Letters to Chris. June 20th. Day 73.

Hey Buddy,

In two days I head home for your Celebration of Life. When you first passed away, I wanted nothing more than a funeral. I felt I really needed something, anything, to help give me closure. But the past 73 days have shown me that I never will have closure. How can anyone have any sort of closure after experiencing such a loss? So I’ve gone from needing some sort of something to almost dreading it. Not because I don’t want to celebrate you, or see Carter (I haven’t seen him in over a year…I can’t wait to see how big he has gotten). But because I’ve never seen Carter without you there. Because everyone is going to be talking about you in past tense. Because we will be playing slideshows of your pictures, where you look so happy and alive. How can I look forward to this? I’m so scared of how I’ll feel. This is already hard enough. It’s going to hit home that you are really gone, and I don’t think I’m ready for that. I don’t think I ever will be ready for it.

It will be nice to see our family. Our birth mom will be there. Aunt Gretchen. Aunt Dietricha. Grandpa Ward. Grandma Jeanne. Carter. Bailey and her family. Clay’s mom, Karen (you met her once, at Carter’s baby shower. I don’t think you got to talk at our wedding, although I’m sure she noticed you. Everyone did in your handsome uniform). Can you believe I’m going to be home for THREE WEEKS? It’s going to be so wonderful. Grandma’s 90th birthday is the second weekend in July, so I’m staying for that. And that’s when the Rudloff clan will get together and have our own little celebration for you. You always loved going to Grandma and Grandpa’s. I can’t eat any hole-in-the-bread for you (still waiting for Hawaiian Bread to make a gluten-free version for lameos like me who have Celiac’s) , but I’m sure everyone else will, especially Nikea, Hannah and Sayre 🙂 As for your Celebration, I wish I could be there earlier to help Mom prepare. As you can imagine, her OCD has been in overdrive. I’ve been doing my best to keep her calm, but I know there’s only so much I can do. You’re her son. She wants everything to be perfect. Everything needs to be perfect. She called me today asking about photos. She’s going to be playing a slideshow. Luckily, I have a TON of you. Plus all the ones I re-edited recently of Carter’s newborn session. I wish I had more professional photos I took of you. But I’m grateful for the ones I do have.

I wish. I wish. I wish. I feel like that’s all I ever say anymore in regards to you. I wish I had more pictures. I wish I had reached out more. I wish I told you every day that I loved you. I wish I could have taken your place. I wish you would have texted me that night. I wish I would have known how sad you were. I wish. I wish. I wish. It really does drive one mad. That and the “if onlys.” If only I had known. If only you hadn’t bought those guns. If only you had told one of us you wanted to die. If only you were more honest in counseling. If only I had opened my eyes more. That’s why I can never have closure. Because of those f*cking “I wishes” and “if onlys.”

You’ll be happy to know I connected with a counselor here. I told you that the Guard puts families in contact with counselors…I had thought it was free but it doesn’t look like it is. Luckily, thanks to a million doctors visits between Clay’s torn meniscus and my Health Crisis of 2017, we’ve just about hit our deductible. So we’ve got that going for us. Part of me doesn’t want to see someone about it. I feel like I’m processing okay. At least most of the time I do. Other times I think I’m not doing well at all. It just depends on the day. I still get into my pissy fits, where nothing at all will happen but I’ll still be furious at anything and everything. Lucky for Clay, those only last a few minutes. I just don’t have the energy to be that angry for very long. Clay…Poor guy. We had a heart-to-heart the other day. He opened up about his struggles with this:

“You’re not the only one affected here. I feel like I have been as supportive and loving as anyone possibly could be, and just because you’re going through a hard time doesn’t mean that support shouldn’t be appreciated or valued, or taken for granted. I feel like you take for granted how patient I am and how I support whatever you need to do. 

“Sometimes you’re so focused on yourself and whatever is going on in your world that I wonder if you even care or notice what is going on in mine. I work long hours, get stressed, sad, and worry about my family or miss Alex or think about my dad, but I always feel secondary to your issues. Even when I had my surgery you tried to say that it wasn’t as bad as what you were going through. Or when I mentioned my feelings about Alex (Clay’s cousin who unexpectedly passed away five years ago), you said your situation was worse because it was suicide. It isn’t a contest. Pain is pain, loss is loss.”

I felt like an asshole. Which is something that totally isn’t new the past few months. He’s right. Pain is pain. Loss is loss. I don’t even remember saying that stuff, but I’m sure I did. Something about grief makes us super self-absorbed. We just can’t see outside ourselves. I’m so blessed to have such a loving, patient husband. Because, honestly, anyone else would have tossed me over our balcony by now.

I have been doing better, though. I promise I have. I’ve literally thrown myself back into my photography, and I feel your silent encouragement pushing me to excel and breathe life back into my photo business. I can’t say I’ve ever felt such a fire under my a** when it came to anything. I laugh more. I like to leave the apartment. I am finding solace in nature (I’ve been on three long hikes the last week). I cry, but not for hours at a time. I even changed my Facebook cover photo to a picture of my girlfriends and me (you know when something is Facebook-official, it’s a big deal). I’m working out again. You’re still there, every second of every day, and I don’t want you to be anywhere else. You belong here with me. I fight constantly with myself on whether I should change things like my cover photo, whether I should wear your shirt to bed or one of mine (I still sleep with three of your shirts. That’s not going to change). I just feel like if I begin to move on, I’ll be letting you down. You’re my baby brother. I’m not supposed to be here without you. I don’t want to let you go. I don’t want to say goodbye. Part of me doesn’t want to be happy because that means I’ve moved on without you. Doesn’t it?

Maybe I do need to see a counselor.

Love you buddy. Miss you. Hey, be there with us Friday, okay? I don’t think we can do this without you.

 

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.

Letters to Chris. May 30th. Day 52.

Hey Buddy,

My grief has been evolving. I feel it changing into something else, something darker and harder to deal with. I think the reality of losing you has begun to set in, and it’s too much. It’s so weird how grief morphs over time…It’s not like at any point I ever believed you would “come back to life.” I think I was still in the denial phase. Since we haven’t lived in the same state for a few years, it has been easy to believe you were still in Minnesota…waking up for work in the mornings, hanging out with little Carter, grilling your amazing steaks, hanging out with friends, looking forward to coming home again to visit…living. Breathing. But the reality is, you’re not. You’re not doing any of those things. I don’t know what you’re doing now. And that’s so f*cking terrible. I want to know what you do during your days, what you think about, what you laugh about. What your world looks like. I hate not knowing, not being able to be a part of your new life. You feel so far away and it destroys me. You’ve done so much to show me you’re okay, and I’m so grateful. So I’m sorry that I complain about you being gone. But it’s just the way it is. You’re gone and I miss you. I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that you were here and I took you for granted. I always thought I had tomorrow to call you and say I love you. I just can’t fathom it. How the hell did I not call you every single day to make sure you were doing okay? What the f*ck was wrong with me?

