Sharing my mourning journey as my family learns to live a new normal after the death of my 19 y.o. son in an auto accident on 10/12/08.

Posts tagged ‘self-care’

Fear of Sleeping

For me, night intensifies even the most mundane of concerns. Sunday’s NY Times Style section had an article with a title that made me blanch: \”Sleep Medication: Mother\’s New Little Helper\”. I hesitated to read it wondering if I would find the article as condescending as the title. But, read it I did and was actually comforted to know that there are many women and it seems mothers in particular who battle insomnia. Apparently that golden time when as new parents we’re able to boast about our babies sleeping through the night coincides for many women with the last time they can remember being able to tout such an accomplishment.

I’ve never slept well and have always been one of those people that awaken repeatedly during the night. The night wakening didn’t bother me too much until it was accompanied by anxiety about going to sleep. The cycle of fatigue had me so worried about getting a good night’s sleep that I couldn’t fall asleep. I resisted sleep aids other than the occasional Benadryl; justifying it by telling myself I needed it for my allergies anyway. But there came a time after my daughters were born 12 years ago that nothing I tried was helping. Sticking to a bedtime routine, taking Melatonin, warm showers before bed, not working in my bedroom, darkening the room, etc. left me still wide awake repeatedly during the night.

The worrier part of me came out in full force at night. Should I have gone over Merrick’s math homework with him, why didn’t I quiz Jordan for his history test. I complimented Kendall but not Lindsay, did they notice? Nighttime started to feel like dread time and I felt powerless to change it.

When I finally went to my family physician and told her of my battle with sleep, after a long talk and many tears on my part she suggested I try Ambien. “But I don’t want to get addicted to sleeping pills.”

“You’ve got a real problem that other methods haven’t been able to address. Look at you, you’re exhausted and depressed and right now my major concern is that you get sleep.”

“I agree. But you know me, I hate taking medicine.” (Said I, the woman with the chronic illness already on numerous medications)

“That’s why I’m here. Don’t worry about addiction, let’s get you some sleep.”

So, I trusted my doctor who knew me and had never thrown medication at me. Ambien worked, for a little while. I slept and woke up feeling rested for the first week or so and then things changed. It didn’t work anymore. I’d take it on an empty stomach as prescribed and wake up at 2 0r 3 am ruminating on my old woes. Would I ever get a good night’s sleep?

In the midst of the ordinary was the phone call on October 12th, 2008 in the middle of the night, followed by the police officers at the door telling us about the car accident. Jordan was dead and sleep has never been the same. In the days and weeks after Jordan died Mark and I wondered if falling asleep let alone staying asleep would ever come naturally? We  began a new ritual of helping each other prepare for bed, both knowing that even though we’d been prescribed anti-anxiety medication in the face of our trauma, sleep would elude us. As I showered, he would sit in the bathroom talking to me when I was able, and listening to me weep when I wasn’t but he would stay and at the sound of the water being turned off, I would open the shower curtain knowing he’d be standing there to envelop me in my towel, wiping the soap from behind my left ear, a spot I always seemed to miss. He’d stand holding me for a moment and then the pattern would reverse. I’d sit waiting for him, sometimes talking, sometimes not but waiting with an outstretched towel to cover him and bring him in close as he’d done with me.

Three years later, Mark and my ritual is not daily but still occurs. I continue taking a small dose of a sleeping aid that allows me better sleep. That, coupled with the meditation exercises suggested by my counselor have made sleep much less frightening. I still have many nights where I awaken. Now the mundane mixes with the surreal. Things like- “Do the girls have food for their lunches tomorrow? Did I remind Merrick to reserve the shuttle to the airport for Thanksgiving? Share space with, “Jordan’s really gone. I have a dead son.” All of these thoughts running through my mind make me grateful for any amount of sleep. It is the elusive respite I craved during the baby phases of all 4 of my children. I keep going; reminding myself that time has brought progress. At least now I’m learning how to be less afraid to go to sleep.

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“Ever True To Brown”

One of the calmer poses with friends in front of the Van Wickle Gates

As I wrote about on Monday, this past weekend I took a brief sabbatical from my daily routine. My plans started to crystallize on the day of my wedding anniversary just 7 days before the event. I talked with one of my best friends, Michele, and she told me she was going to our alma mater, Brown University to celebrate homecoming and the Black Alumni reunion. As she and I talked, I realized I wanted to go to the reunion too. I didn’t feel apprehensive or nervous about attending, just excited. I’d been at my 25th college reunion in May ’10 and had left feeling shaken and lost. While I was there I kept thinking, “Jordan would be finishing his junior year. He’d officially be a senior now.” It hurt seeing the dorms, students sitting on the green talking or strolling with their backpacks in tow.

