Letters to Chris. April 25th. Day 17.

Hey Buddy,

I’ve hoarded more of your things. My pile of Chris articles on the bed has grown to include nine shirts, a jacket, a pair of jeans, a pillow from your couch and one from your bed (complete with camo pillowcase), your stuffed toy dog, pajama pants, four books and your firefighter blanket. I’m lucky this bed is a king or else there would be no room for me. Nikea came home for dinner tonight and went through your things to find stuff she wanted to keep, too. I told her she could go through the things on my bed and she laughed, remarking how every time she comes home the heap grows. But I HAD to grow it slowly. I wasn’t sure if Mom would be okay with me removing anything, so Id sneak up a few pieces of clothing every night. What started out as a couple shirts has blossomed into an entire wardrobe.

Remember how Nikea rarely cries? She did when she started going through your shirts downstairs tonight. She held up one of your grey sweatshirts with the zipper neck, saying how she could just SEE you wearing it. I walked around your things to her and held her tight, then Mom wrapped her arms around both of us and we all started to sob. Mom asked how we are going to get through this. She knows we will, but she just doesn’t know how. I don’t either. Time I guess. It’s going to take so long. But time is the only thing that will help. Poor Mom. She not only feels her own pain, but also Nikea’s and mine. She sobbed that she would do anything to take our pain away, that she wished she could just take it all as her own. And I know she would in a second. It must be the hardest thing in the world, to be a parent at a time like this. She couldn’t save her son, and now she can’t protect her daughters from hurting. That has to be such a powerless feeling. But I wouldn’t want her to take away my pain. Yes, it sucks to ache, to miss you like this. To have this crazy huge chasm in my heart that hurts all the time. Every minute of every day. But this grief is my own. It connects me to you. I was thinking about that movie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and if I was given the option to erase you to get rid of the pain, would I? The answer was so simple. Absolutely not. Never. Knowing you, loving you, growing up with you as my brother, is worth the pain. Every single second of it. You helped make me who I am, and there is no way in hell I would ever let that go. Even if I felt like this every day for the rest of my life. I know everyone feels the same. You are ours, and we would never give that up. Nikea ended up picking out several different shirts, and as she held them close to her chest she remarked how the pile was about the same width as you. I held out my arms and hugged the air, the exact width I remember your tall skinny body being. I still remember the exact way my arms fit around you. I just can see you, hear you so clearly. Feel our hugs so clearly. Like I hugged you yesterday, even though it’s been a year (A year…it just doesn’t seem possible that it’s been that long since I saw your beautiful face). Don’t let that fade, Chris.

Yesterday, I met one of my closest friends for coffee. You may have met Chris at our wedding. She’s incredible and is one of the most loving and supportive human beings I know. She’s one of those people who simply calms your heart by being there. She cried with me, and she really didn’t even know you; she just felt my pain with me. I’m grateful you had friends like that in your life. I know of a couple. But despite a few tears during our visit, there were actually quite a few laughs. It was so good to catch up.  It’s so easy to want to stay home, huddled on the couch with your stuff, but I need to keep doing normal things like meeting for coffee. I told Mom tonight that I don’t know how to go on with my normal life, to which she responded, “You will because you have to. You have to go to work. You have to walk the dogs. You have to go to the grocery store.” And I know she’s right. But it also feels so wrong to get on with a normal life. I’m just not ready yet. Not even close. Like tonight, I RSVP’d to a friend’s birthday party. It’s going to be so weird…celebrating someone’s another year alive when you died. It just seems so foreign to me. Things I would look forward to I now have no idea how to handle. I feel so changed.

But I do notice more “normal” moments in between the crying. I put quotations around normal, because it’s still not normal. Not at all. You’re there, regardless of what we do. But there are more moments of easy conversation, even more laughter. We sat on the patio this evening. Today was almost too warm but this evening was perfect. I love springtime in Missouri. Dad, of course, was telling stories about this and that, waving his arms wildly as he does. Somehow Trump came up, which Mom put a stop to quickly. I teased Dad about the Glenn Beck book he has on his work bench, worrying that he was going to pass it to us to read. Then an Oriole perched on a tree close to us, contemplating visiting the bird feeder (it changed its mind. Dad said we moved too much-every time one of us would shift slightly, he’d be like, “Don’t move….Stop blinking! Stop rubbing your neck. Nikea, hold still!” Nikea was trying to remove a hair from her face and commented she was going to throw hair in Dad’s face and see if he could hold still. Such a little smart ass. I really need to record these conversations).

I went to Mom’s therapy appointment with her yesterday. I’m so glad I did. I wish I could take Dr. Kramer with me to Denver. I don’t remember this, but apparently she interviewed you, Bethany and I when Mom and Dad were becoming our guardians. Anyway, she’s amazing. Obviously we talked about you. Ha. But she could just see I’ve been beating myself up about not being there for you. I didn’t even have to say anything, but she pulled her chair closer to me, looked me in the eyes and said, “Jennifer. There is nothing you could have done. You were there for him. That’s all you could do.”

“No. I didn’t reach out like I should have. I was so pissed at him for not wanting to be better. I let him down.”

“You did what you could. You were there for him as much as he would let you. You reached out, and he kept slapping away your hand. He did that to everyone. It was not your fault. You were living in two different states, living your own lives. Unless someone calls 24 hours in advance to tell you they are going to commit suicide, there is not much you can do. Chris didn’t tell anyone he had these thoughts.”

It helped, but I’m still angry with myself. I still have guilt. I still think about all the things I should have done differently. But it helped to hear someone say I couldn’t have saved you, if only for a little while. Dr. Kramer also helped me feel better about something that has been plaguing me: your final moments. See, we went through your phone and know you were alive when Mom and Dad called. You texted someone else that you were thinking about killing yourself AFTER Dad called. Chris, why the f*ck didn’t you pick up the phone? Was it because your text didn’t come through for an hour and so you were upset no one responded?? One thing that haunts Mom is that her phone didn’t even show your text until 730, a full hour after you sent it. It just didn’t come through. I assured her that you had already made up your mind, but she still wonders if you were waiting for a response. I don’t know if trying to figure out the timeline made anything better. No. It didn’t. What do we do with this knowledge? But we just felt we needed to know. That’s the thing when someone you love ends his life-you look for answers. Any answers. We are beyond grateful you sent a text, but in a way it leaves us with more questions. What does “I can’t live like this anymore” mean, Chris?? I hate all these questions that will never have answers. Do you understand what that does to us? Do you know what it was like for Mom, Dad and Nikea to be sitting here, waiting to hear back from the police? What it was like when they patched Mom through to the sheriff on the scene who confirmed what Mom already knew? I wish I had known of that text. I would have texted you, begging you to live, to let me come out and visit. It wouldn’t have done any good. But this is stuck on repeat in my head. Best we can tell, it was between 741 (when you sent your final text) and 830. Like I said, this knowledge doesn’t do anyone any good. But your final moments, at this particular time in my grief, seem so important. To know what you were feeling, what you were thinking. I’ve always told myself you were at peace, but of course there’s that part of me that questions. So I told Dr. Kramer how I keep thinking about those final moments. Were you scared? What was going through your mind? To which she replied that she believes you were at peace. That I cannot possibly know what you were thinking, because I cannot apply my “sane” mind to where you were. She explained that once someone has gotten to the place where they are going to kill themselves, they have crossed from “sanity” to “insanity,” or rather, no longer sane. In those moments, our brains process differently. And instead of the fear and anguish another person may feel at the thought of death, you felt relief. Clearheaded. Peace. It showed through the text you sent Mom. I cling to that. Dr. Kramer has strong faith like me. The serenity prayer hangs in her office. So we talked about God and Heaven, and how God took care of you because he knew you were sick. You weren’t alone in your final moments…someone who loved you very much was there with you. Hearing that has helped more than anything else. My faith, and knowing you are in Heaven and being cared for, that you are here watching over us, are the only things that keep me going.

