WORDS FROM STRANGERS.
“I couldn't save him.”
Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for honoring your brother and telling his story. Thank you for finding the words in all of the pain. This coming March it will be 6 years since I found out that my high school boyfriend/close friend shot and killed himself. Receiving that phone call from his parents that he was gone was the most awful thing and I don’t even know how I made the 40 min drive in pouring rain home. I can only imagine your pain because it was a long battle and it was your brother. It was only when I was watching an episode of a reality show and one of the people was beginning to go down the rabbit hole did I finally get that I couldn’t have saved him…I had done all I could. I miss him greatly everyday. I hope you continue to find the words and heal.
— Maggie 11/7/14
“Reading your stories makes me feel I am not alone with this pain.”
Jen, I applaud you on your openness to share this with the world. My only will it open up people’s eyes to addiction, but struggle, depression, and suicide as well. My brother, only 36, took his own life two weeks ago. Three weeks prior my cousin did as well. They both hung themselves. I am having the hardest time getting through each day. Reading your stories makes me feel as though I am not alone with this pain. I thank you whole heartedly for that.
— Katrina 11/7/14
Thank you. Thank you so very much. Beautiful, painful, real, raw. Needed. Thank you.
— S.T.S. 10/24/14
"I have had quite a few strange interactions with birds since his death."
I lost my brother Jude to suicide the day after Christmas 2014, almost exactly 23 years after we lost our father to suicide. A friend told me she was working with you and she sent me a link to your blog. The day that I decided to finally click on the link to read it, Jude's best friend sent me something that he found on Jude's iPad that Jude had written in February 2014, not long after the second time we had him picked up for suicide watch and ironically, around the same time you lost Jesse. I wanted to share it with you, so here it is.....
"I wish more than anything I ever wished for.. including all the money and weed and land and salt and gold and answers and love and time and freight trains.. that I was a bird. The pain in my heart and the mess in my head are too much for me to bear as a man. All I know is that if I were a bird I would fly high above the trees and live in a thick white cloud. I would sing to my friends back on earth and never have to worry about anyone else knowing who I was or why I live in a cloud and sing beautiful songs to these people down on earth. I would be free to come and go as I please, and I would only take what I need from the earth to get by. I would try my best to eat only the oldest and most useless insects, or berries from a tree with many to spare. I would not flock, nor ever intrude on another birds home. I would soar as high as the heavens and dive into the sea to quench my thirst. I would climb again and let the wind take me away to wherever the wind chooses to go. But I would be free to choose my path with nobody ever telling me where I can or cannot go. I would be content, if not joyous to be a bird floating freely in the sky. I would love everything as it is, because I would love myself. I wish I was a bird." ~Jude Erny
I have had quite a few "strange" interactions with birds since his death. After reading his note, I can't help but wonder if maybe he's been stopping by to let me know he's okay. I find peace in the thought of it, although I hate that he hurt so badly and that he didn't love himself. I am so sorry for your loss and I hope that you are finding some peace. Even after going through it personally, it's interesting that I still struggle to find the right words.
— Victoria 3/31/15
This was beautiful and heartbreaking. I am at a total loss for words.
— Donna Rudolph 10/30/14
"I was meant to read every single letter."
Thank you for this blog and your beautiful letters. My brother died 11 days ago from a heroin overdose. I’ve read each letter, full of tears because the similarities are uncanny. Our mother died too… on December 9th. That destroyed my brother. I too live miles apart from where my brother lived (I live in NC and he lived in NY). Despite the distance, I felt the most connected to him and have 2 other sisters. I’ve tried to help him through his struggles with words of love and constant encouragement. I’m laying in his bed right now. At first I couldn’t bare the thought of being in his space. But now I feel so much closer to him. I couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning… I’ve become obsessed with learning everything I can about this terrible disease we call addition and how it ruins so many lives. That is how I stumbled upon your blog. I don’t feel it was by chance. I was meant to read every single letter because it invoked so many emotions and hope within me. I knew I needed to do something so that my brother’s life and how he lived it will never be forgotten. He led me to you for a reason and I know that I have a huge purpose now. Awareness and saving even one life through my brother’s story is my mission. Thank you for your inspiring letters to Jesse. Maybe they’ve met each other in heaven.
— Sylvia Rushing 5/31/15
“Please know a large part of why I stay sober is to not let Jesse down.”
I am at a total loss for words. As you have posted each of theses letters I have read them crying…. I know you don’t know me but I was the bride in the 2nd wedding Jesse shot… We became good friends and as my marriage failed he talked me through a lot…. When I tried to kill myself, he was the only person who said he understood…. When I got wrapped up in drugs and finally got clean he reminded me not to let myself fall back into it. As I talked to him as he sunk further back in himself…. I begged him to keep trying…. I talked to him about a week before he passed. I reminded him how much I cared and worried about him…. We ended our convo as we always did. I’ll check in with you soon….That was my last check in…. Often I pull up his number in my phone. Type him a message and send it to my drafts… Please know a large part of why I stay sober is because I don’t want to let Jesse down…
— Kelly 10/23/14
Oh, Jen. You are doing your brother justice. You really are. Thank you for sharing his story- and yours.