For this trip my guarded feelings about being overwhelmed by sadness and regret had lessened. I was cautiously yet eagerly looking forward to my weekend away. Excitement and anticipation feel foreign to me since Jordan died. My guilt that being happy might mean forsaking Jordan’s memory is starting to weaken and not visit so often. The thread that has joy and guilt intertwined is slowly unraveling. I can sometimes imagine as so many have promised that there is room in my heart for new experiences that aren’t weighted down by grief. I still wonder if it’s okay to feel happy and peaceful, questioning whether I should give in to the feelings of joy or stay guarded against a trigger that might send me careening into grief and sorrow. For this trip, I chose to accept the happiness I felt. There would be no over analysis. My weekend would be spent with friends who’d rallied around me on so many occasions especially after Jordan died. If I needed them they were there as a buffer, distraction or comfort.

I arrived at the reunion and shared a hotel room with Michele and another dear college friend, Doreen. From the moment we saw each other, we picked up where we left off 25 years ago. We reminisced about our younger selves and had earnest talks about our present lives, offering accolades, comfort and advice to each other. It was the grown-up version of a sleepover complete with giggles and the occasional thrown pillow.

I stepped onto campus for the first time Saturday morning to attend one of the forums. I saw friends I hadn’t seen since Jordan died. We hugged and shared our, “You look great” comments with sincerity. There were so many hugs with added whispers to my ear of, “I’m praying for you,” or “Keep holding on.” I was able to whisper back, “Thank you for reaching out to me. It means so much.” Never once during the weekend was I worried about expressing joy or sadness. I smiled, laughed and even giggled with friends without concern that I didn’t fit the image of a grieving mother.

One lecture that held particular interest for me was being given by one of my former professors. As I entered the building, it felt good to sit in a lecture hall with folks who all shared the same look of eagerness and appreciation for learning. My professor/mentor/friend and the person who pointed me on my professional path to developmental studies was about to begin her talk. I hadn’t seen her or communicated with her in at least 15 years. During my junior and senior years, I’d been a student in her Child Development class and also worked as a research assistant on her study of teen mothers and their toddlers. We both shared a loved of applied research and of children. I made sure to get to her talk on, “Immigrant Youth and the American Dream,” early so she and I would have a chance to talk. I knew she didn’t know about Jordan’s death and I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell her. Over the years I’d sent her Christmas cards with pictures of my kids so she knew about my family. With time and my moves our contact dwindled.

I walked down the aisle of the lecture hall, recognizing her from behind by her telltale “messy” bun hairdo and trademark hand gestures as she spoke. I stood beside her, waiting for her to finish her conversation. She looked up and did a double take and then we hugged. Her first words to me as I sat beside here were, “Oh my God, your kids must be huge now.” I shook my head yes and then no. I took a breath and without preface said, “I lost my oldest son in 2008.” She put her hand to her mouth and I told her the story of the accident. As I got to the words, “Jordan was dead at the scene but his friends walked away,” I sobbed and let her engulf me as I cried. The buzzing sounds of conversations from the filled lecture hall surrounded us but it didn’t matter to me. I cried with someone who remembered my son as a baby. I pulled out my phone and showed her pictures of all of my kids. She touched my cheek looking at me with such benevolence and grace and asked if I would be around after her talk. I told her I would and went back to my seat. As I sat back down I found a tissue in my purse and wiped my eyes. Her talk began and I sat at rapt attention feeling energized and transformed into a student again. She found me outside the lecture hall and we continued our conversation. We talked of family but also of research and program ideas that have started to percolate in my mind.

At lunch later that afternoon I told Doreen and Michele how alive and engaged I felt. The rush of energy, light and what felt like pure oxygen to my brain was exhilarating. It was the first time since Jordan died that I’d had such a full interactive day of activities. Talking with friends, being fed intellectually at forums and lectures, and even gathering for pictures where my smile came naturally and made it all the way up to my eyes was amazing. I told them I felt like I’d been in one of those oxygen bars in L.A. and had a hefty dose. I topped off my Saturday by walking around campus with friends as we asked strangers repeatedly, “Would you mind taking a picture of us,” at all of our old haunts. I struck one ridiculous, silly pose after another laughing all the while. (Those will not be displayed on my blog. :)) We joked that given our giddiness, people were going to assume we’d been drinking when all we’d imbibed was frozen yogurt.