I did find something cool…I was going through your emails and came across one you had sent your uncle almost two years ago to the day. It was four pages of you talking about how happy you were, describing in detail your time in AIT, your first deer hunt, your new wife and little boy. You were so damn happy, so proud of what you accomplished and so in love with life. It was so funny, too, quoting Forest Gump when talking about your butt shots (“Something jumped up and bit me!” I didn’t know that was your favorite movie). It was heartbreaking and comforting to read, because this was the person I knew before the last six months. Comforting because you DID know happiness. Heartbreaking because of the difference between the person who wrote this and the person who took his life. Two years. Two. Years. But I forwarded your email to Mom, Dad and Nikea. Because this is how we want to remember you. Proud. Deeply happy. Excited about the future. I’m so tired and am going to try to sleep. I wish I could work on this earlier in the day, but it just seems my brain doesn’t work until the odd hours of the night.

Love you, Buddy. Miss you.

Letters to Chris. April 23rd. Day 15.

Hey Buddy,

I’m actually feeling as close to “content” as I possibly can right now. I’m wearing your Army PT shirt, your Breckenridge sweatshirt and your plaid pajama pants. Covered with your firefighter blanket. I’m actually pretty hot but I refuse to shed any layers. This hot laptop doesn’t help. I just went through all of my old Facebook photos and tagged you, Mom, Dad and Nikea in all of them. Pictures of you dressed up for Prom, for Winter Sports, pics of us at McDonalds for Austen’s birthday, wresting at the Rocheport Winery, feeding fish at Tan Tar A…And I didn’t cry. That’s progress. I think it’s still hard to reconcile the boy with the long hair and goofy grin as being gone. When I look at your photos, it doesn’t seem real. That young boy I knew would never do something to hurt himself.

Denial phase again?

Yesterday was a super long day. Dad and I drove to Sedalia to drop off meds for Grandpa and see the family. Sue, Hannah, Holten, Sayre, Connor, David and Stacy were all there. I couldn’t be there during Christmas (rescheduled due to an ice storm so Sedalia Christmas happened after I returned to Colorado), so it was wonderful to see everyone. Connor is adorable. He’s so tiny! I always forget how little they are when they are brand new. New mama Sayre is beautiful and exhausted. Sue is in grandma Heaven. Holten is getting so big! Hannah is doing well and decided she can’t stand her dog (we all got a big laugh out of this). David and Stacy just got back from visiting Derek, and are planning another trip out soon. Of course Grandma and Grandpa are doing well. Poor Grandma was fussing because I couldn’t eat anything since I’m allergic to gluten. That’s right, Chris. There was hole-in-the-bread and freaking Mississippi mud and it took every fiber of my being not to face plant in both. Everyone misses you. Hannah started to cry, saying she had no idea how sad you were. I assured her that it wasn’t just her-none of us did.

Then Dad and I picked up Mom and headed to Mexico to see Bethany. She still didn’t know. So Mom brought plastic Easter eggs to fill with candy and I brought pics I took of Connor to help distract her after we told her. Even though Bethany is mentally handicapped, she knows what death is. The second Mom signed “CJ died” she began to wail. It was awful. We just held her as her heart broke. Then she asked if you died from a gunshot to the head. We just looked at each other. How did she know? But we said, “No, CJ had cancer.” She’d ask again a little later, and we would just repeat the answer we gave her before. Then she left it. Thank goodness. They watch a lot of TV there, so we believe she has seen things like that on shows. Who knows. We took her out to Taco Bell for dinner, and she did okay for a while after. We filled eggs with candy, and then in the middle of handing them out to her roommates, she began to wail again. She kept signing “my brother died.” I was so angry with you. I knew you would never want to hurt any of us, especially Bethany. But here she was, sobbing for her big brother. And we couldn’t take away her pain. You know Bethany is the sweetest, most loving little person. It makes my heart ache just thinking about it. I didn’t want to leave her. I don’t see her nearly enough. I’ve decided to be better about Face Timing her and sending her cards and little gifts. You’ve taught me to not take her for granted.

This evening, I went through all of your things. This was my Goliath. I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle it. Every time I’d go downstairs I’d have to stop at all your boxes and bury my face in your clothes and break down. Yet I knew it would be too much for Mom right now, and I needed to touch all of your things. I only cried like four times. That’s good, I guess. I started with all your clothes, folding and separating. Any I found that smelled like you I set aside. I’ve been reduced to a person who seeks out her brother’s sweaty shirts. Maybe that’s gross. I’m sure you’d make fun of me. But that sweat is from a body that I washed and diapered, wrestled, hugged, probably pushed in anger a time or two when we were little. A body that no longer exists. So any time I’d find one that smelled of you, I’d stop and bury my nose in it. I separated your clothes into several containers: one for shirts, one for pants and shorts, and one for all military and firefighting clothing. You had some dirty laundry as well, mostly just underwear, socks and towels. I pointed those out to Mom when she came down to check on me, and she started crying. It’s so hard for her to be around your things right now. But she doesn’t want to part with any. She warned me tonight that she doesn’t want me to take back many things to Colorado. Not yet. I can have them, but she needs time before she can let them go. That was hard to hear. I’m going back to an apartment that holds no memories with you, whereas you’re everywhere here. And all of your belongings are downstairs. But I know she has the right to grieve over her son in the way she needs to, and if that means holding onto your things for a while, I have to respect that.

I also went through all your books, and set aside the ones that looked like they had sentimental value. A couple firefighting books (one of which had your Citizen of the Month certificate from middle school in it. I was at that ceremony…so crazy. It seems like yesterday). Your books from AIT. Yearbooks. I had to laugh at one yearbook-I’m guessing you had an arch nemesis because you had crossed out one girl’s name and wrote “ugly” in its place. I’ve decided middle schoolers are odd little people. On the inside cover, where your friends signed their names, one girl wrote how she wanted to be friends all year but didn’t think you did but oh wow you actually did want to be friends. Dad and I got big kick out of that. I also found your Harry Potter books. I am going to take those if Mom will let me. I have my own set but I’ll just replace it with yours, which obviously has way more sentimental value. These are the actual books Dad read to you. And then I found your old Legends of Sleepy Hollow I remember reading right here on this couch.

I looked through your cards you kept. I found a couple I had sent you…one for graduation, one for your 11th birthday. I called you “buddy” in both. I’m trying to remember when I started calling you that…I have no idea. I’m honestly amazed I got you cards…I’m the world’s worst card-giver. I keep every card given to me ever, but I absolutely SUCK at getting them for others. Hypocrite? Maybe. But I was excited to see you’d kept those, along with a couple drawings I did for you of Garfield the cat sleeping (no idea why I drew this??) and a dog. You had kept a ton of cards from our real mom, so I set those aside for her. I figure she’ll want them. You also had a ton of thank you notes from your old teacher, Mrs. Dahms. I believe she was second grade. Nikea had her as a teacher as well, and apparently she’s awesome because who keeps notes from their second grade teacher?

Then I went through your knickknacks, mostly your real dad’s things. Military medals, the old black and white pics from Korea I mentioned before. And then rocks. Rocks. Rocks and more rocks. Beautiful rocks, though. Ones even I can appreciate. Geods and minerals I’m sure Dad gave you. Fossils. This cool quartz ball thing. I imagined them all displayed on your bookshelf among with your dozens of books. It reminded me of when you were little, and you would collect all these things in your pockets Mom would have to pull out before she washed your clothes. Rocks, sticks…I’ll have to ask Mom what else she’d discover. But she always found that so funny. She’d put them in a baggy and mail them to Mom Heidi.

Then your jackets. My word, you had so many jackets. I have decided you were a collector of all things camo (shirts, sheets, pants, jackets), rocks and jackets. Oh and cowboy boots. You had three pairs. That’s a lot of cowboy boots!

All your military and firefighting stuff was the hardest to go through. I know how much you loved both. Ever since you were little, it was your dream to be a firefighter and soldier like your real dad. I’m so grateful you got to experience both. How many people can say they accomplished dreams they had as a child? I believe it’s really rare, Chris. We are so proud of you.

By the way, I talked to my boss and am officially back to work next Monday. They’ve been unbelievably patient. The last six months have literally been the worst of my life, what with trying to find job, living in a basement, my health issues, Clay’s torn meniscus and surgery…and now this. I feel so discouraged. I’m definitely hoping life doesn’t keep throwing curve balls, because I’m exhausted. I had really thought things were getting better. We found jobs. I found a doctor I really like that seems to have answers. We moved out of the basement to a cute apartment. Then that phone call from Mom. I’m so tired, Chris. I feel like I’ve been fighting nonstop, and I’m ready for a break. I guess another way to look at it is I can overcome anything. Nothing will come close to this. This is the worst thing that could happen. My worst fear realized..losing a loved one. A sibling. Life has to be uphill from here, right? Unless someone else I love dies. I’m so terrified that will happen now. But I know you’ll give me strength. You’re giving all of us strength. Thank you. Because I feel so weak right now.