God, I suck.

The past few days have been some of the hardest yet. I know of the “stages of grief.” They are by no means linear, but more like a squiggly line that has no end and no beginning. Mom actually sent me a meme about that the other day. Two side by side depictions of grief, one “normal,” with the linear line going through the five stages, and then ours, a squiggly mess. Of course it was a joke. There’s no such thing as normal when it comes to grief. Knowing that helps. Nothing is normal, yet anything and everything is normal. Because it’s easy to be down on myself about how I’m doing. Some days are better than others. Some days I think I’m processing healthily and will be okay. I work out, take the dogs on long walks, care about how I look, laugh a lot. Other days I struggle to motivate myself to do anything. Cleaning? Forget it. Cooking? Hell no. Taking the dogs out? Clay can do that. If I didn’t have a job that forced me to get out of bed, I’m sure there are days I just wouldn’t. Today would have been one of them. I didn’t need to be in until 2:30, so I stayed under the covers cuddling your clothes until 1:30. It doesn’t help that the stress is still destroying my skin. I feel like I have aged 10 years. Confidence issues on top of everything else blows. I want to hide all the time. As you can see, I’m super productive.

Pretty sure this is the depression phase. I want to go back to denial.

I actually didn’t cry Friday or Saturday night. I know…wow, right? We were in Chicago celebrating a dear friend’s wedding, and it was a much-needed reunion with our Kansas City friends. I love Chicago. I have been there twice before, but the last time was 2010 when Clay and I first started dating. I absolutely fell in love with it, and have always wanted to go back. You would love it. Probably not to live in, but to visit. And you would LOVE Garrett’s. It’s a popcorn place that makes the best damn caramel popcorn you’ll ever eat. Yes, better than movie theater popcorn. Clay was a skeptic until he tasted it. There’s a reason there’s always a crazy long line every time. But anyways (sorry…always getting distracted by food), in the days leading up to flying out, I was honestly dreading leaving. Not because I didn’t want to see everyone, but because lately the thought of being around a lot of people overwhelms me. And I’ve lost my ability to celebrate right now…it just feels weird. How can I celebrate anything when you aren’t here? How can I laugh and be happy when my little brother has left me? I know this is normal, but it makes me feel like an asshole. Yet I’m so so glad we went. It was such a beautiful wedding. The bride has been such a wonderful friend for several years, and I was so grateful for the privilege of seeing her walk down the aisle. We got to hang with our friends and explore Chicago, which I know was good for me. I ate Garrett’s popcorn and chocolate gelato (which was as good as the gelato I ate in Italy, I sh*t you not), went on an architecture boat ride, visited Millennium Park and the Navy Pier, got caught in a crazy down pour, shopped Zara with Court (a tradition whenever we visit big cities together). It was a wonderful weekend. I just adore all my girlfriends that were there. They all know what happened to us, and have been so very supportive. It wasn’t until we were leaving that I opened up about my struggle with coming, how I don’t know how to be around people anymore. I used to look forward to hanging out with people. Now I feel so alone even when surrounded by friends. Remember my island analogy? Yeah. Everyone is way over there, laughing and happy. Enjoying their life, looking forward to their futures, planning, excited. And over here is me, trying my best just to get out of bed in the mornings, clutching my brother’s clothes because it’s all I have left.

The day after we got back, I became this ball of absolute and unstoppable fury. Without warning. Clay and I went to our cousin’s BBQ, which was a good time, and I was excited to learn that a Trader Joes was right down the street. That was my favorite store back in KC, and I have only been to one a couple times since we moved. So we decided to pay it a visit on our way home. For whatever reason, I lost my shit when we walked in. I just became so angry. I always know why, but I don’t know what the triggers are. I wanted nothing more than to fight with Clay. He knows better, and won’t take the bait, which made me even angrier. By the time we got home, I was a mess. I climbed in bed and held your shirts close to my chest and couldn’t stop crying. I haven’t cried like that yet. Where I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think…where I want nothing more than to make it stop hurting. I get scared when I get to that point. I worry about what steps I would take to make the pain go away. At this point, I think it’s the people in my life keeping me here. I couldn’t do anything to put our family or Clay through any more heartache.

I feel like I’ve lost myself. Who am I without you? Will I figure this out? Will I ever feel like myself again?

Mom and Dad sent me an email about free counseling through the Guard. So I reached out to my contact person yesterday. I haven’t heard back, but am hoping she’ll get back to me this week sometime. I need someone to help me process this. I also was going to the Heartbeat Support Group tonight. Clay picked me up from work and we showed up to an empty parking lot. Apparently they moved the meeting to last week, but failed to update their website. I was pretty upset about that. Even though I was nervous, I was looking forward to being surrounded by people who know exactly what I’m going through. So now I’ll have to wait until the last Tuesday of next month. Disappointing, but it is what it is. I’m grateful to have a group even if it is only once a month. I had brought one of your shirts with me to work so I’d have it tonight in the meeting. I think I’m just going to start keeping it in my purse so I have it with me at all times. It helps. Katrina said she wished she could fly me out next week to go to her support group. If only! Maybe one day. That would be so awesome. (By the way, she’s hoping to come out in September to visit for the Walk Out of the Darkness walk. Fingers crossed.)

Tonight, I put your clothes away. It was so f*cking hard. I honestly hated it…I felt like I was burying you. They have been sitting in a folded pile on top of our dresser on my side of the bedroom. I just had to, though…the constant reminder just destroys me. I keep using that word. Destroy. But it’s the only word that seems appropriate. I kept a few of your shirts out to sleep with. And while half of your shirts are in my dresser, in the drawer closest to my side of the bed, the other half are in your military backpack right by my pillow. That was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in a while. Clay had to remind me that it’s not like I’m moving on…I just need some order. That helped.

Nikea and I talked yesterday. She said she and Mom put your stuff in tubberware containers to keep it all safe. I had organized it all, but many of the boxes didn’t have lids so your things were sitting out in the open. Mom had already been crying when Nikea showed up to help…she had just finished a load of your laundry. I think she’s been doing laundry ever since I left. It helps her to feel like she’s taking care of you. It’s been hard on Mom…a lot of your things are missing and we aren’t sure what happened. They may have been tossed, or maybe still in your old camper. It makes her hurt that you didn’t have a ton of stuff. So Nikea and I remind her that you were a bachelor…a 25 year old guy doesn’t want a bunch of stuff. Clay didn’t have any real fancy things before I showed up. Besides, if you wanted something you would have bought it. That made her feel better. But she’s your mama, and will always be protective of you. As we all will be. I’m so glad we get to keep your things. Mom will never get rid of anything. When I come home in June I will be getting your old coffee maker, toaster, uniform and that huge firefighter blanket. I may grab a pair of your pajama pants, too, since I cannot for the life of me find the ones I wore of yours while home (seriously, wtf happened to them??). I’m going to love having something of yours in our kitchen and living room. And Clay’s happy, because he has wanted a toaster forever. So we can think of you every time we brew coffee or make toast. Not like we don’t…I mean it when I say I think about you every single second. Still. Brushing my teeth, talking to patients, watching TV, walking the dogs, cooking, cleaning, sleeping…you’re always there.