— Jeanette 11/6/14
"Sometimes the brightest lights fade the fastest."
I’m sorry. There isn’t anything anyone could have done to save Jesse. I hope that you don’t take this in a harsh way. Jesse had to save Jesse. But perhaps Jesse didn’t need to be “saved”. Perhaps Jesse’s life unfolded in exactly the way it was intended to and sometimes the very brightest lights fade the fastest. Jesse’s spirit bursts out of this photo. He is still alive right here on this blog. He looks like someone who would be so easy to love even with the cost. I hope you can find some peace in the midst of your grief.
- Chronically Undiagnosed 11/17/14
“I will continue to read.”
I stumbled upon the info to this blog on Facebook. I know people who knew Jesse. My heart breaks for you and with you. I too lost my brother to suicide. It’s an extremely difficult thing to go through. What you are doing is amazing. I will continue to read and support you.
— Jackie Strack 10/29/14
“I feel like you have been sent to me today.”
I came across your Instagram today and ended up finding Dear Jesse after that. I feel like you have been sent to me today. I lost my brother in 2011. Our last conversation was a hellish nightmare and I am deeply grieving his suicide. Thank you for sharing your story- finishing your letters tonight and plan to use your blog and Jesse’s story for strength.
— Tess 5/29/15
"It's like the iron curtain has gone up."
This one really hits home. Well, they all do. My brother is currently in outpatient treatment – because he refuses to do anything more – but the pull of the dark stuff and the lifelong battle and the strain it puts on us all, wanting to help him but not being able to break through that wall… Like you, I also yearn to have our childhood friendship back, because communicating through this hazy screen is so, so hard. I want the heroin to go away. I want the pain to go away. I ache for all of humanity that is aching and trying to fix their ache with everything but the love they felt was too scarce to help. And I ache because the love really can be so scarce these days. And once you add something as big and dark and threatening as heroin into the picture, it’s hard to know how to give that love anymore. It’s like the iron curtain has gone up. And every time I turn around I find someone else writhing in pain, on one side or the other of that curtain.
— Jessie 11/17/14
"He seemed flattered that I compared his work to another well known photographer."
Your writing is heartbreaking and profound. I went to school with Jesse, and though we weren’t friends, when I saw his work on Facebook I reached out to him to see if he would be available to shoot a friend’s wedding and we had a nice exchange. He seemed flattered that I compared his work to that of other well known photographers in the area, and I was surprised at how humble he was, given his obvious talent. It saddens me that we won’t continue to see the world through his lens anymore.
— Anonymous 11/19/14
"Thank you for loving him."
I remember him as the guy I knew who could always make me laugh at my worst and feel better at my saddest. A guy who befriended a girl who’d moved to a strange school when I was just ten. Thank you for loving him so much that you make all of us who knew him think of Jesse not as the person he left this world as, but the person he was to us.
— Kelly B. 12/9/14
"People are getting an eye opening view."
As an outsider, looking at Jesse growing up he seemed to have it all- good looks, intelligence, personality, well-liked, popular, tons of friends. He also clearly came from a good, loving family. So, I think many people are struggling to understand how a guy who seemingly had everything in the world going for him could have his life end in such a tragic and unbelievable way. I think many people are getting an eye-opening view into the fact that addiction hits families who look just like yours and mine. I applaud you for the raw and honest way you have chosen to share your brother’s story. Knowledge is power, so thanks for sharing. Blessings to you on your journey through truth and healing.
— Anonymous 11/19/14
"Your dad was right- Jesse did shine like stars."
Your brother Jesse indeed has lessons to teach you Jen as well of all of us and I’m ready and willing to learn them all, thank you for sharing his story. Your dad is/was right- Jesse did shine like stars in his generation even though his stars here on Earth didn’t shined nearly long enough. They will continue to shine through his gorgeous photography and through these wonderful letters you are writing to your dear brother, Jesse.
— Amy 12/9/14
"As hard as this is for me, every single time, I thank you."
This to me at this moment is absolutely terrifying. “He comes from a good family” resonates with all of us that have loved ones suffering from addiction. Unfortunately, I am still living in the fear of what may become of my family members addiction every day. Jesse was one of my closest friends, for way to short of a time. I wish every day he could have been in my life earlier. I wish everyday I did not have to take a break from our friendship because it was too hard for me to deal with. Loving two addicts was more than my heart could handle. I wish everyday he was here, just to listen, when no one else understood. I wish I didn’t have to miss him every single day. Each time I come to this blog I sit here and stare at his arms, and his camera, and how his lips are perched a certain and very distinct way. I can hear the sound of his voice, and the way certain words roll off his tongue. I remember the times that we had, and not the times I wish I did something different. As hard as this is for me, every single time, I thank you. From the bottom of my heart.
— Laura 12/10/14
"I am drawn to your writing and how well you capture the raw emotion of losing a loved one to drugs and suicide. I lost my brother almost 8 years ago to suicide and I struggle daily on how to relay his story to my kids- his whole story. You have an amazing talent and I thank you for sharing Jesse’s story."
— Meghan Rush 2/4/15
"I can't believe how much I read I actually say to myself."