I’ve been thinking of the things I’ve learned the past two weeks. Grief really makes you hyper aware of your life and the people in it. For one,  we have so many incredible people in our family. I’ve always loved and appreciated them, but now I have absolutely no idea how I could ever get on without them. They have been so wonderfully supportive. Which brings me to my second realization: some people you fully expect to be there for you refuse to alter their lives to accommodate you while you’re grieving. Sometimes you want to spend time with someone who just has too busy of a schedule for you. This was a hard one to realize. On a more positive note is my third realization: we are so much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Humans are incredibly resilient, even those of us who fold to depression. Like I’ve told you, you were one of the strongest people I knew. You lived so long with your heartache, longer than I could have. It’s a broken world, and sometimes we have to live through our nightmares. But if we keep fighting, we can come out the other side. That’s realization 4: we have to go through the emotions. One of my first thoughts when Mom called me was, “I don’t want to go through this. I don’t want to feel what I’m feeling.” Because grief is awful. Loss is the worst possible thing we can go through. But we have to go through it. We have to cry, to mourn. We have to feel anger, despair, depression, fear, doubt, loneliness, hopelessness, before we can heal. I will always carry this scar. A huge part of me died with you. I’ll never be the same. None of us will. But by allowing ourselves to grieve and feel all the awful emotions that come with it, we will come out the other side. I feel like I’m in this awful dark tunnel with no light anywhere right now. I know that’s how you felt, as well. But, realization number 5 is that we have no idea how many people care for us. I guarantee you didn’t. Our deaths affect far more people than we expect. I’m sure you didn’t know how may people would be missing you, sobbing for your broken heart, posting on your Facebook wall, sending cards (we’ve received dozens). When we go through all the crap that life hurls at us, we need to lean on those who love us. They are what get us through. Six: grief does weird things to your body. I’m so tired 90 percent of the time, I’m breaking out like a teenager, my skin is rough and dry, I’ve lost eyelashes (probably from crying). I want to eat all the sugar (amazingly I’ve only caved once, and that was for my favorite candies, Percy Pigs, that Courtney had left over from our London trip a year ago). It’s a bit funny. It’s like your body is saying, “Hey, you’re devastated. Have some pimples!”

F*ck you, cortisol.

Realization number 6: take depression seriously. It’s a dangerous illness that can overtake anyone. We knew you struggled and we tried to help you in every way we could, but ultimately we couldn’t save you. I knew better than anyone what you were going through, but I didn’t know you had suicidal thoughts. Like I’ve said before, maybe I should have. No…I should have. You were my brother. I knew you your entire life. I should have acknowledged the possibility. I know guilt is normal in this situation, and everyone who goes through our situation struggles with it. But lesson learned.

F*ck you, depression.

Next, do not take people for granted. Just don’t. We get so caught up in our own lives that we forget to take a few precious moments out of our day to make a call, or even send a text, to say “I love you.” It just doesn’t take any time. We get comfortable and forget that life’s a bitch, and people die when we least expect them to. I was thinking about the last time I heard your voice today. Oddly, it was when I was cutting fat off a pork shoulder. My mind never stops. But it was Christmas. You called us, and Mom put you on speaker. I was so disappointed you couldn’t come home. We chatted for at least 20 minutes. That was the last time we talked. I still can’t believe I let that long go by since we chatted…that was when life started to get super tough for us (we had recently moved into our friend’s basement), and I became somewhat of a recluse. But that’s no excuse. I should have called you. Now I’ve been telling everyone I love them. But I should have told you every day.

My biggest realization? That you still feel close. Sometimes so close I feel I can reach out and touch you. I know you’re here. I have no doubt. Earlier this evening, I laid my head on your dress uniform that you wore to my wedding (I even flung one of the arms around me like you were hugging me. Another thing about grief-it makes you do weird things like smell your brother’s BO on his tshirts and make his uniforms hug you), and your presence was so strong. Knowing you’re still here with us is so comforting. Thank you, Chris. Keep it up, because the next couple years are going to be tough. I know one day it won’t hurt to breathe, but that day is a long way down the road. So stay close, Buddy.

Well it’s 3 am so I’m going to try to get some sleep. I love you, Buddy.

Letters to Chris. April 21st. Day 13

Hey Buddy,

Today was the kind of cool and rainy Missouri day I’ve been missing so much in Colorado. It’s always so damn sunny and dry there. I put on one of your grey sweatshirts, made some tea and walked barefoot around Mom’s garden. It’s just so peaceful out there. I thought about how much time we spent playing in the yard as children, how we used to shoot baskets at the Harlows’ and sit for hours in the culdesac. It’s so quiet now. All the kids have moved out, so the only sounds were the pitter patter of the rain. I sat by Mom’s pond, seeking shelter from the wet under a dogwood tree. At least I think it’s dogwood. I tried to just concentrate on the goldfish swimming around or on the pond’s pump as it churned water. But I couldn’t turn my mind off. So instead I envisioned the conversation you and I would be having if you were sitting next to me. What advice you’d give me to get through the next 60 years without you. I had so many questions I kept asking you. For each question I would imagine the answer you’d give. “How could you leave me when I promised to never ever abandon you?” I didn’t leave you. I’m right here. I left my pain. “Didn’t you love us?” Of course I did. I still do. I love you more than anything. This had nothing to do with you. “Is there anything you want me to know?” I’m happy. “Did you have any happiness here?” I did. But I couldn’t be happy the way I needed to be. I was tired of fighting to be happy. “Aren’t you sad you are no longer here with us?” No, because I am still here. I haven’t left. I’ll never leave you. I’m sad I hurt you. “Did you think about me during your final moments?” Of course I did. “Why didn’t you call or text me?” Because I didn’t want to know what you would say. It would be too much. “What am I supposed to do now?” Live.

I’m not sure how long I sat there, staring down into my tea having this conversation. But it helped. And then I imagined walking into our house in Linn, when you, Bethany and I were little. And grabbing you and hugging you, kissing your chubby baby cheeks. And telling little Jenn that life was going to be complicated, but everything would be okay. I sat out there for at least forty minutes before I started to get too chilled. But it was exactly what I needed. Mom’s garden is an oasis, and reminds me of an English garden, like the ones we saw in Devonshire. I think this is going to be a daily ritual. I went through more of your things. I actually found a shirt that smells like you. You are so going to judge me, but it smells of your sweat. And while that’s probably so weird, it is so comforting. I found something that doesn’t smell like Febreze. I also located the Breckenridge sweatshirt that you wore in the pic you sent to Mom that I texted you about even though I knew you’d never respond. It’s so neat I’m finding all these shirts in easily accessible places-most of your clothes are still packed away so it’s a pretty cool consequence (or not) that all the shirts I was wanting to find aren’t packed away. I also found a bunch of old pics of your father. Old black and whites from the 50’s when he was serving in the Korean War. Really neat pictures. Then more recent ones when he was the fire chief. I know you were always so proud of your dad, and never really made peace with his passing. Now you’re reunited and it must feel so wonderful. Last night was probably the worst I’ve had since coming home. Ever since we’ve gotten your things, I’ve been terrified I’d find some remnant of your decision. As I was picking through a box of papers I came across what I believe to be your phone charger. Chris, it was covered in blood. I didn’t know what to do. I just stared at it and started to hyperventilate. My baby brother’s blood. Then my mind started racing…were you charging your phone that night or did the charger just happen to be by the couch? If you were charging your phone, was it out of habit or did you actually plan on using it the next day? If that’s the case then it must have been an impulsive decision to take your life. The police said there were several guns on your living room floor, so were you cleaning them and then just said, “Fuck it?” I just kept staring at it. Then I walked into the bathroom and cleaned it off because I didn’t want Mom to see it. Did you realize, Chris, that you were going to force your sister to clean up your blood? Would you have even cared at that point? I’m sorry I yelled at you when I was cleaning it. I was so fucking angry. I felt so betrayed. How could you have forced me into this position? Though, in an odd way, I felt like I was taking care of you. Cleaning up after you, like I had when we were little. It does’t make any sense. But if someone had to clean up your blood, I wanted it to be me. Yet it makes me afraid of what else we will find. I don’t know if I can handle that again. No sister should have to wipe up her brother’s blood. Tonight, we cooked burgers (I had a steak-jealous?) and we shared stories. Mom talked about how your car died one night during high school after you snuck out of the house, forcing you to call Dad to come to the rescue (just so you know, they actually found your predicament quite hilarious). Then Nikea talked about how you and Bethany would try to out-eat each other at the dinner table. You literally competed for food. God forbid one of you get one more slice of pizza than the other. Dad reminisced how you always loved building things. You’d always have all these scraps of wood, and you’d build crude forts and God knows what else. Remember how Nikea got you all that scrap wood from Scruggs lumber for Christmas? I was so jealous that I didn’t think of it first. I shared how we wrestled in the kitchen. I used to be able to hold you down and tickle you, and one evening in the kitchen I made a comment how I could still kick your ass. You were like, “Oh yeah? You wanna go??” Then it was on. You kicked my ass. But for some reason I love that memory. You were laughing so hard. You just thought it was so funny that your 5ft4 sister was trying to take you down. I also remembered the last night we all stayed together at home for Christmas. You, Clay and I slept in the living room. We had all our dogs here, and Oliver kept hopping off your mattress every 20 minutes to pace. We were so annoyed. Then, for whatever reason Mom got up around 430, after we finally got the dogs to calm down, and decided all puppies needed to go outside and potty. Clay still talks about that. I don’t think he’s ever forgiven Mom. One thing I’ve noticed though is that I’m having such a hard time thinking of memories from the last few years. I know it’s probably grief, but it’s almost like I have short term memory loss. And you KNOW that’s not like me. I remember the most insignificant details of things we would do together. I’m hoping it’s just temporary.

