Fight, flight or freeze. Most of us have heard of the “Fight or Flight” response exhibited when we sense a stressful situation or danger is approaching. Researchers have shown that as our stress levels rise, the brain relays a message to the body that it is time to run or to defend one’s self. Freezing in the face of danger is another observed response to perceived danger. Those who have suffered a trauma know that there are sometimes triggers that elicit the “Fight, Flight, or Freeze,” response. For soldiers a trigger may be hearing a car backfire and be reminded of wartime shooting. For those traumatized by a natural disaster, a crack of thunder or lightning brightening the sky will engender a response. For me, a grieving mother, late night calls, and the sound of sirens causes the anxiety and stress associated with reliving a trauma. Until today I’d equated my freezing in “awkward” situations as a sign of my weakness and desire to appear well-mannered instead of taking care of myself. I didn’t realize that hearing certain words triggered a response that would cause me to stand immobile and hope the person talking would stop soon. Words spoken by another caused me to freeze at my son’s open house last year. This weekend I froze because of words overheard at my neighborhood block party.
Our neighbor was hosting breakfast (you got it, the block party starts at 9am!) and I was looking forward to attending. I was pleasantly surprised but still guarded that I wasn’t dreading the day. Last year I was unable to attend any of the block party festivities because everything connected with it reminded me that the year before was our first block party at our new house, and our last summer with Jordan. The summer of 2008, I watched from a folding chair set up in the blocked off street as Jordan and Merrick drive to the end of the block, so that they could pick Mark up and go to the movies together. Jordan and Merrick coaxed Mark into going to see, “Tropic Thunder” saying they didn’t expect it to be good but it would be worth a few laughs. Through muffled fits of laughter they convinced Mark to go to the movies instead of staying at the block party. When Jordan drove up to the barricade at the end of the street, he got out of the car and waved to his dad. Mark was so proud as he said his goodbyes to our neighbors, telling them he was going to see a movie with his boys, that they, “Twisted his arm.” Last summer, the thought of attending the block party was overwhelming. I knew if I went, I would sit and stare at the barricade the entire evening thinking of our car pulling up and Jordan waving to his dad. I cried off and on that entire day.
This year when I saw the flyer for the block party mixed in with the mail I didn’t feel apprehensive or sad. I still thought about Jordan and Merrick picking Mark up for the movies but it made me smile. I was looking forward to finally introducing myself to our neighbors who were hosting the breakfast. Although we’d waved at each other and spoken on the phone once, we’d never officially met. After Jordan died, they sent us the most heartbreaking yet compassionate condolence card. They expressed their sorrow at our loss and told us of losing their daughter-in-law who died during childbirth. They wrote that when they saw all the cars parked in front of our house and so many people going in and out, it brought back memories of their son’s wife dying. Even though we had never met they offered their prayers and hopes for our comfort.
Although a little wary and weary, Mark and I took the cue from our daughters who had already made their way to our neighbors as we stood on the porch preparing to go to the breakfast. We walked across the street making our way onto the porch and introduced ourselves to our hosts. The four of us stood for a moment and then I thanked my neighbor for the beautiful card she sent us after Jordan’s death. As she said in the card, she repeated to me on her porch, “Seeing all those cars brought back all the memories. I felt so badly for you all. I just sat here and cried.” We shared a look that I hope conveyed my appreciation of the grace she and her husband showed my family. She then urged us to help ourselves to the breakfast buffet they’d put together.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and chatted with some of our neighbors. I stood with Mark for a while as we talked with a few others of a local house under perpetual renovation. As they continued talking I excused myself to get more coffee. After I filled my cup, I turned to see a friend standing with three other women that I vaguely recognized. I decided to join their group and say hello. As I entered their circle of conversation I heard the words, “You wouldn’t believe what a mess my daughter left her room when she left for college.” I stood there frozen. I looked down at my coffee and tried to figure out what to do. My mind was trying to coach me, “Of all the conversations to walk up on.” My next thought was, “You don’t have to stay, just smile and walk away.”
As I was having this internal dialogue, the conversation continued and one of the woman said, “I told her I’m not letting her have her diploma until I know she can take care of it.” The group laughed appreciatively. I stood rooted to my spot, staring at the freckled arm of the woman across from me. I have no idea what look was on my face. I tried telling myself, “Merrick is going to college soon, put this conversation in the context of Merrick, then it won’t hurt so much.” The word diploma started reverberating inside my head and I started wondering how I was going to get out of that circle. I still couldn’t move though. Suddenly I felt my friend’s hand on my arm. She pulled me away, gently smiled and picked up on a conversation we were having earlier. I could feel the muscles in my face soften as she and I talked.
Later that day I told Mark about standing in that circle of women, and being frozen in place, when all I wanted to do was leave. I blamed myself, “What’s wrong with me? Why is it more important for me to be polite than to take care of myself? I just stood there.” My dissection and analysis of the events was that I didn’t respond appropriately in an awkward situation.
I met with my counselor today and told her of my weekend “Freeze”experience, sharing how I have been chastising myself for not responding differently. She gently but firmly stated that my response was not strange for someone who has experienced a traumatic loss. Politeness and being manner able had very little if anything to do with my response to hearing a conversation about college and diplomas when Jordan would be a senior in college this year. As she talked to me she concentrated on the positive outcome that happened when my friend pulled me aside. She urged me to have a friend ready to help when a situation gets overwhelming. I told her that in the months after Jordan died I kept a buffer zone of friends who did just that. Clearly I need to ask for support in situations where I feel uncertain or overwhelmed. I definitely need to cut back on thinking, “What’s wrong with me?” I now know that in the face of triggers aka “awkward situations,” I sometimes freeze because my traumatic grief is too much for me to bear alone. Fortunately on Sunday, a friend saw my distress and pulled me to safety.