I heard your voice this morning. It may have been a dream, but you said, “hello,” and it woke me up. It was your voice. I’ve never had a dream wake me up like that before. Was it you?

Anyway. I love you, Buddy. So f*cking much. Every second of every minute of every day I am missing you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Letters to Chris. May 22nd. Day 44.

Hey Buddy,

“Suicide” was never a word that was really in my vocabulary. I’d obviously read in papers and books about it. I’d seen it on the news and TV shows. I had known a girl in my middle school who was rumored to have killed herself. But now it defines me. After you, suicide has become a massive part of me. I honestly can’t verbalize how that makes me feel. It’s not something I had ever expected to become such a huge part of my world, of my identity. And definitely not because of you. But now, after suicide has become part of my daily life, I see it everywhere. Now that the word has entered my vocabulary, it refuses to leave. Just last week, Chris Cornell commit suicide by hanging himself in his hotel room. His last tweet, much like your last Facebook post, seemed happy…carefree. He, like you, had children. Then my boss’ friend commit suicide. Not too long ago he had sent out a happy email to their friend group, cracking jokes about their annual golf trip. He also had kids. My friend’s friend threatened suicide last night…A high school here in Colorado is experiencing so many suicides it is being called an “epidemic.” Zack Snyder’s 20 year old daughter killed herself back in March. He only just went public with it because he’s taking a break from directing to be with his family.

It’s f*cking everywhere. It makes me ill and breaks my heart.

What can we do to stop this? I have decided to make it my life’s mission to bring awareness to a subject that has been taboo for far too long. With the pressures society places on us, the financial, workplace, family demands we all experience, mental illness is on the rise. And that scares me. We still know far too little about how the brain works. I remember how I felt about suicide before you. I had obviously tried it before, but I then picked myself up. Mom says that’s the difference between men and women. Women often use far less drastic ways to end our lives, which often allows us to survive and realize we don’t want to die after all. Men are more prone to violent ways, like you were. But anyway…I had understood it. When Mom had called me back in October to confide she was terrified you would shoot yourself, I became angry. Not at her, but at the possibility of losing you. I didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility of losing you. I was ignorant. As a psychologist, she knew the warning signs. So we begged you to get help. She sent me a text the other night after reading my last letter to you:

Chris, why did you lie to me last summer about getting counseling help through the guard? Were you purposefully misleading me? I found out yesterday that never happened. They would have helped you! And someone could surely have helped you manage finances better. If not Mom and Dad would have been glad to guide you.Why didn’t you ask for help, Chris???

Chris, WHY???? Didn’t you care what happened to you? Didn’t you care what losing you would do to us? I can’t even breathe without it hurting. I know we are going to survive this, but we shouldn’t have to. This should never have happened. It should never happen to anyone. Ever. So I’m going to fight for you. Always. For the rest of my life. I have no idea what I can do to help. But I have to try. No one should have to live without their brother the way Nikea, Bethany and I now have to. No one should grieve a son like Mom and Dad are. I feel so powerless, but I can’t just sit by and watch this happen. I couldn’t save you, but maybe I could help someone else. I tell myself if I can help one person, that’s all that matters. One person. It won’t bring you back, but I think it could help the heartache you left behind that refuses to abate.

I’ve been reading a book Dad got for us, called Finding Piece Without All the Pieces by LaRita Archibald. Her son took his life at 24 years of age. Her experience makes me grateful, if that’s possible, for ours. The people she dealt with through the police department and hospital that night were awful and uncaring. We were so lucky. Everyone our family worked with during that hellish first couple weeks were amazing. They knew you were someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s father, and treated you and us with so much love and compassion. When Dad went to get your things, people went out of their way to help. I think I told you about this already…how your landlord packed up your things and cleaned up, how your boss’ ex wife helped Dad load the truck, how Viking not only held a get-together in your honor but also donated to your son’s education fund. The funeral home was so patient as we made decisions…and completely understanding and not pushy when we decided against buying a fancy urn since we knew you’d want an artillery box for your ashes. God, we were so lucky, Chris. Nothing can bring you back, but the empathy of others has made this a little bit easier.

LaRita brought up something interesting in her book. That when you first hear about a loved one’s suicide, your grief over his loss is first overshadowed by the manner in which he died. It’s so true. Just knowing that you took your life almost destroyed me…I thought it was going to. Even though I knew you were gone, it was hard to wrap my mind around more than the simple fact that you had purposefully taken yourself away from us who love you. Now, over a month later, the reality that I’ll never hear your voice or hug you again is hitting. I’ve started having panic attacks. I think you help calm me when they start, because they abate fast. I’m just so tired of you being gone. I’m ready for this to be over. I’m ready to have you back…where I can call you anytime I want. It still doesn’t seem real. How can it, when someone who has always been there just ceases to exist in this world? I say this world, because I know you still exist. That you are as alive as me if not more. This helps get me through the days and nights, but it doesn’t keep me from hurting. I keep looking for other signs from you. And maybe that’s not fair to you. After all, I’m sure you have a lot going on right now. More than your high-maintenance sister.

I found a bunch of pictures of you on my computer last night. Remember the day we celebrated yours and Dad’s birthdays together? I even took a video of us singing to you guys. Dad had a blast with that….As we’d sing “Happy birthday to…” he’d keep interjecting “us!” I got you the two other Twilight books. Yes, argue all you want but you DID like those books. You had asked for them 🙂 And then there are several goofy pics you and I took together. I wish, I wish, I wish that we had taken more like that as we got older. I stopped taking selfies, and the silly sibling pictures stopped. And that breaks my heart. But at least I have these. Then I was randomly going through some pictures from my old Instagram the other night, and found a pic I posted of our grocery cart from when Mom, Nikea and I went shopping at Shnucks for our Christmas Eve celebration five years ago. There were like six huge wine bottles, and my caption read, “To say my family simply likes wine is a serious understatement.” To which you responded, “So very true! LOL love you sis!” Actually, you wrote, “love you you sis!” which makes me giggle. I wish there were more silly responses like that, but we didn’t comment on each other’s stuff all that often. I’m grateful for the things I do have…the photos, the voicemails, your texts…although I’d give anything, absolutely anything, to have commented on all your posts, to have texted you every day, called you every day. It f*cking sucks realizing your shortcomings as a big sister when it’s too late.

I talked to Grandma and Grandpa on the phone last night. We would only occasionally talk before you left us, but now we chat pretty often. They are doing well. Grandma talked about how they drove to Hermann to the wineries. According to Grandpa, there is some prime people-watching there. He said one time they drove up just to sit in the car and watch all the craziness unfold during one of Hermann’s festivals. I thought that was adorable. Such a cute date night. Grandma’s 90th birthday is in July, so I’m going to try to get home for that. I’m already coming home in June and August, fingers crossed I can take one more day off for that. It’s getting harder and harder to be away from family. I’m doing my best right now, but it’s not going very well.