Do you know what’s neat? I got to thank the USPS woman that held Mom when she received your ashes. She dropped off another package while I was unloading the dishwasher (your favorite chore), and by the time Mom told me it was her I had to literally dash out of the house barefoot to catch her. I’m sure she was so confused when I ran in front of her truck and asked her to roll down her window. I grabbed her hand and thanked her for being there for Mom. She began to cry, and told me she was so happy she could help, and that she prays for our family daily. Then she said (and I need to tell Mom this) that our mother had raised amazing children and she was so lucky to have us. Normally, I would have responded with “Hell yeah she did,” or a devious “Hmmm how do you know? bwahaha) but I’ve lost most of my humor for the time being. We’ve just been blessed with so many incredible helping hands the last two weeks (two weeks…I can’t believe you’ve been gone for two weeks. It feels like the world should have stopped turning, the sun should have stopped rising. I should stop breathing. How can this world continue to exist without you?). Mr. and Mrs. Harlow came over tonight (I could probably call them by their first names now but it’s just too weird after 20 years of Mr. and Mrs). Your passing hit them hard…I mean they knew you as a little boy with big glasses. Mary enveloped us in a huge hug, huge tears in her eyes. Did you know she lost her brother years ago in a car accident? She knows the pain of losing a sibling. We stood around and chatted for a while, laughing over your childhood silliness.They had brought a plate of fresh brownies, a card and a beautiful remembrance stone for Mom’s garden. It was so good to see them. It has been years-since the Halloween reunion a few years back. 2015, I believe. I’m sure everyone thinks about what they would do in this position. One girlfriend said she tried to envision what she would do if her brother had killed himself, and she just couldn’t. And our parents’ friends…I’m sure they look at Mom and Dad and realize their worst nightmares. No one wants a loved one to pass. But when that loved one is responsible for their own passing, it just makes it so much harder to not only process, but to know what to say. What do you say to someone whose son or brother took his own life? Honestly, I don’t think there really is anything they can say. But Chris, I really appreciate how much people have tried. I know you’re grateful we have so many people out there to hold us up.

But can I tell you one of my fears? That months will pass, but I still will be hurting. Your death is not something I’m going to ever make peace with. How could I?? And I’ll be grieving still and I worry people will think I need to just get over it. Or will get tired of me talking about you. Because I’m going to need to bring you up in random conversations. I don’t want to just leave you in the past. I want you with me, here. Today. Tomorrow. And every day for the rest of my time here on earth. My beautiful baby brother, who will always be 25. As I age, I will try to envision what you’d look like as an older man, with wrinkles and graying hair. You would be so handsome. There’s this quote that I love, that goes “Do not regret growing older, a privilege denied to so many.” While I can’t imagine growing older without you aging with me, I will try to not obsess over wrinkles and graying hair. To be honest, I’m not grateful for life right now. I know I scared Clay last night, because I kept texting how exhausted I am and how I want to be with you. I would never hurt myself, but sometimes I find the thought of seeing you again comforting. I just miss you so damn much. And tonight I just kept envisioning you walking through the front door. I thought maybe if I concentrated hard enough, I could make it happen. I thought about it just being a normal night, you coming to hang out while we cooked dinner. Then I thought about how we would react now, if we saw you walk through the door. You’d be so confused because you lost your phone, so would have no idea why we were sobbing and hugging you. I’d give anything, ANYTHING for that to happen. A leg? Fine! Arm? Take it!! But it was just some big mistake. That wasn’t you. It was a mix up. Those ashes aren’t yours. You’ve just been out on a fishing trip and decided to come home to visit. We hold you close and hug you and hug you and kiss you and you’re super freaked out and a little annoyed. Then Dad and Nikea wake up and we are all hugging you and crying. Id give anything.

I guess now I’m in the bargaining phase of grief…What a horrible phase. Pleading doesn’t do any good. No amount of prayer will bring you back. And I’m not sure if imagining all that helps or just makes it worse. I think it’s worse. Because I know it will never happen. So maybe I can imagine when we are reunited in Heaven 60 years in the future. I walk through the front door and you’re sitting there with Tim, Toby and Buzz, waiting for me.

That helps.

Love you, Buddy.

Letters to Chris. April 19th. Day 11.

Hey Buddy,

Dad got home this evening with all your stuff. It’s hard to explain the emotions as I walked down the driveway to the trailer. Fear. Anxiety. Heartache. But also I was so ready to see your things. Things you held. Things you hung up on your walls and wore and slept with. Things that were YOURS. I quickly found your cowboy hat we bought you in South Dakota that you are wearing in one of my favorite childhood photos. The one of you in the cul de sac pretending to be a cowboy, getting ready to draw your fake gun. That’s coming with me.

I never thought I’d find myself looking for a dirty shirt of yours to wear. Ever. But that’s exactly what I did tonight. I just need a shirt that smells like you. What’s weird is everything smells like Febreze. I learned how you had quite the love affair with it (Katrina told me story of how you ran to Walmart for some groceries, and came out with a steak, two packages of Oreos, regular for you and double-stuffed for her, and Febreze. That’s probably the most Chris thing I’ve ever heard. PS…who doesn’t like Double-stuffed Oreos??). I found a few shirts to cuddle with out of your hamper: a camouflage henley, a flannel American Eagle shirt I gave you for Christmas one year (I was so damn happy to see you were still wearing it. Did you think of me whenever you put it on?), your Army PT shirt and a random green tshirt that was on top. I put on the green one for bed and didn’t pay attention to what was on the front until I looked into the bathroom mirror. Big letters across the front say “IRELAND 01.” I’ve been telling Clay since April 9th I thought you would like some ashes released in Ireland, where you always wanted to go since your father was Irish. But I wasn’t 100% sure, so yesterday I asked you to let me know. I believe this is your answer. So I’m taking you to Ireland with me, Little Bro. Mom saw the shirt and she smiled-she had given it to you on your birthday when you were home last month. And apparently you’re wearing it in a pic a friend of yours posted on Facebook. You have a ton of clothes. I think it’s pretty neat that I was able to find the one I gave you and this Ireland one. Even if they do all smell like Febreze and not you.

