Lorraine Mitchell is so glad she got the picture. She and her six adult siblings were all together last year at a funeral for a relative, so she insisted they stand for a photo.

Most were clad in black, save for Kim Ezell, who was smiling in the middle of the group in a yellow striped dress. Projecting optimism, even during darker times, was typical for Ezell, known by all as “Darlene.”

“She was always just loving life, no matter what,” Mitchell said of her older sister, a 59-year-old grandmother.

Now Ezell’s tight-knit, multigenerational family is mourning again. She was found dead this week in Delaware after being missing for more than a month.

On Jan. 5, her daughter, Jameelah, hadn’t heard from her mother all morning and went to check on her. When she arrived at the house on the 1700 block of West Allegheny Avenue, her mother was nowhere to be found.

But inside was a grisly scene. Stanley Lawton, 78, who also lived in the house, was naked and dead of a gunshot wound through the eye.

A week later, police arrested Walter Heard, 30, in connection with the killing. Police believe Heard — whose family owns the house where Ezell had rented an apartment for more than five years — forcibly entered the home and killed Lawton.

Three more weeks went by before authorities in Newark, Del. — 45 miles away — discovered Ezell’s body inside a vehicle that was parked on the Stanton campus of the Delaware Technical Community College. The vehicle was used for parts by the campus fleet management.

No one has been arrested in connection with Ezell’s death, and officials have not ruled on the cause. Her family said they were told she may have been shot.

Heard faces charges of murder, aggravated assault, burglary, and illegal gun possession in connection with Lawton’s killing. He is being held without bail at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. His attorney, Perry de Marco Sr., declined to comment.

Lawton was one of 55 homicide victims in Philadelphia this year. It’s a grim continuation of the surge in killings that began in spring 2020 and is largely driven by gun violence. The city saw 562 homicides last year, the most in modern history.

Left behind are families like the Ezells who must plan an unexpected funeral, in their case after a torturous month of preparing for the worst, but praying for the best. Ezell’s cousins, children, nieces, and nephews printed 1,000 fliers with her photo and papered them across North Philadelphia in hopes of finding her alive.

One tattered flier was still attached to a telephone pole Thursday night, flapping in the breeze in front of the rowhouse where she lived, as dozens of family members and friends gathered on the sidewalk to release white balloons in her memory.

They shared tales about how she was always the life of the party — she loved to dance to old-school R&B and sing along with Earth, Wind, and Fire.

They pronounced their pride for the 1900 block of North Judson Street, where Ezell raised her two children.

And they agonized over the premature death of someone they described as living to help others. Over the years, she worked in home care and helped to fix things around her family members’ houses. She had known Lawton for years, her family said, and put him up when he needed a place to live.

Her nephew, Darrell Ezell, made the hourlong trek from his home in Collegeville to attend the vigil, saying he had to be there — that when he was 13 and had nowhere else to go, his Aunt Darlene took him in.

“It’s just unbelievable what happened to her,” he said.

Her son, Jamal, said there is some sense of closure that comes with authorities finding his mother’s body. But he is still wrestling with how to make sense of his life without her, and he can’t understand why someone would “bring a gun for a 59-year-old woman and a 78-year-old man.”

For now, her family will find comfort in pictures of Ezell flashing her radiating smile, said her cousin, Shakirah Blakely.

“She was a special kind of love,” she said as her family members passed out balloons to release into the chilly air. Blakely cocked her head and looked at the rowhouse where her cousin had lived, whispering, “and it all ended here.”