Anyway, bedtime. I love you, Bud.

Jenn

Letters to Chris. May 15th. Day 37.

949791_10101422435175460_1225571716_oHey Buddy,

I want to go home. So badly. I’d give anything to be able to get on a plane and go see our family in our home. Be close to all your things. Sleep in your old room. In so many ways, I feel so alone. In a way I never have. I miss our family more than I ever have. And oddly, even though I’m so far away, I feel closer to them than I ever have. It’s a weird dichotomy. I’m grateful that grief has brought us closer together. I’ve read about how other families have been torn apart by it. So I guess we have that going for us. I’ve definitely never been more grateful for the people I love. My God we are so blessed, Chris. There’s no way we could have survived this without each other. And it makes me realize how much I hate being so far away from everyone. I feel like I’m on an island. Clay loved you, and is grieving you, but he didn’t know you as well as we did. So in my grief I feel so alone. I just don’t have much to give. Or know how to connect right now. To anyone. Clay has been so loving and patient, but I know it must be lonely for him, too. I just feel like I’m trying my hardest to keep myself together so I don’t know how to be there for anyone else who isn’t grieving you. I’m sure there are times Clay feels so far from me, like he can’t reach me out here on my little island. But I don’t know how to fix that.

Mom said your autopsy report arrived today. Your autopsy report. That just sounds so weird to me. I asked if she had read it. She had. There was a lot of medical jargon she didn’t understand, but there were a few things she did. Your blood alcohol level was so low. Only .05. Which we had already figured. Your text to Mom was so clearheaded, it was obvious you were sober. It also said you shot yourself in your right temple. The picture of you on my phone is from your right side…I had taken it at Grandma and Grandpa’s Christmas a few years back. You look so happy…with this cute little smile across your face, your one dimple visible. It’s one of my favorite photos of you. Your beautiful face. It’s hard to describe the feeling of looking at you from that side and knowing a few years later you’d hold a gun to that temple…

I’m going to that dark place again. It’s so hard not to sometimes. I usually do okay. I honestly don’t think about that night very often. Mostly it’s just thinking about the fact that you aren’t here, that I can never hear your voice say my name again or laugh, or make fun of me. I find myself often imagining your response to different things I’m doing or thinking. Silly things. Like when I gave Scotland a much needed haircut, and dog fur literally enveloped me. I could just hear you laughing and saying, “Oh my gosh!” Or thinking about how much you would have loved the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, that Clay and I saw Friday night. Or how much you’d love our view of the mountains. Or any ditzy moments I have, how you’d make so much fun of me. Or wondering if you’d like a dinner I prepared, or what you would think of Clay’s steak-cooking abilities (they are good, but between you and me, yours were better. Shhhh). In moments where it’s just too much, I envision you sitting right next to me, talking me through it. Like tonight. I was chopping sweet potatoes, and just lost it. I took a lot of aggression out on our poor cutting board, but it wasn’t enough. I slid down to the floor and sobbed. I had a bite of potato in my mouth, so I’m sure I looked pathetic. But I thought about you sitting on the floor in front of me, holding me as I cried. I try to pretend your arms were around me, holding me close and telling me that everything will be okay, that you’re here and you will never leave me. In those moments, I’ll close my eyes and try to feel your presence. To hear your voice.

God, I miss your voice.

Mom and I talked for a good hour tonight. This weekend was obviously hard for her, being Mother’s Day. I was thinking about that card you gave her…the one where you wrote “Love you always,” in your cute little scribble. I wonder if she got it out and looked at it again. All the little reminders of you all over the house are both comforting and heartbreaking for her. There just can’t be one without the other. Your pictures are all over. Your ashes. Your papers and letters Mom and Dad have to go through. Your weird “old man” artwork in your old bedroom (I’m never going to stop teasing you about that). I understand what Mom meant when she said she needed to put your things in a safe place, where she wasn’t constantly reminded of your absence. I get it. I mean, I’m wearing your sweatshirt right now. But even though I feel so close to you when I wear your clothes, it also breaks me. It’s hard to describe the way it feels…your absence, I mean. It’s like a vacuum. Like your missing place in our world has created this enormous black hole that is threatening to suck us all in. I guess it’s similar to the wave analogy, how I keep getting battered by all these 100 foot waves and all I want to do is let go and drown. We keep holding on, not allowing ourselves to be fully sucked in or under because we have to live for each other. We still have a life to live. What kind of life will it be? I don’t know. It’s going to be so different, and honestly it’s impossible to think about the future. I know it’s the same for all of us-Mom, Dad, Nikea, Bethany…We’re doing the best we can. But it’s so hard not to get shoved under this massive black ocean by these unrelenting waves.

I read through your texts again. Even though they are so sad, they make me feel closer to you, too.

Thu, Oct 13, 7:00 PM

You: F*ck this depression.

Me: You can change it. I promise. I’ve been there. Like super recently.

You: Recently?

Me: We just had a lot of financial shit going on. Clay’s business had a rough patch we couldn’t recover from. So it’s been really hard. I’ve decided that I can’t change the circumstances if I’m feeling that way and so I decided to just change my outlook on it (for the record, I sucked at this). So I’m back on my meds and I’ve been taking really good care of myself.

You: Come to Minnesota. Come work for me!!!

Me: Oh I’d love to buddy but I think Clay might’ve finally got a job today actually. We shall see! He had an interview that went really well today. 

You: I’m on meds…not working.

Me: Then you need to switch up your meds. Sometimes you have to try several different types of meds to find one that really works. I did 😦 We’re moving into our friend’s basement. It’s been a really hard road. But the thing is things always get better, Chris. And depression sucks! So if your medication isn’t working you could talk to your doctor about trying something different. And rely on the people that love you. Like me and the fam.

You: She was my first love. I miss her so much. I just wish she would take me back!! I’m not a bad person!!!

Me: Realize that you are worthy and that you are worthy of love and past mistakes never dictate who we are.

You: Exactly I told her that!!

Me: I know Chris. But you need to work on yourself first. That’s what I was doing for years! We can’t be what others deserve if we don’t take care of ourselves and heal what’s broken. Then you can only focus on fixing yourself. It sucks to have a broken heart. But they heal. I promise.

You: I just can’t see the light. And I’m sick of this shit. Like I never want to get up in the am anymore for work. WHICH IS NOT ME!!! SO F*CKING DONE!!!!

This is how are conversations would go. All of them the last several months.

Wed, Dec 21, 1:36 PM

You: [name] agreed saying that she would be happier if I was dead.

Me: She doesn’t mean that. of course no one wants you anywhere but here. Especially us. We love you. 

You: I’m tired of EVERYTHING. 