I’m also cuddling with your firefighter blanket right now. It’s absolutely massive and, from what I hear, one of your favorites. I’ll be sleeping with it, your shirts, your ACU cap that still has your name velcroed on it (so grateful the National Guard allowed us to keep your caps), your stuffed toy puppy you’ve had since childhood and your Coca Cola jacket you wore for work. There’s so much more down there. Dad was able to bring home most of your stuff (just some furniture that couldn’t fit was donated to a local church). I wanted to bring up entire boxes of things to surround myself with in bed. But I know Mom would have a really hard time with that. Before Dad got home, we had the following conversation:

Mom: “Hey, Jenn. I know when your dad gets home, you’re going to want to go through all of Chris’ stuff and take things. But I need you to know that I’m going to need organization. I just will. I can’t just go through his things and not have any order.”

Me: “But I’m going to want to keep some things.”

Mom: “I know. And you will. But I’m just telling you because I know it’s going to be hard for you not to tear through stuff. There are things I need to do. I want to wash his clothes for him. You kids always washed your own clothes, but I never minded doing it. It’s always been a way for me to take care of you all. I want to be able to wash your brother’s clothes. It’ll make me feel like I’m taking care of him.”

And then she started sobbing again, and Nikea and I wrapped our arms around her. She just seems so tiny now. I’m trying to make sure she’s eating. Mom’s always been good about taking care of herself. But she has lost weight, and I worry about her. I know the toll this is all taking on me, and I’m younger. She’s lost so many people, been through so much in her life. She’s a survivor. I know this, but i also know how awful grief and cortisol is on the body. I just need her and Dad to be okay. And obviously Nikea. But Nikea’s always been so tough, has always been more stoic than me. She’s so strong, and doesn’t cry in front of people often; she just has more control. She’s always mostly been a mad crier (the only times she’d cry when we were little is when we’d piss her off). But I’ve seen it a few times since I’ve been home, once because of something I wrote in here about you not being at her wedding. She walked into the dining room where I was sitting and said how she hadn’t even thought about her wedding next year. She’s been so focused on how to get through each day it hadn’t dawned on her that you wouldn’t be there. That realization hit her hard.

And Dad. He’s the most stoic of us all. But I could tell the last four days have especially worn him down. No father should have to pack up his son’s apartment for this reason. As I was poking through your things (don’t tell Mom), he came down to make his rum and diet. “I told your mother I don’t normally drink this late. But tonight felt like a good night to make an exception.” I was grateful to have the company. I missed his strong quiet presence. We talked about you, obviously. About his trip, and all the incredible people who offered to lend helping hands. Your landlord cleaned up your apartment, boxed most of your stuff up and had it all stacked neatly waiting for Dad. Dad said this saved him an entire day’s worth of work. Your landlord also cleaned so Dad wouldn’t have to see reminders of Saturday night. I’m not sure what all he did, but I do know he removed your couch like I said before. That thought still makes me sick (honestly, I’m so surprised I haven’t been physically ill; I’ve been nauseous and dizzy so many times). Then your old supervisor’s wife came to help Dad load up the truck. Did you know your old Coca Cola buddies had a get-together for you? Of course Dad came, and they all shared stories about you. Mom and I called in and Dad put us on speakerphone, and I tried to thank them for everything. I couldn’t get the words out. I hate how I can’t control it. I’ll have to ask Dad what they talked about.

In your stuff, we also found your Harry Potter poster. The Half-Blood Prince. I remember it hanging it your room when you lived at home. Hey remember when Dad would read you Harry Potter before bedtime? You actually discovered Harry Potter before me. I watched it at Mom’s house in Nebraska one night…taking a chance on a movie I’d never seen before in 2002. I instantly fell in love and told you about it. That’s when you informed me there were four books out, and you were reading them. I was so excited. I remember reading to you on the bottom bunk of your bed one night, and trying to do the English accents. I remember like it was yesterday. It was fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, and it was the part with the boggart and Mrs. Weasley. Remember, when Harry walked in on her trying to get rid of it and it kept transforming into her family’s dead bodies because she was so terrified of losing her loved ones? That’s fucking ironic. But regardless, I love that memory. My attempts at the English accents were I’m sure awful. You didn’t say anything until I asked, but you admitted you preferred I read without them. I was so disappointed. And hey, do you remember when you told me Sirius Black died before I finished Order of the Phoenix? I was so so mad at you.

The one thing I can’t stand is your gun being here. THE gun. The police released everything to Dad…your phone, your wallet, the glock…everything sealed neatly in evidence bags. Dad said he didn’t want to make any hasty decisions so took everything they gave him. I wonder if the clothes you were wearing are here, too. I doubt they would have given Dad those, actually. For obvious reasons. (I got so scared while unloading your couch pillows. I was praying I wouldn’t see anything on them…but then I saw a big sticky stain. I looked closer-I just had to. But I think it was food. Thank Jesus). But the gun. I hate it. I fucking hate it. That gun killed my baby brother. It took you away from us forever. Dad said that it wasn’t the glock that did it. It was you. And while know he’s right, I still hate it. Maybe if you didn’t have guns you would have tried another way. But then maybe they would have gotten to you in time. Or maybe you would have suffered. I guess it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. You’re gone.

I talked to our real mom today (I always hate saying that-we have two real moms, but you know what I mean). She had left a message while I was sleeping, and she sounded so damn sad it scared me. I mean, I know she’s going to be sad. But now I’m so afraid for anyone who is battling depression, whether chronic or situational. She said she has been reading up on Reactive Attachment Disorder because of my first post, and I could just tell she was blaming herself. I called her back, and Mom and Nikea came into the room and we all talked on speakerphone. It was so good to speak with her. She was reminiscing about how you were such a sweet and sensitive little boy. I remember. And I know she, like me, wants nothing more than to go back, hold that little boy close and tell him everything will be okay. Back when you were CJ, wore your humongous glasses and loved to be read to every night. She has the biggest heart, and loves us all so much. I know you loved her, too. Guilt is a horrible thing, and you can beg someone to forgive themselves until you’re blue in the face, but ultimately it’s up to them. I just hope and pray she can realize that she, like you, is so worthy of love. That has always been our biggest struggle…yours, hers and mine. I also talked to Grandpa Ward and briefly to Jeanie. Grandpa was your biggest cheerleader. It was wonderful to hear his voice. I haven’t talked with him in so long. It’s crazy how time gets away from you, and before you realize it two years have passed since you spoke with someone. I promised him that would never happen again. If I’ve learned anything from you, it’s to value every second my loved ones spend on this earth. How easy is it for us to take each other’s presence for granted.  I am determined to make sure I have no more regrets when it comes to the people I love. I can’t go through this again.

On Saturday, Mom and Dad are driving up to Mexico to tell Bethany what happened. Even though she’s mentally handicapped, she understands the concept of death. Mom is scared she may hurt herself if she knows the whole story, so said she may just say you had cancer. I mean, you basically did. Mental illness eats away at you just like cancer, slowly killing you. So yeah. It works. I’m trying to decide if I can go with them, or if I should go to Sedalia and visit Grandma, Grandpa, Sue, Sayre and Sayre’s new baby. I haven’t seen Bethany since Christmas, but it’s going to be awful telling her our brother died. I don’t know what to do. I dread how she’s going to obsess over what happened. It’s been years, and she still brings up our dog, Toby, dying. I just know she’s going to keep signing “CJ died. CJ died. CJ died.” And I’ll tell her to stop, but she won’t. She just won’t understand that we won’t want to constantly talk about how you’re gone. I’ll just have to be patient, and understand she doesn’t want to hurt anyone by bringing it up nonstop. I just have such a low frustration tolerance right now.

I’m still angry with you. I don’t know when that’s going to go away. I know it’s a stage of grief, and I’m assuming it’s more pronounced in this kind of situation. I’ve been reading how suicide survivors experience an extreme number of difficult emotions trying to make sense of their loved one’s actions. The book I’m reading now is helping shed light on it. But there’s not a lot out there on this. It’s a difficult subject to talk about. Who wants to discuss suicide? But it HAS to be talked about. People always talk about breast cancer. They have fundraisers for it. What about what killed you and thousands upon thousands of others every year? Why doesn’t society talk more about that? What happens to the families after. What they feel. The devastation. The confusion and anger. The guilt. It’s eating me up inside. The unrelenting brutal heartache of knowing you were sitting at home thinking about things that tore you apart. The constant questioning. I keep telling myself you weren’t miserable all the time. You had moments of happiness. But it wasn’t enough.

