Brandy Butzbach will always remember last Halloween as the day that changed her life forever.
Butzbach, 37, says she spent the morning talking and spending time with her husband, Ben Butzbach, but became concerned when she hadn’t heard from him for hours after she left for work. It was unusual behavior for Ben, who Brandy says used his cell phone “all the time.”
So, she decided to go home to check on him, leaving work from a local Verizon call center. She says that when she drove into her Murfreesboro neighborhood, she had a feeling that something was wrong.
“For some reason I just got overwhelmed with emotion. I just started crying. Somehow, I subconsciously knew that something really bad was wrong,” she tells PEOPLE. Brandy says she walked into her and Ben’s bedroom and found him dead.
“As soon as I opened the door to the bedroom I knew. He was a side-sleeper, but he was turned over on his belly with half his body off the bed. As soon as I saw him I knew. I went up and touched his toe and his toe was cold. I immediately walked out and called 911. But he was already gone.”
Ben, a volunteer firefighter and father to a 10-year-old son, died of a heart attack. He was 33.
Brandy first shared her story with Love What Matters, writing that authorities believe Ben suffered the heart attack shortly after she left for work that morning. She wrote that although Ben had a family history of heart issues, he went to a cardiologist twice a year and appeared to be fine.
“Everything in my world just crashed. I had an emotional breakdown,” she tells PEOPLE. “From the time the ambulance came, it’s like a blur to me. I don’t remember everything that happened. I was having an emotional breakdown.”
In the weeks following Ben’s death, Brandy says she knew she wanted to honor her late husband in a special way. So, a former photographer, Brandy decided to pose in her wedding dress for a series of photos that featured pictures of Ben and his beloved hockey jerseys.
However, the pain of the loss was too great and Brandy says she wasn’t emotionally ready to take the photos — until nearly a year later.
“I wanted to do this to honor him and remember him. For me it would be a good opportunity to explain what happened. It wasn’t until August  … that my best friend convinced me. I felt like I would regret it if I didn’t do it.”
So, on Sept. 18, Brandy teamed up with Jessica Rasmussen (of Paper Flower Photo), dyed her wedding dress gray, and brought her vision to life. She shared the photos online on Sept. 25 — what would have been her and Ben’s third wedding anniversary.
“I was an emotional wreck. I was crying and I couldn’t speak,” Brandy says of the day she took the photos.”But I felt a sense of peace, a sense of calmness. I was in such a good space when I took the photos. As soon as we were done shooting, I just started bawling.”
The tears continued when Brandy saw the finished photos the next day. She shared them on Facebook in a moving post, writing, “This was not just about loss and sorrow. It is about love. It is about honoring my husband, the man I planned on spending my life with.”
Now, although the photos have given her a sense of peace, Brandy says she’ll always miss Ben and the way he made her laugh.
“He was so funny. In anything he would do, it would get a reaction out of somebody,” she says. “It would be to make them laugh or make them smile. He would know if I was having a bad day before I did. If he knew I was having a not-so-great day, he would get up and make me smiley-face pancakes.”