Me: Then change things. You have the power. You aren’t weak. You’re strong. Everyone goes through shit. Clay and I are too. Worst year of my life. But I’m not giving up. I’m going to keep f*cking fighting. You do the same. You find what is broke, and you fix it.You have a great job, you have partial custody of your son. You can be happy if you want. Or at least at peace. I’d kill to have your position in life right now.

You: She does mean it. I’m so tired of my f*cking stress.

Me: I know. Stress sucks. What is it that stresses you? You have a job. You have rights to see your son. You have a place to live. What is it that stresses you?

And you didn’t respond. This last text string I keep going over and over. I can’t help but think this was your cry for help, and I let you down. Were you telling me that you wanted to die? Were you wanting me to fight for you? I never knew the context of that conversation you were talking about, but I know it was something said in anger but not meant. I would give ANYTHING to go back to that conversation and call you, and beg you to never hurt yourself. I myself have said similar things in the past so figured it was the same with you…that you were saying it because you were sad but you didn’t mean it. And now all I can think about is how I let you down. My brain knows I couldn’t have saved you even if I had called you that day instead of texting, but my heart tells me otherwise. I told you that you could be happy if you wanted. What the hell was I thinking? I wasn’t trying to trivialize…I was trying to empower you. To make you see how lucky you were. But instead I came off like I didn’t care. And I’m so so sorry. That’s never what I intended. I was trying to hard to protect you from yourself. But as someone who has fought the same battles I should have known better.

Regrets make this so much harder.

But I’m still breathing. Even though nights suck ass, the days are okay. I told you that already. And this last weekend was the best I’ve had since you left. Clay and I popped around several different bars before going to the theater Friday. I’m not drinking, but I still have so much fun exploring different places and drinking my nonalcoholic beverages. I know you rolled your eyes at me when I ordered my kombucha at Fermentaria. Hey, man, don’t knock it till you try it. And what do you expect from a hippie former yoga instructor?? You would have loved the last two bars we went to…one entire wall was retracted to let in the awesome spring breeze, and dogs were everywhere. Then Saturday, we hiked and BBQ’d with our friends. I invited you to hike with us…did you take us up on it? Sunday, Clay had a meeting so we didn’t make it to church…but we ended up going to brunch and then meeting our cousin, Maggie, out for her birthday at a local cider place. So obviously…good weekend. I actually had a goal to not cry this weekend. I figured I would be busy enough that I could remain distracted, and be exhausted and happy enough at night from all our excursions that I could just fall asleep.

It didn’t work. It’s Day 37 and not a single day has gone by that I haven’t cried. I know that it takes time. But the grief has taken its toll. I’m exhausted all the time. I have black circles under my eyes. I have all these pimples on my cheeks from tears and under my nose from (I’m sure) snot. Sorry, dude. But that’s the truth. My face is raw, and I’m not sure how to fix it. I know us crying isn’t what you want. The other night as I sat in the living room crying to you, I asked you what to do. Begging you to tell me what to do. And in that moment, I heard you. Clear as day. Let me go. Which made me cry harder. Because I don’t want  to let you go. How can I let you go? I know that letting you go doesn’t mean it stops hurting, or I stop missing you. It means to take comfort in the fact that I’ll see you again one day and live my life. But, Chris, I just don’t know how to let go yet. If you have any pointers, by all means share them. I’m at a loss.

But you’re still showing up. That same night after I wiped my tears, I looked down at my phone and saw in my text box the words “I’m sorry.” I just stared at it. I hadn’t touched my phone. How did that get there?? And then our TV turned on by itself when I left our bedroom to get a drink later that night. Two more reminders that you are here with me. I’m sorry. I know you were apologizing for the grief your actions caused. Well…it’s okay, little brother. I forgive you. It’s okay. Despite you hurting me like this, you are my brother. Always. Now and forever. I may still be angry with you, but it’s just because I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Love you, Buddy.

Letters to Chris. May 1st. Day 22.

Hey Buddy,

It’s been a tough day, and an even tougher night. Today was my first day back to my “normal life.” It feels so weird. So wrong. I arrived back in Colorado yesterday morning. I wasn’t close to ready to come home. I missed Clay and the pups, but I feel like nothing has gone right since we moved here a year ago. I wanted to stay away. Stay home with our family. It was hard walking back into our apartment. I just don’t have many memories here. We JUST moved in. It doesn’t feel like home…not at all. So the only memory that sticks out is that horrible, long night. So obviously, being back has been rough. Tonight, I felt like I did that first week…where the pain was so unbearable I couldn’t breathe. All I wanted to do was scream. Or die. Anything but feel the way I was feeling. And this morning, it was almost too much to go to work, to talk to people like nothing happened, to be happy because at any workplace you need to leave your shit at the door. How can I act normal when my heart is shattered into a million pieces? One minute I’ll be okay, and the next I feel like I’m drowning under this massive wave that is crashing over me and I keep trying to swim to the surface but a huge part of me wants to give up and drown. I feel so lost. All I want to do is go back home to where we grew up and be with Mom, Dad, Nikea and Bethany. Where our memories are. Where your stuff is. Where your old room is. Where your ashes are. I feel so far away right now and it’s almost unbearable. Sorry, Buddy. I’m just so tired. Talking to people all day has been exhausting when all I wanted to do was hide. But everyone tells me that I need to be around others. That working is good. That getting back into my routine is good. I can’t hide away all the time.

I’m not ready. I just want to cuddle with your things and sleep.

Dad drove me to Kansas City Saturday to stay with Court and Cory since my flight left so early Sunday morning. I could have taken the train, but I wanted to spend more time with him. Since he works and goes to bed at a decent hour (unlike Mom and me), I didn’t get to see him as much as I would have liked. So I made him be stuck with me in a car for 2.5 hours 🙂 It was so fun. It’s rarely, if ever, just Dad and me. As I’ve told you, I’m not ever going to take our family for granted again. It was funny…I’d been waiting for an awesome thunderstorm the entire time I was home, and of course the day I leave one hits. You should have seen the flooding. It was crazy. Fields looked like lakes. But luckily it never got too bad, or else I would have felt like the world’s worst daughter for asking him to drive me through it. I know he didn’t mind though. Dad’s love language is acts of service. (By the way, one of your close friends gave us a card telling us all the things you talked about in regards to us. I know it meant so much to Dad that you told her how smart he was, and how you wanted to be half the man he is. I wish you could have known that you were a good man, too. You were, Chris. I was proud to call you my brother. And Mom…she started crying when she read how you said she had been such a huge influence in your life. And it was so sweet that you bragged about her garden. That meant so much to her).