Do you know what’s really cool, though? We’ve had several of your friends reach out. I just want to hug all of them. They loved you and miss you, and I don’t know if they realize how much they help with their sweet words about you. Man, you were loved. Did you know? But now I’m asking myself if you really loved ME. You didn’t talk to me about so many things. You would say you were struggling, but wouldn’t give me specifics. In every text that I said “I love you,” you didn’t repeat it. I just can’t stop wondering now. Did you love me? Did you?? I know I had forgotten your birthday…I was so focused on trying to solve what was going on with my health, all the while trying to find jobs and move out of our friends’ basement, that I literally have been battling my own fears and major depression this past year. I don’t forget birthdays. And yours AND Dad’s slipped my mind. That’s never happened before. But now I can’t forgive myself. I just can’t. I know that’s not why you did it. But I still hate myself for it. I’m so sorry, Chris. I just need to know that you love me and forgive me. Please.

Love you, Buddy. Now and always. I’m so sorry.

Letters to Chris. April 18th. Day 10.

Hey Buddy,

We survived another day without you. I’m sitting in bed in your old bedroom. Nikea is sleeping to my left. I’m so glad she’s home. We used to share our beds all the time when we were little-Mom and Dad would hear us giggling and always send the steal-away back to her own room. But now it’s out of necessity. You know we have another extra bed in Nikea’s old room. But sleeping next to each other is so comforting. Nikea has to go back to work Thursday so is leaving tomorrow. I’m dreading sleeping alone.

Your ashes are sitting on the dresser. You were with us in the living room yesterday, but as I left for bed, the thought of you sitting alone was too much. I broke down sobbing, picked up your box and brought you into the bedroom. So here you are. It’s so weird. It destroys me to see your ashes. We had to take the lid off to put your ID inside to keep it safe, just in case we need it for something. Knowing your ashes are in there and actually seeing them are two different things. Seeing them, knowing they are the body of my beautiful baby brother…I can’t put into words what it does to me. It makes me want to die. But I can’t leave them in a room alone at night. It’s not you. You aren’t in that box. You’re free. But still. I cling to it because it’s all I have.

Nikea and I went to Sedalia to visit Grandma and Grandpa today. The house was so quiet-as you know we are normally there as an entire family. Which means the grandchildren running amok. Sue’s laughter. David telling hilarious stories. Dad outside smoking cigars. You wresting with Austen or Grayson. And of course, Nikea and me complaining of stomach aches from eating too much hole-in-the-bread and Mississippi mud (omg I would eat an entire hole-in-the-bread and Mississippi mud right now). It was so quiet. We went out to lunch at a Mexican restaurant down the street, where we asked Grandpa and Grandma to tell us the story of how they met (at a bar when they were 17. And yes, it was pretty much love at first sight). Of course, they are trying to make sense of what happened. We all are. Their heart breaks for you. For Mom and Dad. For us.

I hurt so much for Mom. She broke down in the laundry room yesterday. It took Nikea and me a second to realize what was happening, then we rushed to her and held her as she sobbed. I’ve seen Mom cry a few times, but obviously never like this. None of us have ever cried like we have been the last 10 days. But it breaks my heart all over to see Mom. Tonight was worse. We thought it would be a good idea to put on a comedy, and decided on “Whiskey Foxtrot Tango,” with Tina Fey. About 20 minutes in, while Tina was doing her first interview with the soldiers, we thought Mom was laughing but quickly realized she was sobbing. As with all of us, it just comes on so fast and without warning. She has so much guilt, Chris. She feels she was too hard on you, too much tough love, and kept saying she wish she had known how desperate you were. She said she wished she’d told you how she and Dad were going to pay your taxes, how she would have done so many things different had she only known. She wishes you had joined the military full time rather than just the Reserve, since the structure would have been good for you. She kept saying how she tried so hard, and now it is too late. Too late to do anything with the knowledge we have now. Too late to save you. Too late. I told her it wasn’t the finances. It wasn’t the divorce. It wasn’t any one thing. You were just sad. It was your brain chemistry. As I’ve said a million times, I know what it was because I’ve dealt with it, too. And I’ve always hated it until now, because now I can explain to Mom what you lived with. You kept telling me you were so tired of your stress, of your depression. So many things were going so well for you. This kind of depression doesn’t care how well things are going. It doesn’t care that you have a beautiful son, a well-paying job you love, family and friends that love you, a beautiful girl who adores you, or the Reserves which you loved. It just doesn’t matter. In a way she knows that. She’s a psychologist. But she can’t see it. Not with her son. It’s too personal.

Earlier today I had yelled at her. She was talking about things you struggled with, and I snapped, crying out that you had so many good qualities and you weren’t just your struggles. Mom had to walk away, and when she calmed down she explained that because of her guilt, she’s trying to make herself realize there was nothing she could have done. When she talks about how she and Dad tried to talk to you about things, to offer help and you “just didn’t get it,” she’s not trying to put you down. She’s trying to remind herself she had no power over you. No amount of begging could have forced your hand. You were fine, you said. But once I understood that, my heart shattered for her. As a sister, I have so much guilt. Why didn’t I reach out more? Why didn’t I tell you every day that I loved you more than life itself, that I needed you here on Earth with us, that I couldn’t imagine my life without you or your voice or ill-timed jokes? That I felt so connected to you since we both shared the same heartache? That I felt like a parent as well as a sibling since I helped care for you as a baby? Why didn’t I just request off work when you came home for your birthday even though I had to take a day off for Clay’s surgery the following week? I should have just requested off. Oh my God, why didn’t I request off? You were here. Laying in this exact bed. And I didn’t come home. I could have hugged you one last time. Eaten dinner at the table as a family one last time. Told you I loved you one last time. And I fucked that up. I have so many regrets, Chris, as a sister. So I can’t even begin to imagine what our parents feel. Maybe this is why Dad needed to go up to Minnesota to take care of all your things alone. (By the way, he gets back tomorrow. And I’m dreading going through your things. I don’t want to face the emotions that will come up. Well, not come up. They are already here. Just get worse. It’s like I have a huge, gaping and bloody wound that keeps getting hacked at. I want to bury myself in all your things, but sorting them will make it so real. Because there’s no other reason we would go through your belongings unless you were gone. I just know I’m not going to want to throw anything out. Not even trash. Because it was something you held. I’m dreading it. I don’t know if I’m strong enough).

Chris, I told you I had the same struggles as you. I told you Clay and I were having the worst year of our lives since his business went under, how we were moving into our friend’s basement because despite having a CFA and MBA it was almost impossible to get a job in Denver. I told you. Why didn’t you tell me how dark it was for you? I know you knew you could talk to me. Every text from you the last six months was about your depression. Couldn’t you have told me you were contemplating suicide? Should I have equated depression to wanting to die?? You told me you felt better when you hurt yourself after you punched a wall. I told you that was fucking dumb and to stop. You knew I had gone through the same thing. Maybe I should have seen this as a bigger warning side. But I don’t know what else I could have done. I told you I loved you and that you were strong and I knew you could overcome anything. I asked you to go see someone. Anyone. A therapist. AA. Any kind of support group. I begged you to take care of yourself, to focus on yourself and work on getting healthy like I did. I asked you to try switching up your meds since yours weren’t helping. You said no. Didn’t you want to get better? Did you think you didn’t deserve to feel better? I just can’t fucking understand. I went through all the same stuff, and I got better. Why didn’t you want to get better??

There is some laughter, though. We’ve always been a family that laughs all the time.  But lately it’s obviously been few and far between. It’s so weird how you go from sobbing to laughing to sobbing to laughing. After Mom calmed down in the laundry room, I pulled out your sixth grade art project that has a place of pride in your old room. It’s a self portrait, but mostly resembles an old man. Nikea and I used to laugh over it years ago. I’m so glad Mom had pulled it out to show you when you came home last month. Then Nikea and I were laughing at Ginger today-she thought Nikea’s leg freckles were food and kept trying to lick them off. It feels so good when we can laugh. Not good, but better. It’s not crying.

​​

I should go to sleep. I’ve been falling asleep at 4:00 ,5:00 in the morning. I need to try to make it by 2:00 tonight. Love you. Miss you. So much.

 

Letters to Chris. Day 6. April 14th.

