Letters to Chris. June 8. Two months later.

Hey Buddy,

Once again, I’m here at the Starbucks down the street. Where I wrote my second ever letter to you. At the time, I couldn’t believe it had been six days since you’d been alive. That was so hard to wrap my mind around….It feels like yesterday, but it that two months ago. Somehow 61 days have passed. In that letter, I talked to you about how time refuses to pass when you need it to. But obviously…pass it does. Because here we are…61 days later. I can’t understand how time keeps passing? I don’t want it to…Each day that passes is another day away from you. What is it going to feel like when you’ve been gone for years? I can’t bear to think about that. And for some reason, you’ve felt so far away lately. Where are you? I’m so scared I’ll never feel your presence again. There are days where I think everything will be okay. Where I think just knowing you are still very much alive, albeit in a different way than I am, will be enough. I go about my day. I’m productive. I laugh often. Then there are times where all of this is just too much, and I don’t know how to breathe. Those are the moments I feel on the verge of a panic attack. The walls close in, my chest constricts so I can’t take a deep breath. It’s like my body completely just rejects the reality of you being gone. Seriously, Chris, where are you? And how does the world keep spinning with you not here? How does the sun continue to rise? How do other people feel happy, laugh, make plans? I see all these people going about their days like nothing has changed. Can’t they feel your absence?? I feel like your death should have disrupted the entire world. I’m sure everyone who loses someone they love feels the same way. But yet…life goes on. For others. Not for me. Or Nikea. Or Mom or Dad. Not yet. I hear it’s supposed to again some day. Rumor has it. But I don’t want it to. I’m so afraid of letting go.

I’ve never been more scared of anything.

It’s weird…now you’re like this mystical being…someone who had at one time lived that has gone to a place I can’t follow. Who now knows things I could never imagine. Who I’ll never see or touch again. Or hear laugh. Or get a text from. You’ve taken on this almost ethereal quality. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I’ve been going through and re-editing professional photographs I took of you. The ones from when we visited you in the hospital for Carter’s birth, his newborn pictures, your wedding reception.  It is so weird seeing them. Looking at you in iPhone pictures is one thing…but from my beloved Canon 5D Mark iii, it is quite another. You look so alive. Like I could reach through the computer screen and touch you. The pictures from the hospital are adorable. You were so exhausted, but so in love with your new son. Then the newborn shoot we did a short while later…Remember that day? When everyone came over to see Carter, BBQ, smoke cigars, and hang out like the Rudloffs do best. Grandma and Grandpa, Grandpa Ward, David, Stacie, Derrick, Travis, Grayson, Austen, Hannah and Sayre, Sue and Tim were all there. It’s hard to describe how I feel when I see these photos. I can’t say “happy” or “peaceful,” but a weird hybrid where they there but completely overshadowed by a million other emotions. Devastation. Nausea. Exhaustion. Disbelief that you’re gone. Anger. Fear. Gratitude that I have these photos.

I posted a pic of you and Uncle Tim on Sue’s wall. In this picture, Tim is sitting at our patio table, with you in the background smiling. Hannah commented on it, her words perfectly describing what I feel every day:

“Isn’t it crazy that 2 people in this pic aren’t here anymore? I mean it’s just so crazy. They’re right there! I can picture what they looked like right after the pic was taken. I can see them talking, breathing, enjoying family time. But now they’re gone. It doesn’t seem real.”

It doesn’t. You’re right there. Both of you. Happy. Enjoying life. I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that you are in those pictures which I feel were taken yesterday but not here. How?? God, life is cruel.

I posted a couple  of my favorites (remember the ones in our backyard where you were wearing your ACUs? You’re holding Carter and looking down on him, your cap pulled deep over your eyes, and another where you’re kissing him) on a photography community page I am a part of, called Mastin. Kirk Mastin, who created this forum, made a group of actions which help photographers edit photos in a way that make them look like they were taken by a film camera. On this particular page, people share photos and ask for ideas, editing tips, etc. I was honestly terrified to share these pictures. For one, there are thousands of super talented photographers on here. But also I wanted to share why these photographs are so precious to me. I’ll never withhold how you died. None of us will. Because we are never, ever going to be ashamed of you. Ever. But I am so protective of you, and am always waiting for someone to say something ignorant. And then I’d have to kick their ass. But I shared how my brother had commit suicide April 8, and how I had never really been a fan of my work on this particular shoot just because it was an earlier one and I was super hard on myself, yet after reediting using Mastin, I was completely in love with the photos. I ended the post saying, “How handsome was he in his uniform?!”

The response I received was overwhelming.

In the first hour, I had over 200 likes and about a dozen comments. Two days later there are over 550 likes and 62 comments, including 11 others who lost loved ones to suicide. I had hoped to reach at least one person who was going through what we are…but I was in no way expecting the outpouring of love I ended up getting. I cried because I had no idea so many on this website were themselves suicide survivors. I had asked what their loved ones names were…Scotty Phelps, Nicholas Hill, James Jacob, Caitlyn Rose Bailey. Beautiful souls who you are joined with on the other side. My heart feels as full as it has in two months, in a way, because so many people out there care. Perfect strangers who hurt for us and know what we feel. Now, 552 other people know who you were. They read about you, saw your pictures, cried for you. They know you lived. And I cannot physically put into words how that makes me feel. You may have only been here 25 years, buddy, but you’ve made your mark.