Saying bye to Mom, Dad and Nikea went as well as it could have. Better than expected. I figured I’d be sobbing, or at least Mom would be. I mean, she’d cry when I’d leave when I lived in Kansas City. But everyone did okay. Nikea came home to hang out after work, even though it was just for a half hour. She sat with me while I packed. I think having actual dates when I’m coming back helps tremendously (June and August). And Mom let me take everything I wanted of yours (even though I forgot your PJ pants I’ve been wearing which really upset me). She had felt so protective of your things, like they were being picked over. She knew that wasn’t the case, but you know how she is. She just needed time. Always the protective mother. I understand. That’s how I feel about your ashes. We had discussed sharing them, but I couldn’t deal with the thought of dividing you up. I say “you.” I know it’s not you. It’s funny how we cling to the physical remnants when that’s not who you actually were. Your soul lives on. But anyway…I’m so grateful to Mom. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have anything of yours here. It was hard enough being away from your belongings for a few hours at work. I had so many of your things I had to borrow Mom’s massive suitcase. And when I say massive, I mean MASSIVE. I could fit in there easily. Twice. I wasn’t able to bring everything I wanted due to weight restrictions, but I’ll be going home for your Celebration of Life at the end of June, and will bring them back with me (our birth mom and aunts are coming, as is the rest of the family and any of your friends, too. We haven’t made an official announcement yet, but will soon. It’s just so hard to get things going right now). Your Harry Potter books, your cowboy hat, your dress blues…Maybe some of your antlers. You had so many! Did you shoot all those deer? I know you did one, at least. Perhaps I can Pinterest something to do with your antlers. I know you’d be so annoyed with me if I tried to turn your antlers into a craft project, but sorry, dude, that’s what you get. And I’m trying to figure out what to do with your uniform. Would it be weird if I framed it? I’d love to have it hanging somewhere I can always see it. Maybe in our living room. I also took your ACU backpack and your cap. Oh and your deodorant. May be weird, but since I’ve already told you about how I cuddle with your sweaty shirts, I figure you can’t judge me any more than you already have. As for the rest of your clothes, they are all lying on my side of the bed. I want them close. Maybe months down the line I’ll fold them neatly and store them somewhere that’s easily accessible. And not all of them-some I’m sure I’ll wear to bed every night. It helps me to sleep. What’s neat is I’ve been finding so many photos of you wearing the shirts that I have. I had asked you to show me what you wanted me to take, and all these shirts I picked ended up in photographs. It makes me ache, but it also makes me feel so close to you. Especially the shirts that smell like you. I dread the day when your smell fades. I don’t know what I’ll do then.

Sometimes, I just don’t think. Like yesterday, I asked Dad if they had offered to give him the clothes you were wearing. Mom had been wondering if you were wearing the “Life is Good” shirt (you know, the ice fishing one she gave you) that night because it wasn’t in your things. Dad said they offered them to him, but recommended incineration because they were soiled. It’s like the couch…I knew you bled. I knew that. Considering everything, how could you not? I’ve seen the blood. So why did it hit me so hard when he said they incinerated your clothing because they were soiled? Shouldn’t that be old news by now? Why does it hit me like a sledgehammer to my chest whenever I hear something like that? Damn you for hurting yourself like that, Chris. Your life may not have been a big deal to you, but you were my everything. Our everything. And now life expects me to pick up the pieces and keep going. Because that is what you’re supposed to do. Keep living. Keep working. Keep growing.

How?

You did reach out to me Saturday, though. I walked into Courtney’s apartment and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was playing on her TV. Since I was just talking to you about that in my last letter, I know that was you saying hi again. Thank you so much. I can’t hold you, talk to you, laugh with you or wrestle you anymore, but I can see you in so many ways. Feel you in so many ways. Moments like that keep me going. Keep them coming, Chris. I’m going to need constant reminders that you’re still here. I’m needy. Get over it.

You would have laughed at me on the plane yesterday. It wasn’t funny at the time, but it does make me laugh now. We hit the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. Nervous chatter filled the cabin. The entire midwest was covered in storms, so as we left Kansas City we hit some major bumps. We would drop so far my stomach would jump into my throat. Turbulence normally doesn’t bother me. You know I fly all the time. But I was just so frazzled after the last three weeks, I started crying. It seems like anything bad can happen now. Like if you can die, then anything can go wrong (good outlook to have, right?). The woman next to me asked if I was okay. To which I responded, “My brother just died, now I’m going to die and it’s going to kill my mother.” I’m sure that was the last response she expected. I felt so stupid. Talk about word vomit. But all I could think about was Mom dealing with another child being killed. Luckily, the woman didn’t seem to mind, bless her. She patted my knee and promised we weren’t going to die, and started asking about you. I was honest about how you died. I refuse to hide it. Hiding it means I’m ashamed of you or your decision. No way. Never. Well it turned out her cousin committed suicide two years ago. He was 51. I’m not sure how, but somehow I knew I would sit next to someone who lost a loved one to suicide, too. I hadn’t planned on talking about it, but it’s funny how turbulence + a shitty three weeks can make us talk to complete strangers about the most personal stuff. It makes me cringe to think about it. But I’m grateful she was there to share her experience. We also talked about depression. She had suffered some major depression a few years back, and said she understood how someone could get to that point. I know so many people would have shied away from talking to me. It’s pretty cool how God puts people in our path that help us along the way.

Luckily, the turbulence calmed down, as did I. At least until I walked into our apartment. But, what can you do? I just feel bad for Clay. He was so excited to have me home, and I became a wreck the second I walked through the door. Of course he misses you, too. He just wants to fix this. You know how guys are. They are fixers. But this can’t be fixed. It can’t be solved. You’re gone, and I’m grieving. It’s just the way it is going to be.

I’m super fun to be around right now.

By the way, I’m listening to your favorite song. “Your Guardian Angel” by Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Yesterday, while on your Facebook I came across a status I had somehow missed:

February 25th at 6:42 am.

Commercial on addiction on Pandora then RJA My Guardian Angel plays. Someone is truly looking over me today!! Feeling great today.

So I put on this song. This status brought me so much comfort. You were feeling so positive and encouraged. I wish I would have commented on it. I had stopped getting on Facebook very often (social media overwhelms me), so rarely commented on anyone’s statuses. But I’m so so grateful I saw this. Because now I know you believed you were being looked out for. And now, I have a song I know you loved that I can listen to (and it’s not country, which I know you loved but man…I can’t do it. Unless it’s Brad Paisley or 90′s country).

You know what I find interesting? Throughout this entire ordeal, I haven’t been angry with God. I’ve been angry with Him in the past for things that have gone wrong. I blamed him when our Uncle Tim died, and when my friend Shanna passed. But I haven’t blamed him for your death. Because I know He brought you eternal peace. He didn’t cause this to happen. Your heartache and addictions did. But He did welcome you home. And while I would give anything to have you here with us, I know that is selfish. How could I ever wish you away from the incredible place you are now? Free from your burdens, your sadness. We may not be fine right now, but you are. More than fine. You are happier than we could ever hope to be. And you know, the therapist Mom and I saw said she was surprised you lived as long as you did. Just because you’d been dealing with those issues for so long. So I need to say thank you, Chris. For holding on as long as you did. While 25 years wasn’t nearly long enough (not even close), I’m so grateful that I got to have you in my life for those 25 years. Twenty five years of memories: of birthdays, Christmases, family dinners, movie nights, laughter, vacations, late night chats…I’ll take it. Having you as a brother was well worth the pain.