Hey Buddy,

It’s funny how time tends to fly by until you need it to. Then each day crawls forward inch by inch. What I need now is to stop hurting. Or at least function. To function means the passage of time. And time refuses to pass.

But then again, it has been six days. It feels like a lifetime, it feels like yesterday, but almost a week has gone by since I got that call from Mom. And not a second has passed where I haven’t thought of you, Baby Brother. You’re always there, no matter what I’m doing. I can’t escape. I don’t want to. I don’t want to hurt anymore. But I have to go through this. I need to go through this. This grief is what connects me to you, and I’m afraid to let go. I’ve never felt a fear like this. I’ve always had a fear-based identity, but this is something new. I’m terrified of living without you. I’m terrified of leaving you in the past. I’m terrified of going home and going through your things. I’m terrified of talking about you in the past tense, of seeing your urn. I’m terrified of how this will affect me as a person. Everything I’ve read says that once someone you love leaves, you are permanently changed. I’m terrified to keep going, but like I said yesterday, I don’t have a choice. I’ve decided I’m going to say that I have a brother, never that I “had” a brother. You still are my brother. You always will be. You’re still living. Just in a different, way more free way than the rest of us you left behind.

This morning has been rough. I didn’t get out of bed until noon. It’s just impossible to be motivated to do anything. I eat. I shower. I sleep. Sometimes I can drag myself out of the apartment to walk the dogs. That’s about the extent of my ability right now. And I know that’s okay. I did box yesterday. Our gym has a punching bag, so I grabbed my wrist wraps and gloves and went to town. Punching something felt so good. Just kicking the shit out of something was so cathartic. I thought about how maybe that would have been good for you-how it could have been a healthy outlet for your frustrations.

I’m actually at Starbucks right now. I brought the dogs, and am sitting out here on the patio. It’s comforting to be surrounded by people going about their daily lives: laughing, chatting over iced coffees, enjoying the sunshine. If they have any cares, it’s hard to tell. I feel like I stick out, like anyone who looks at me can see my insides and know my thoughts. It’s such a weird feeling. I’m trying to hide tears under my baseball hat. It’s frustrating not being able to control when they come. I hate being the girl crying in public, but luckily I don’t think anyone is really paying attention. And even if they are, most people don’t come up to a stranger asking what’s wrong. That’s a good thing. I don’t think I could explain to anyone else right now what I’m going through. (By the way, talking about baseball hats reminds me of how you used to bend your baseball hat bills in half so they looked like a upside down “V.” It used to drive Nikea crazy).

I don’t know how to deal with thinking how you were here a week ago. You were a phone call away. A text away. And I didn’t reach out. That’s a reality I have to live with. How do I live with that? You were here on earth six days ago. Six days. That means it has been six days that you’ve been gone. It’s impossible to wrap my mind around. You were here. Now you aren’t. You were here with me. And I took you for granted. I know this is human nature. This is what people do. If we lived like we knew everyone we loved would die one day, it would be one thing. It’s too painful of a truth and we can’t live with that thought constantly on our minds.  But you made me so painfully aware of that fact. That life is temporary. That I, along with everyone I love, are only here for a few years. Tomorrow isn’t promised. The thought of death used to scare me. Now I find it strangely comforting. I want nothing more than to be with you, to hold you again. When I think of you, I try to think of you as you are now. Carefree, happy. No sadness. No pain. It’s such a crazy thought. You without your constant companion of darkness. How freeing it must be for you. To have finally shed that heartache that came to define you. I was going through your pictures last night. I was able to look through them without tears. Chris, you were so cute. Such a handsome dude. It’s funny that we looked nothing alike. Me, short and dark. You, tall and fair. But we shared dimples. I noticed every picture, even when you were smiling, had an air of sadness. You always had that sadness. Even when you laughed, it was there. It broke my heart. So knowing you no longer hurt, and that you are still very much alive, gets me through. It’s what got me out of bed and into the shower. It’s what got me to Starbucks. It’s what allowed me to look at your photos without breaking down. It’s odd. I looked at your photos and did okay, but when I saw your birthdate written out, my heart broke into a million pieces all over again. I feel so shattered I don’t know how to come back.

In one of our conversations, you told me you weren’t as strong as me. I told you that wasn’t true, and that I knew you could come back from the despair you felt. Chris, you were the strong one. You lived with this for so long. You survived this for so long. I’m so proud of you for fighting as long as you did. I don’t know if I could have. Some people say suicide is selfish. Maybe it is, because it doesn’t really end pain but just transfers it to the ones you leave behind. But I don’t see what you did as selfish. You didn’t want to hurt us. You just wanted to stop hurting. I understand. We all do. I’ve been there. I tried before, remember? For far less than you went through. Luckily I didn’t succeed. I only tried that once, and promised myself I’d never do it again. It WOULD be selfish if I hurt myself, because now I know what it is to lose someone that way. The despair. The question of why. The anger and fear (not anger at you, Chris, but at myself for not reaching out more). The loneliness. The feelings of abandonment and helplessness. The need to wake up and realize it was all a horrible dream. I can’t wake up. I’ve tried. I need this to be a bad dream. But every morning I wake up, and your physical form is still gone.

By the way, I asked Mom if I could get a snippet of your hair from the crematorium. She told me it was too late. I can’t decide if I’m relieved or not. Relieved because you’re no longer laying there alone. Heartbroken because the tall, lanky body I used to wrap my arms around is no longer here.

Stay by my side, Little Brother. I can’t do this without you. It hurts every time I breathe. Help me to keep breathing. You owe me that.

I love you. I miss you.

The worst phone call a sister could ever receive. April 13th. Day 5.

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This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. And it’s scary to post this online, to be this vulnerable. But I feel compelled to share my experience. I thought maybe it could 1) be therapeutic, and 2) help someone who is dealing with the same thing. Suicide is such a weird subject. People don’t know how to talk about it. But it needs to be talked about. I need to talk about this. Because the sad reality is my family won’t be the last people to deal with this.

Saturday was a day like any other, although it’s so funny to look back as it was the last normal day of my life. My husband Clay, and I went to Starbucks down the street so we could work on taxes, and I studied for my NASM. Afterward, we ran to Whole Foods to grab some ingredients to make curry. I remember feeling frustrated because I couldn’t figure out a good recipe. The things that would irritate me seem so insignificant now. I wonder if I had known then what I know now, how my day would have been different. I wouldn’t have cared about fucking curry.

We came home that night and watched “Shameless.” My hubby started loving that show recently, and after a few episodes I finally warmed up. This is a ritual of ours, cuddling on our couch in our new living room in Denver with our puppies. Normal. Happy. In the middle of an episode, Clay took the dogs out to walk them, and I decided to head to bed. I was standing in the door of our bedroom when Clay walked back in, talking on the phone. I thought he was talking to his mom, then he said, “Yes, she’s right here.” He handed the phone to me, walked behind me and held me tight. I knew it was my mom calling, and I knew it was something bad. She wouldn’t have called Clay otherwise. She learned the hard way to make sure he was home when she delivered bad news about two years ago, when she called to tell me my beloved Uncle Tim had unexpectedly passed away. That day, Clay had recently left for a bachelor trip out of state, and I was all alone. So I knew something was wrong when she called him first.
I took the phone, thinking something happened to one of our dogs. Then I thought maybe it was Dad. My mind was racing.
“Mom? Is everything okay?”
She was crying, and through her racking sobs she said, “No, Jenn. It’s not okay. Chris shot himself tonight.”
My legs collapsed, and I started screaming. Looking back, I don’t know how our neighbors didn’t come pounding on our door. Unless someone you love has died, you can’t possibly imagine the gut-wrenching need to deny that what is being said to you is false. I kept screaming, “NO! NO! NO!” I refused to believe it. I handed the phone to Clay, brushed off my tears and kept saying he was fine. Chris was fine. My baby brother wouldn’t do anything like this. He loves me. He wouldn’t leave me like this. My buddy. My everything. It wasn’t fucking possible. But I knew it happened. It was our biggest fear.

I remember when my mom told me she was pregnant for a third time. It was 1991, and I was in the bath, I remember being super sad because I knew this meant she would have to leave and stay in the hospital. To put it lightly, I had major abandonment issues as a child (we ended up being adopted by my aunt and uncle-who my siblings and I all call “Mom” and “Dad” now, even though I still have contact with my real momma).  My real mom had been abused as a child, and even with one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known, couldn’t raise us the way she wanted to.