Every letter I read brings me to tears. I lost a loved one to suicide as well and as I read these letters I can’t believe how much of what I read is exactly what I say to myself. Thank you so much for sharing these letters. I honestly feel they help me deal with my loss. Thank you.
— Karen 1/20/15
"Your words have moved me."
I can’t begin to tell you how your words have moved me. Your writing is incredible. The story you’re telling is beautiful & heartbreaking. As a mother myself I can’t imagine what your days are like and how heavy your heart feels a majority of the time. I look forward to following your story and learning more about Jesse. What life was like through his eyes, through his lens.
— Alexandria Heimueller 6/8/15
"The past 8 months I've lived in such pain, sadness and overwhelming grief."
I sit here in tears not even knowing who or even how to address this letter. The only thing that comes to mind is...sister. Tonight I read through all 6 of your letters to your sweet brother Jesse and it's haunting how nearly every word you wrote could have come from my very own mouth. I feel the pain in your words but I also feel bravery assisting the healing through the hell it is losing your brother in the way you lost him. I too was the other sister hearing, from so many miles away, that on February 5th 2014 "our handsome loving brother had passed away" in the words of my little sister. So all I can think is that YOU are a sister like myself, that has gone through something so painful, our stories are so similar and I feel a sister empathy. So I say "sister" with two meanings. Sister of Jesse, and myself as a Sister who empathizes with you.
You feel like after nearly six years of living through my brother's (and subsequently my families) battle against heroin and everything that goes with it I wouldn't have been so shocked. Though shocked isn't even a word that can do justice to the gut wrenching hurricane my body and mind felt after hearing those words. My world shattered.
Your letters really hit me. The past 8 months I've lived such pain, sadness, and overall consuming grief. Quite frankly I just wasn't living. I had my little boy who needed me to live and felt such guilt about that. I needed to deal with this sadness and pain within that I was letting consume me.
I had an experience after choosing to fly back home, on the week that would mark 8 months without him, when I had realized I needed to do SOMETHING. I needed to face my brother and my losing him. Without getting into details I had a break through moment finally at the end of that week. I learned to separate my consuming pain from the idea that I was letting HIM go. It seems so simple when I write it but I didn't even realize I felt that way. I realized that I'm still going to be horribly sad that I can't continue my life with him in it, I'm still going to miss him something fierce, I still love him more than anything. I just know now it was horrible what happened throughout the process of his addiction and ultimately the overdose in which killed him, respectfully acknowledging and accepting that, but then to separating the pain, negativity, and sadness of those things to LIVE and honor him through living my life fully. Or in your words "Tell the world his story" in my own way for Austin.
I'm just now in a place where I can acknowledge that separation and I feel peace because I understand the separation. I can feel sad and mad and all those feelings but feel peace in living in happiness for myself to honor him.
Your letters are such a strength for me because I see you finding a way to start living through that pain and in a way that can help others in the process. One thing that has been consistent since my brother's death has been the fact I want people to know the ones we lose due to drugs, suicide, and mental illness are just as real and as sad as someone who died in a fatal accident. These topics should not be taboo and I want to see the day I can say "my brother died of a heroin overdose and it was the worst thing that has happened to me" and not have it be belittled, or his memory tainted into an image of something worthless, or with the judgment that "it was his own fault". These people, our brothers, are beautiful souls who are aching to be better, whom someone loves, and have pain within that most can't imagine. I wish to spread compassion and light to this subject and I think you are doing it beautifully.
I felt a desire to share these words with you and hope they are received as I intended and nothing but love and understanding are felt while reading. I appreciate you and making me realize I am not alone.
— Heather 10/23/14
"I feel like I'm waiting for the end."
I’ve been watching my sister’s very public breakdown on Facebook which culminated in her being hospitalized for the second time this year. I feel like I’m just waiting for the end. It feels very much like the way I watched Jesse’s final chapter. I can’t thank you enough for sharing.
— Lori Foxworth 1/19/15
"I know I have not dealt with her death in the way I would like to."
Two years ago, my best friend (who had been in and out of rehab for alcoholism) checked into a hotel in upstate NY and basically drank herself to death. I'm not sure if your sharing your brothers stories to help you heal with your loss or if it's more for other peoples benefit and creating awareness of suicide. I just wanted to thank you - I know I have not dealt with her death in the way I would like to. Reading your stories definitely struck a nerve and got me thinking about how I can process Jess's death in a healthy way. Thank you for sharing your story.
— Leigh 10/23/14
"Thank you for bringing it out of the shadows."
I just wanted to write to you and tell you that you're definitely not alone. I know all too well about losing someone you love twice, the first time to addiction and later to suicide. I was only 10 when my uncle took his life. He could no longer fight the demons inside and at 36 I still feel the loss. I saw it again as a military spouse watching friends and neighbors go off to war and come back changed, then later taking there own lives to extinguish the suffering. I won't lie and say it gets easier or the anger eventually goes away but I will say you find a way to make peace with it. You learn to celebrate their lives in little ways. Suicide is difficult and many people don't understand it or want to discuss it. Thank you for bringing it out of the shadows.
— Sada 10/30/14