You’ll always be my brother.

By the way, I finally checked my Facebook messages yesterday. I had so many from your friends, reaching out to tell me how much they loved you. How they cannot wrap their mind around what happened, how they miss you, and how they are here for our family in any way, shape or form we need. We are beyond grateful for their words. Knowing we aren’t alone in our grief makes it a little easier of a burden to bear. Some things people have said about you:

“He had the heart of a giant and was built to serve others. I was proud to call him my brother and stand beside him in serving our community.”

“He definitely came into my life for a reason…even if it was for such a short time. I can sense it. He changed me in a good way.”

“Besides his love for his job and his hard work ethic, Chris was one of the kindest souls I had ever met.”

“I’m glad I had the time with him I had. He was a great friend I wish he could see all the people that cared about him who he didn’t know were there. He will forever be missed and the world is missing out on such a great person.”

“You were a great person. A funny smartass who always had a witty comeback. I miss you. I’m mad at you.”

“You were a beautiful soul.”

“I only knew Chris for a short while when he joined the Holts Summit Fire Department as a cadet a while back and his wonderful attitude and great personality made a forever lasting impression.”

“You were such a kind hearted guy. You would have done anything for anyone anytime they needed you. You loved your son immensely and you could see in his eyes he obviously adored you.”

“I thought highly of Chris, from the moment he walked into my office wanting to join the National Guard I could tell he was a bright, charismatic young man who had a promising future. When he told me he was moving, I knew I would miss seeing him around and talking with him about his progression in his military career and life in general. I know for anyone that had the opportunity meet him he had a positive impact on them as a person. He will be greatly missed and my thoughts go out to his friends and loved ones.”

And there are SO many more. People loved you, Buddy. And they will continue to love you. Couldn’t you see it?? I’m going to post on your wall and ask everyone to share a memory. Then I want to make a book of your photos and add all those memories they share there. It’s through all of us that you will keep living. We won’t ever let your memory fade.

Here comes another wave.

God, I love you. I miss you. I need it to stop hurting, but it just won’t. I love you. I love you.

Letters to Chris. April 28th. Day 20

Hey Buddy,

Well, I started crying in Kohl’s today. I’ve been doing okay, but the last two days have been rough. I’m sure the fact that this is my last night home before heading back to Colorado has something to do with it. And last night I went through a huge tub of hundreds of photos, organizing, dating…What do you call something that is super cathartic and super heartbreaking at the same time?? That would describe that experience. But in Kohls, as Mom was looking for a thank you card to send a friend who made a donation in Carter’s name, I happened upon the “Birthday for Him” section. When you passed I obviously thought about how I’d never see you again, or hear your voice, but I didn’t think about other things. Things that continue to hit me. Like how you’ll always be 25. And how I’ll never be able to buy you another birthday card. How I should have bought you a birthday card this last March. So I began to cry. Luckily there were no other people around except Mom, who held me and brandished a much-needed Kleenex from her purse, joking about how she always carried Kleenex for allergies but oh, my how times have changed. I shouldn’t have tossed all the packages of Kleenex I had laying around the apartment. I never used them. But now I’m either going to need to purchase some or throw a bunch of toilet paper in my purse. Because obviously I don’t always know when and where I’m going to be triggered.

So that photo tub…Do you remember that huge plastic tote of pictures that’s been hanging out in the storage room for years? Yeah, you remember-I had dragged it upstairs last year to go through and you asked me to send you baby pics so you could see how much Carter looked like you. Well, like I said earlier, I went through it last night. What a job. Photos literally spanning 100 years. You never met our great grandma, but her baby picture was in there. Then pictures of our grandparents’ wedding (man, Grandpa was a looker!), pics of Mom and Dad before we all came along, tons of black and white childhood photos of Mom and her sisters (I’ve never seen these before. Not many were taken so it’s incredible so many survived). And then…pics of us. So many baby pictures of you from when we lived in Linn. A bunch from when I was going through my pink headband and unicorn shirt phase, holding you in my lap. Of your first birthday where you demolished your cake. Sleeping in your rocker. Laughing, naked, on your baby blanket (cutest baby butt in the world…I still have that blanket). One of you breastfeeding. Then photos throughout the years: capturing birthdays, fifth grade graduation, float trips, Christmases, Halloweens (remember when you were Inspector Gadget?), fishing, basketball games (one where you are literally sleeping on a bench at a game of Nikea’s), dressing up as Leonardo da Vinci for a speech in grade school, waiting for the school bus, dressing up as a biker for Dad’s themed TanTarA meetings, roller rink nights, dressing up with your dad’s firefighting badge. So many pictures. I totally forgot you used to wear glasses as a kid. And play soccer! Man, you were such a skinny little thing. I recalled how I’d get so annoyed with you because you’d always make such goofy faces in pictures. You’d either purposely make your eyes super huge or you’d furrow your brow so you looked super in pain. Hey, do you remember when you’d play around with that tiny leather saddle Mom gave you? You’d put it on your hand and pretend your arm was a horse. We could have gotten you a toy horse, but no. Apparently that wouldn’t have been as fun. Well I found the most adorable photo of you with that saddle, grinning from ear to ear. I have never longed for anything more than I longed to hold that little boy in those pictures. Squeeze him, kiss him and cuddle him and never let him go. Reality is a b*tch. I saw a great picture of your father before he passed, and for the tiniest second I thought how I should send it to you. Before, of course, reality hit me that I couldn’t text you anything anymore. I wonder how many more moments like that I’ll have. Those aren’t fun.

And home videos. OMG so many home videos.There’s an entire tote of those downstairs, as well. Stacy came over and dropped off a VHS to DVD converter, so next time I’m home I want to help Mom do that. We haven’t watched those videos since we had a VHS player, so it’s been years. I can’t remember much of what’s on there, except for one particular afternoon we were playing down at the lake. You were drinking a Squeeze-It super dramatically, throwing it back like it was a beer, and just being the cute and annoying little brother you were, running around and causing a ruckus. I remember you trying to balance on the huge floatie that was wider than we were tall (I miss that thing), and demanding Nikea, who stood too close for comfort, not to shove it out from under your feet (“Don’t! DON’T!!!”) Which of course she did. You were a lot easier to pick on when you weighed 50 pounds. We spent countless hours at that lake. I’m sure school ceremonies and Christmas mornings will be in there, too. Birthdays. I think videos will be even harder than photographs to go through…to see you so alive and happy. Being loud and irritating and just plain adorable. I actually did okay going through pics, until I saw a family photo from Christmas in Sedalia from a couple years ago. The year when the tripod started to tilt in mid-flash. You were wearing the shirt that I have slept with every night (Well, I’m sleeping with nine shirts but I mean the one I sleep with on my chest because it smells like your sweat and cologne). Then I did okay, until I saw a pic of you on a float trip. You look to be about 6. You were so serious in this picture…sitting on a branch and looking at the camera with your big blue eyes. You were annoyed because Mom was asking you to pose, and you wanted to play. You were always so restless. It drove Mom mad. And I was looking at this photo, thinking about how you’ve always been so beautiful and how much I love that face. And then I just lost it. And I couldn’t stop. Then I walked over to your ashes and cried some more. I calmed down, walked to the bathroom to wash my face, then remembered the bar of soap I found that had your facial hair on it (you apparently had trimmed your beard before washing your face and I knew it was you because other than me, you were the only person to use that bathroom) and cried again. I know. I talk about crying a LOT. But this is my reality. Sorry, but it’s kind of your fault. But I’m so grateful to our parents for always pulling out the camera. Because we will always have these photos to cherish now.