By the way, I’m sorry I chastised you for not thanking me when I gave you all the photos I edited. I know you were so exhausted from a new baby and work…I should never have gotten after you. I’ve freely admitted that I can be an asshole. But still, I’m sorry.

I taught yoga tonight for the first time in five months. My old boss asked if I could sub, and I wanted so badly to say no. But I felt this push…from Clay, who really thought it would be good for me, but also from you. It was so solid. I knew I had to say yes. And from the moment I accepted, there was never a question of what my “theme” would be (I love theming my classes. I’m a nerd-I know). I would talk about the resilience of the human spirit, how we learn so much about ourselves and our ability to survive during times of absolute heartbreak. I was completely honest, sharing how I didn’t want to teach at first. Because 1) it had been so long since I taught (five months…has it really been that long??), and 2) it’s the two month anniversary of your suicide. Our last full conversation took place after I had left a class there, too…Remember, when you were stressing out about finding an apartment and I told you how we were moving into our friend’s basement while we job searched? That conversation is still so fresh in my mind. Like it took place yesterday. You talked about how you couldn’t see the light, how you had started smoking to deal with your stress, saying you knew I would tell Mom and that you didn’t need a lecture (Hey punk-I never said anything. I didn’t “tell” on you ever. And when did I ever lecture you??! Hmph).

Anyways. In class I shared four main things I have learned in the past two months through grieving. Firstly, the human being is capable of enduring the most horrific of tragedies. Things we never think we’d be able to survive. If someone told me I’d lose my brother and my uncle Tim, I’d want to quit life right then. I would have said there was NO WAY I’d live through losing both of you. But obviously, we are all still here. Me. Mom. Nikea and Bethany. Dad. Katrina. Hannah, Sue and Sayre are still here after losing Tim. I don’t always know how I am. I say this a lot, but it does surprise me at times. It feels like I should have died from heartache by now. It just proves my point. We are resilient. We are so much stronger than we think could ever think possible.

Secondly, I believe we learn more about ourselves during times of grief than any other periods in our life. I’ve learned how fiercely I love. I never realized…I knew that I loved my family more than anything. Obviously. But I had no idea how deeply that love went. To my very core. I’ve learned how much I’ve taken these people I love for granted. Look at you-I always thought I had tomorrow to call. I’ve also learned how strong I am. This kinda goes back to my first point, but I’m blown away by my resilience (I’m totally patting myself on the back right now). I mean seriously. This is it. Bad shit will continue to happen because that’s life. But I know I’ll get through because I’m getting through this. Not unscathed. Forever changed. But still, I’m surviving. I’m a survivor.

Third, I’ve learned how much people can surprise you. I’ve had so people reach out, cry with me, share their own stories of loss, donate large sums of money. I mean, the photography post I told you about is a perfect example. It times of hardship, people want to be there for you. And we should let them. I think mental illness is a subject very near and dear to many hearts. From what I have seen, so many either struggle with it or have a loved one who does. So they desperately want to lend a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen. They want to help me make a difference. And this gives me hope. Everyone I’ve talked to has been so eager to have a discussion about a topic that up to very recently has been considered taboo. Which leads me to four: regardless of what we are going through, there are people out there who know exactly how we feel. The first few weeks, I felt like I was the only one who had lost someone I love to suicide. I knew I wasn’t, but I had no idea how many were out there, desperately wanting to talk about their loved one. That’s why I asked the names of those I listed above…I know how desperately I want to tell people your name, talk about you, share your story, even with those I don’t know. And I want to know about their loved ones. You all need to be remembered, even by those of us who don’t know you but are still bound to you because we, too, have lost a sibling, parent, cousin, friend, spouse, to suicide.

Random thought, but I had a random memory pop in my head the other day. Remember when I used Endust on our wood floors that one time when my chore was to dry mop? When I was done, Mom told me I needed to actually mop because the Endust made the floors so slick everyone was falling. Right after she said that, you walked through the front door and slid. It was so funny, and even though I felt bad I couldn’t stop laughing.

I love those random memories.

By the way, I need to thank you. I think you’ve been helping my photography business take off again. Since you passed, I’ve booked a wedding, two family sessions and a yoga festival. Out of the blue. I really believe that’s you. One particularly rough day I heard you say, “I got you, Sis.” I heard it. As clear as day. And I know you do. You still feel so far away right now, but I know that’s not forever. I just need to keep holding on, like I’ve been doing. Keep breathing when my chest constricts and the walls close in, keep getting out of bed in the morning, keep loving…I know these are all things you want. Please be patient with me. I’m doing my best right now. But I miss you.

Love you, Buddy.

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