I actually named Christopher. Mom asked me what his name should be, and I named him after a boy I had a crush on. Christopher James, after his father. CJ was born March 24th, 1992. I had a journal entry in my huge second-grade handwriting where I talked about the birth of my little brother. I wonder what happened to it. I can’t remember her pregnancy, but I do remember looking at CJ in his crib and realizing how much I loved him. He was so tiny, and all I wanted to do was hug, kiss and protect him. Whenever he would sleep in the rocker in the living room, I would put my finger under his nose to make sure he was breathing. I remember laying in bed at night listening to him cry, as my mom tried to soothe him, and being amazed how something so small could scream so loud.
I’m not being biased when I say CJ was the world’s most adorable toddler. His son, Carter, looks identical. Chubby, rosy cheeks. One dimple. Big blue eyes. Long eyelashes. Blonde hair. A total cherub. I remember the first time he laughed-he had this blow up clown that was weighted at the bottom so when you punched it, it would pop back up. I was play-fighting it, and CJ just laughed and laughed. I felt like the world’s best big sister.

When I was 11, I moved in with my aunt Anika, uncle, Steve and cousin, Nikea (we now call them Mom, Dad and Sister). My brother and little sister, Bethany, would follow two years later. This was CJ’s cowboy phase. He loved all things cowboy, and had a fake gun he used to “draw” (one of my favorite pictures of him caught him doing this-I think this will be my next tattoo) and had some boots our mom bought him that he wore everywhere, along with his cowboy hat. He always had his Woody from “Toy Story” he carried around. He also had a tiny guitar he would strum out on our front porch, a blade of grass between his teeth, as his cowboy hat shaded his big blue eyes. I remember him crying at night from growing pains, and his little heart breaking when Mom had to shelve the boots since we believed they were causing his poor legs so much pain. He also ground his teeth at night. It was so loud I could hear it through the bedroom walls.

This was the time I was “sissy.” He called me his “sissy,” and I loved it so much. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, so I cherished it. This is also when he couldn’t pronounce “girl,” instead saying “gware.” And when my sister and I would get annoyed and tell him to shut up, he’d get SO mad and yell, “DON’T CALL ME SHUT UP!” I know these are all tiny weird details that most people who didn’t know him don’t care about, but these are the memories I cling to. My sweet, silly little brother.

As CJ got older, we saw more issues in his behavior. He was moody, and had a low frustration tolerance. He had such a huge heart, but like me suffered from depression. My parents always saw it, and did everything they could to help. Therapy. Medication. Letting him know how much they loved him. I had a conversation with him when he was in middle school, begging him to never hurt himself. He hadn’t ever mentioned self-harm, but this was around the time I had started cutting myself and didn’t want the same for my brother. I always had fears of him hurting himself. He cried during this talk, and promised he wouldn’t. But the reality was my brother suffered from what is called Reactive Attachment Disorder, due to our unstable childhood, or RAD. While I have side-stepped a lot of the issues that come along with such a diagnosis, I have always struggled with many of the same things as him. Fears of abandonment. Suicidal thoughts. Depression. Anxiety. I wanted to shelter my brother from all the issues I had. I didn’t want him to feel the way I did. One of life’s cruelest facts is that we can’t protect the ones we love. I tried. We all did. But I couldn’t protect my brother from himself, any more than he could protect me.

A few years back, CJ met a wonderful girl named Bailey who he ended up marrying. You could just see how much he loved her. They had Carter James. But this marriage wouldn’t last, and I think this, plus my brother’s depression and addiction, was too much. It wasn’t just one thing. It was so many things. My brother had hurt his entire life as a result of RAD. He had gotten addictive genes from both sides (his father was an alcoholic), and he tried so hard to stop drinking. We tried to get him to go to AA. When he was home over his birthday March 24th (I wasn’t able to come, which fucking breaks my heart), our grandpa came from Indiana to go to a meeting with him and share his own personal struggles with alcohol when he was a young man. We tried everything. I’ve read through my texts, gone over our conversations so many times, and I am so fucking grateful that I was there for him. I understood the darkness, having struggled with it, too. I told him continuously that I loved him, that we all loved him, that he was so strong, that he could get through this, that he had so much going on for him, that shitty times pass. His texts were so tortured, about how he hated himself, how he was tired of “EVERYTHING,” how he’d be better off dead. That one is the hardest to read. But I told him we needed him here with us, and nowhere else. I was so frustrated with him, that he couldn’t see how worthy of love he was. But I am so grateful I never let that frustration show. I’m so grateful. My one regret is not talking to him more. The last few months I was going through my own issues (financial and health crap), and withdrew from everyone. And I always had a fear he would break my heart. I was scared he would try to hurt himself, but thought a fear of death would keep him from trying anything permanent. I was more scared he would drink himself to liver failure, or run off and we wouldn’t know where he went. I should have told him every day how much I loved him, how much I needed him, that I was so grateful to have him as a little brother and that I cherished him more than anyone in the world. But I think he knew.

Anyone who has lost someone to suicide knows how you go over and over those final moments. It’s torture. But there are some things that have brought me, while I can’t say “relief,” something to hold on to. For one, he didn’t suffer. Two, I think he was so at peace when he ended his life. His text to my mom, sent shortly before, was very well thought out and coherent. My brother always said exactly what he was thinking. If he was feeling tortured it would have shown through that text. He was sober, clearheaded. He just told Mom what he planned to do, said to set up an education fund for Carter, and ended it with “I love you.” Mom said she would send me the text. I told her no. I can’t bear to read my brother’s final goodbye. I just can’t handle it. But I really believe he was feeling at peace because he knew it would be over soon. He would be in Heaven and his heart would cease to hurt. I also know he wasn’t alone for very long. He had texted a girl he was seeing (who I need to reach out to and thank for loving my brother), telling her his plans. She immediately called the cops and they headed over. So when my mom received her text from him and called the cops, they were already on their way. I’ve read horrible stories of loved ones laying alone for days on end. I’m so grateful my brother wasn’t alone for longer than a few minutes.

I believe in Heaven. I’ve had loved ones who have reached out in ways that are unmistakable, which I will talk about another time. And my brother is no different. I was in the kitchen the other day, and this warmth came over me. It’s so hard to describe, but I heard this, “Look after Mom.” It wasn’t an actual voice, but I know it was my brother. He was so protective of us, especially Mom. He wants me to make sure she’s okay. That’s Chris. Being the protector. Thinking about that moment makes me cry, but just because reminds me that he is still looking out for us.

I don’t know how to get through tonight. Or tomorrow. Or the next week. Or the next fucking sixty years. I head home Saturday (flights during the week were far too expensive), and although I’m so ready to be home I know it will make his loss all the more real. He won’t be there. I know I’ll be expecting to see his lanky frame walking in front of the windows as he approaches the front door. Dad is going to Minnesota to collect his things. He didn’t have much, which I’m grateful for. It’ll be hard enough to go through all his clothes. Mom said she can do it, but I need to help. I’m his big sister. And I’m absolutely dreading seeing his urn. They will ship it. It’s weird to think of my tall brother (he was 6 ft) in an urn. But I have to keep reminding myself that’s not him. Our bodies are not us. We are not our bodies, our emotions, our hurts, our brain chemistry. My brother’s soul is here with me now. THAT is him. But as I write this, I am trying to find out the name of the crematorium where he is so I can get some of his hair. And I’m so scared they will say it’s too late. Or that there was none left. I don’t know if I can handle that.

How do I go on? How do I keep breathing when the person I love the most is gone? In one text I found today, I promised him I would always love him and never abandon him. But he abandoned me. I’m not angry with him-I understand why he did it. And I rejoice knowing he no longer hurts and is happy and well taken care of. But he did leave me. His big sister. He didn’t even text me goodbye. I don’t know if that would have made it better or worse. Part of me hopes he wasn’t thinking of me while he sat on that couch. But I know he was.

Chris, I miss you. So much. I don’t know how to keep breathing. I know I have to, because I don’t have a choice. It’s not fair. Why do I have to keep living when you’re gone? I don’t know how to do this. I need you. I love you. I love you. I love you.