You’d be proud of Mom. She did your laundry. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for her. But she did okay. It was actually very cathartic for her. Then she folded all your socks and boxers, towels and blankets. She is probably going to toss your briefs and older socks, but everything else we are keeping. Everything. Even tossing just socks and underwear is pushing it. I hate leaving her. She did better today, but it’s been rough. We had to get her out of the house yesterday so she could be distracted. Mornings are hardest for her. But know what’s neat? While going through the photos, I found a card you gave her for Mother’s Day years ago. You signed it, “Love you always. CJ Nacy.” I set it aside to show her, along with a pic of you two cuddling and holding hands on the couch when you were probably five or so. I was worried when she saw it this morning it would make her cry, but she did okay.

In hindsight, I should have saved it for Mother’s Day.

By the way, that signature of yours is the tattoo I’m going to get. Your childish penmanship writing those sweet words is perfect. I know you wanted me to find that card; that was your way of telling us that you’ll “love us always.” Those are the moments that get me through. Moments where I know you’re here. Like the other night when I was listening to a playlist on Spotify, and it randomly skipped down to my favorite song that I have listened to on repeat in the past because it reminds me of you. Then after it ended, Spotify jumped back up to where it was playing before, seven songs above that Mercy Me song. It was so weird-my Spotify wasn’t on the mix setting. Then Mom’s scanner. I hadn’t even noticed the brand name of it until I was sitting on the couch talking about you. The name is “Brother by Your Side.” Earlier that day, Mom turned on the radio right when Rachel Platten’s “Stand by You” was ending, where it kept repeating “Love, you’re not alone, ‘cause I’m gonna stand by you. Love, you’re not alone. Oh, I’m gonna stand by you.” Coincidence? Some people may say these all are. But I don’t believe so. I believe all those are my little brother letting me know he’s here and he’s okay. Mom’s okay with me taking a bunch of stuff home with me now. I have filled up your camo bag to max capacity with clothing and a hat or two. I’ll have to take your books on another trip; I just can’t fit an entire hardback series of Harry Potter books in my bag. Mom also told me I can have your dress blues. The ones you wore to my wedding. You looked so handsome and so proud. I can’t believe she’d give those up. I don’t know if I could in her situation. But she’s the mom, always trying to make her children happy. I’ll have to come back and get that, as well. I couldn’t ever fold that up to go in my bag. Even for a short flight.

Do you remember when we went to see “Twilight?” I had completely forgot about that, until the other night when I came across it on Netflix. I remembered taking you to “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” But for whatever reason, it had slipped my mind that we saw it together until that night. You and I had read the books, so I took you on a sister-brother outing. And it was so fun! Later on, you would decide you detested the story, and even sent me a pic you found of a Twilight book made into a flask holder because no one would ever open it. But I have a feeling you never stopped liking the books. Not really 🙂 I watched it last night. Just because it was another awesome memory with you.

You were such a big reader. I always thought that was so cute. Mom told me today how excited you were to get the Hunger Games trilogy. I wonder what you thought of those movies. I bet you liked them. We always liked the same books and movies. I found your Lord of the Rings books…Did you actually read those?? I would be so impressed. I couldn’t even get through those in college. I’m going to take them home and give it another go, though. We shall see. But first I have a couple other books I need to get to. Dad bought the family a book about how to survive a loved one’s suicide, called Finding Peace Without all the Pieces. The author’s son had shot himself, as well. I just finished the first book I bought just days after you died, written by a sister who also lost her brother to suicide. While I hate that other people have to endure this tragedy, it helps to know we aren’t alone. Reading her words gave me some comfort. Unless someone has been through this, it’s impossible to know what it’s like. There are deaths, and then there are suicides. The grieving process is so vastly different. “John’s sister” helped me to know any emotion is normal when it comes to grieving for you. So I’m sure the book Dad gave us will also be a big help. And I have to be grateful it’s not a Glenn Beck book (sorry, Dad)!

I told you about the meeting I’m going to start attending for suicide survivors, right? They meet on the third Tuesday of every month. That’s going to be super hard, but I think well worth it. There’s also one that meets on the first Wednesday of each month for the newly bereaved, so I may go to that as well. I just feel that going to one where they know how I feel will be so much more helpful. I don’t know. It’s one thing to talk to family about it…it’s going to be very different talking to strangers. It’s so weird…I’ve always been uncomfortable around the topic of death. I’ve always avoided it, because it’s just depressing to think about one’s own mortality. I mean, what’s the point, right?? But I’ve literally been living this for the last three weeks. My entire existence has become entwined in your death. And I know that’s not what you want. But it’s impossible not to focus on the fact that you are gone. It’s a pretty damn big blip on the radar. And the manner in which you left us. Even if I could take my mind off it, I just need to look in the mirror to be reminded of the hell we’ve been going through the last three weeks (thanks, cortisol). I’ve forgiven you, but I’m still pissed. Maybe that means I haven’t forgiven you. I don’t know. I do know one day we will remember how you lived, not how you died. But we are just so stuck right now. It’ll take time. Lots of it. Years, maybe. And now time passes so slowly.

I blame you for that.

Hey Dad found the perfect holder for your ashes. An artillery box. It is so ironic…but we know it’s exactly what you would have wanted. This is what you would have asked for. You loved all things military. So Dad went to the army surplus store in Columbia and found it. Mom is going to stencil “Nacy” in block lettering on the side. That works, right?

I’ve had a few of your friends reach out to me. That’s been so neat. These people just really loved you, Chris. They share photographs and memories with me…I think it’s healing for both sides, to talk to someone else who loved you. There’s always that same response to your passing…the heartache, but also the guilt and regret. “I should have seen it.” “I should have been there more.” “I didn’t know he was so sad.” The same exact things we say. I mean, I’m filled to the brim with regret. Guide me in what to say to these incredible people. I’m so so glad you had close friends, people who genuinely cared about you enough to reach out to your family. You were so blessed in so many ways, little brother. You did lead a very full life. A beautiful son, a loving family, an education, friends, a military career…I have to keep reminding myself of those things. Especially when I look at pictures of that sweet, innocent little boy that you were. He will grow up to have so many good things going for him. It wasn’t all heartache and despair.

That keeps me going, too.

Love you, Little Bro. Miss you.

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.