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Chester County Press

Jessie, The Girl in the Photographs - Remembering the Life of Jessica Leigh Pfeifer

09/23/2020 06:58PM ● By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
“When Jessie was born, I lost my heart to her, as any mom does for their babies, and I fell in love. Jessie made me a better person because she challenged me. Jessie brought me great joy and she was color in my life, always so vibrant and strong." 
Joann Pfeifer, Kennett Square

The photographs, hundreds of them now culminated on a social media page dedicated to her memory, tell the pictorial life of Jessica Leigh Pfeifer.

The photographs want to become videos. They want to burst from their frames, because they depict a child and then a young woman actively courting the business of movement, vitality, activity and happiness. She climbs a mountain with her two younger brothers. She discusses strategy with her soccer coach during a game. She is in a karate pose. She poses for selfies with her BFFS from Unionville High School. She is building a trap to catch leprechauns. She is engaged in the silliness of play with her many friends and in nearly every photograph, the camera has captured the person everyone called “Jess” in the middle of her conversation she had with the world.

No one – not her parents, her siblings, her coaches, her teammates nor her friends – ever got the pleasure to hear that continuing conversation. During the early morning of April 19, 2012, three weeks before she was about to graduate from The College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., Jessie called home.  Her mother Joann Pfeifer, missed her call and when she called Jessie back, Jessie said that she was going to die today, that she had taken a lot of pills. 

Immediately, her mother made frantic phone calls to her daughter, to campus police and security, and to the emergency services center in Syracuse. She gave the center her daughter’s address – the middle floor of an old house on campus. Once the medics arrived, they banged on the door at the back of the house.  A tenant from the first floor apartment opened the door giving them access to the stairs leading to the second floor.  One of Jessie’s housemates answered the door and led them to Jessica’s room.

They found her alone in her bed and unresponsive, and called Joann, who reached her ex-husband and together with their sons, they drove five hours in the middle of the night to the Crouse Medical Center. There, in the hospital waiting room, the family received the news that Jessica Leigh Pfeifer – their beautiful and vivacious daughter and sister -- did not survive her darkest night.

She was 21 years old.

‘What If’ and ‘Why?’

“Jessica Leigh Pfeifer is my first born, the daughter I had always dreamed of, and a great joy and love in my life,” Joann recently wrote. “Jessie is also my greatest sorrow.”

In the eight years that have passed since her daughter’s death, Joann has struggled to comprehend a moment that in all of its horrible reality still remains unimaginable. Her recollection of receiving that 2:30 a.m. phone message from Jessie, melded with the helplessness of knowing that her daughter was five-hour drive away from her home in Kennett Square, is a constant ritual and never-ending film reel that invariably turns itself inward, to her, the mother.

In each nightmare she has – at the end of every "What If?" and "Why?" -- the revolving carousel of photographs from her daughter’s life do not match the tragedy.

“Jessie loved life and she loved people,” Joann said recently. “I don’t know what happened to her over the last few months of her life. There was the stress of graduating from college, but I was never sure why she turned all of that anger on to, and destroyed herself.

“I don’t know if she expected me to save her, but I failed to save her.”

Just like she did for her two sons, Joann began to write a series of handwritten letters to her daughter soon after Jessie was born on June 19, 1990. Over the course of the past eight years, the letters were never far from Joann. Slowly, they began to take on a new purpose – one that should be shared with others.

Published in May by Covenant Books and available on and Amazon, “She Called Herself Jess” is a 236-page love letter that documents the rich life her daughter led, and includes several photographs of Jessie. Told in the form of letters from mother to daughter, Pfeifer’s book is a log of soccer games, piano and dance recitals, gymnastics lessons and a 12-year education in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District that ended with Jessie’s graduation from Unionville High School in 2008.

Taking suicide out of the dark corners

“I have put my whole life out there with this book, as well as my family’s,” Pfeifer said.

“My intent is to take the issue of suicide out of the dark corners and talk about it. By putting this book out there, if one sentence helps a parent talk to their child or helps a child understand that suicide is a permanent result to a temporary feeling, then it fulfills my intentions for it.”

“This book was meant to tell young people that they can get through their darkest night, and that their next day will be brighter, and that there are better paths forward.”

Unfortunately, the tragedy that led Jessie Pfeifer to end her life eight years ago has reached the crisis stage at colleges and universities. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), the suicide rate among young adults ages 15–24 has tripled since the 1950s, and is now the second-most common cause of death among college students.

In a recent study published in Depression and Anxiety of more than 67,000 college students from more than 100 institutions, one in five students have had thoughts of suicide, with nine percent making an attempt and nearly 20 reporting self injury.

In every suicide prevention handbook given to a parent, they are told to look for the “warning signs,” such as depression, disinterest in school, loss of friendships and excessive sleeping. For many parents whose children are away from home for the first time – especially those who are attending distant schools – phone calls, online chats and texts don’t always reveal the true story of how their child is coping.

For Joann, there were no warning signs coming from Syracuse.

“Having Jessie five hours away from home was really hard, because I couldn’t just hop in the car and go to her,” Joann said. “To me, I saw her maturing and growing. I thought she was flying, and I had no reason to believe that she would crash and burn.”

Over the past eight years, Joann has been comforted by her friends and the many community members who have generously reached out to her. She has channeled her grief not only in a new book, but also back into the community as a volunteer for Willow Tree Hospice in Kennett Square, Natural Lands, a land conservancy that saves and connects people to the outdoors, and the Kennett Library tutoring a student in English studies.

And yet, the confusion and the anger and the not knowing that came with the death of her daughter have not left Joann Pfeifer. Nor have the photographs and the letters. They will never go away, and neither will the imaginary conversations she still has with her daughter and the ones she has with herself.

“Sometimes, I wake up and say, ‘This isn’t true,’” she said. “Sometimes, I attempt to will it away and wish it away and cry it away and scream it away, and it never goes away.  Part of this book is about saying, ‘Yes, my daughter did die by her own hand.’ It’s also about deciding to help other parents and their children to learn not to make the same mistake.

“Jessie never got to finish her story. I think this book is a way to show everyone what a funny person she was, some of the things she did and said, and how much of a great citizen she would have been. This is my way to honor her.”

To order the book “She Called Herself Jess,” visit

Proceeds from this book will be given to non-profit organizations that support animals, conservation efforts, children, national parks, suicide prevention efforts and the Willow Tree Hospice in Kennett Square.

To learn more about the book “She Called Herself Jess” and to read Joann’s writing, visit “SheCalled Herself Jess” on Facebook.

If you suspect that your child may be having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one is in immediate danger, call 911.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].