who, like Juli, said “no more” and left abusive relationships. Juli’s story was tragic, but that women are in shelters means they already have taken their own first step to get help and support and live abuse-free lives. “They need to know their ending can be different,” Dee says.

Dee wants to encourage that and raise awareness of domestic violence. She wants healing, for herself and others.

One step at a time.