Over the past several months, I’ve been relearning how to properly care for my space and myself while shooting portraits for this project. I am enjoying creating new rituals in the process, and focus more on the health of myself and the space and less about the perfection of the technology and actual photos. 

I knew I would need more lead time for Elena’s photos. Many of the people on my waiting list are from years ago. Elena first applied for the project in 2019, and then shortly after COVID quarantine began and everything came to a halt. We have kept in touch a few times over the years, as I would send updates to approved Faces with any news about when I would resume shooting, so this meeting is a few years in the making!

When people apply for the project, they fill out a small paragraph about their story, but I don’t know much more details than that. I knew Elena had also lost a brother; he was the successful one, the popular one, went to a big fancy college, and then suddenly was gone.  I already felt my own grief peeking out, as to say “That feels familiar, would it be ok for us to come out to play?”. 

I need to tell you, how important it feels to be able to acknowledge those moments. I didn’t do that for myself enough in the early years of this project, and I am realizing now that the quarantine and this slow down – really has taught me how much slower I need to move through these intense moments with people, to make sure I leave space to FEEL anything I need to feel. 

I felt Elena’s emotions before she showed them. She was nervous, and her emotions felt tender, and to be fair, so did mine. We had some time to just be, talk, breathe and I told her how the session was going to flow. One thing I tell everyone: Don’t feel like you need to edit for me. You can talk about things here that you can’t in other spaces. It doesn’t scare me and this space is able to hold your story. I am not a judge, jury or therapist. I am just a space to help you hold things while you take a rest and exhale some of those feelings attached to the words. Her emotions quickly came to her throat and she said:

“It’s so nice to have permission to talk freely about my brothers suicide. I’m so used to having to sanitize it for people.”

WOW SANITIZE. I hadn’t heard it phrased that way before, but she was so correct. People don’t want to sit in that sadness or discomfort. They want it sanitized. There is a weight lifted when you realize you don’t have to edit or sanitize your pain around someone. 

As we began Elena’s session – we realized the similarities in our stories. Oldest sisters, our roles both growing up and assumed roles after the suicides of our brothers. I saw a meme recently that said “The oldest daughter grows up to be the toughest dude”, and I don’t disagree. Our brothers saw very difficult things in the family dynamics, felt mounting pressures from all sides, went to big colleges, both were popular and very intelligent. Both began showing downward spirals during that time, and then just as bright as their fires burned through life, it burned out. 

The most vulnerable part of the session for me was when I asked her about the day he died. Where she was, how she found out, and what she remembers of that day. 

“The day he died, I was living on Capitol Hill at the time. Because we had been going through so much with him, I think I was kind of waiting for this call. My mom facetimed me, and didn’t say anything, she was just sobbing and I knew. I hung up and put my dog on the leash, and walked to Volunteer park. I sat and watched people doing normal things. I couldn’t believe the world was still going! I just sat in shock, and didn’t cry. I remember thinking it felt like a scene from a movie, with the sound off.

With the sound off. That is exactly what it feels like. You are almost ANGRY with how fast the world keeps spinning and moving – while you are at a complete and utter frozen stop. 

When you share a space with someone, and mutually share tender painful stories of suicide – and those losses are similar – it feels different. I found myself crying without realizing it, and letting myself stay there, even if I missed a shot. 

Thank you Elena for your patience with the process of how things unfolded in this journey. Your trust means the world, thank you for sharing your story and the memory of your brother with us. 

Below are the rest of my favorites from Elena’s portraits, as well as excerpts from our conversation during her session:

We had both a wonderful but also horrible childhood. Our mother made it wonderful. Our father was an abusive alcoholic. When I was 13, while I was at a friend’s house – my parents had a fight and our dad hurt our mom. My brother was 9 years old, saw the entire thing and called the police, and our dad went to jail. Our lives were so much better after he was gone. We all felt so free, I thought.

My brother soared through life. He was popular, smart and as a kid, seemed invincible. When he went off to college we were less in touch. His attitude started to change. He would say hurtful things to our mom, which was very out of character. He started seeing a doctor and taking meds for his ADHD, and soon after started having physical issues. He told mom he was feeling like taking his life, and 3 different times she drove up to his college to see him. He was even tin the hospital for a bit until he said what he needed to get out. From January to May, things got bad quickly. But then I’d talk to him on the phone and he seemed fine.

I got the first ticket I could to be with everyone in NH. I saw my mom and I think that was the first time I let it hit me, and I really cried with her. So many of his friends and my friends came to NH for his memorial. They all brought plants and we planted a garden in his memory. It was a wild and loving memorial. 

I came home a week later and thought I was in my grief and doing ok. I was in grad school and had to get back. I really thought I was ok. It took me so many years to realize how important it was to take care of yourself during that time. In the aftermath, I worried the most about my mom. The first few years were bad. She worked to make me think she was ok, and I worked to make sure she was ok too.

I want people to remember with this kind of grief, to take special care of yourself. You don’t have to be strong. Other people will take care of you if you let them. I was surprised just how many people helped us, even when my mindset was that I had to be the strong one.