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.