After our photo shoot we made our way to the football game where the stadium was packed. I sat down realizing what a full day it had been and that I was tired. My friends talked me into coming to the game instead of going back to the hotel by describing the bands’ antics.  Brown’s band does not take itself too seriously even though the musicianship is great. During halftime, they lay at the endzone flat on their backs while the other team’s band plays. When it is their turn, their idea of a formation is to run at top speed seeing who can reach the 50 yd line first.

As I sat with alumni, families from the area and current students I talked a bit with friends and then started to watch the game. My gaze started to linger on a group of students standing by the fence. They looked like current students and had the carefree, nonchalance that hanging out while in college can bring. My heart ached for a moment as my thoughts went to Jordan and imagining him standing at a football game with friends. I looked away and then found my gaze pulled back to the same group of students. I felt myself freezing in a moment of heartache and I didn’t want to. I purposely looked away wondering where I could focus my attention when there were students all around me. I lifted my gaze and at the horizon was a perfect harvest moon. I watched it as I took deep breaths, telling myself, “you’re okay, you’re okay.” For the rest of the evening when the sights and sounds of youthful invincibility felt like they were closing in, I put my eyes on the horizon and the yellow moon. As the clock wound down, Brown beat Harvard 29-14!

The final event of the weekend was a worship service Sunday morning at the chapel. I was excited that my friend Katani would be singing, although she’d informed me at the football game that it would only be one song. I couldn’t convince her to do more even by saying, “I came all the way from Chicago to hear you sing.” Katani’s singing voice exudes the essence of her spirit. She is faithful, sincere, charming and funny. I have always loved to hear her sing. Any play or concert she performed in while we were in college, I was in attendance. After Jordan died, she called me one evening telling me of a CD she was working on. She told me one of the songs she especially wanted me to hear because she felt it would be a blessing to me. Before I knew it my dear friend sang to me over the phone. I stood in my kitchen, tears streaming down my face so grateful.

Katani was one of the first people I saw as I entered the chapel with Doreen and Michele. As I took my seat I looked around at all the faces in the room. There were alumni from various years as well as current students. I thought about the times I’d been in this chapel and the things I’d prayed about. I looked at the program and readied myself for a beautiful service.

The service was a time of renewal and grace. I look forward to sharing that part of my weekend with you as well.

Here is a clip from Youtube where you’ll see what I mean about Katani’s singing. She is the second performer. Enjoy

Good Times

I’m still working on my thoughts about my getaway weekend. Here are some pictures from the weekend.

Catching up with classmates/friends after attending a lecture.


Standing in front of the Van Wickle Gates with friends

My Prince loving friend Doreen. You could always find her dorm room by following the music.

"Sex and the City" girlfriend moments on Doreen's amazing deck. What a view!

My dear sister-friend Michele who is the reason I said, "I want to go too."

Just Be Jackie

I’ve been away from my blog for longer than usual. I thank all of you who continue to visit.

I travelled to my college alma mater for homecoming and the Black Alumni reunion this past weekend. I went even though the week before was filled with anguish and tears. In the days before my trip I ministered to my children when grief engulfed them. I cradled each of them as they wept out of yearning for their brother and as they relived with vivid memories learning of Jordan’s death.

Even though I had already purchased my plane ticket I hesitated about going. I wondered if  I should cancel my plans. I didn’t want to be away if my kids were in such a fragile state and needed me. While I became ambivalent about my trip, Mark became the reassuring voice, “You were looking forward to seeing your friends. We’ll be fine. I’ll be here for them. Go and be Jackie.” Even though I felt Mark was right, thoughts of what my children needed from me swirled in my head. I finally landed on the thought that made me know I was going on my trip. Since Jordan died, my children hadn’t seen me do anything to nourish my spirit. I wanted them to see me beyond my roles as wife and mother. They needed to know, just as I did, that it’s okay to look forward with excitement, instead of anxiety.

The fact that I was excited about travelling back to my college campus thrilled and intrigued me. Four months earlier, when I attended my 25th college reunion, my experience was one of sorrow and regret. Mark came with me that time and I could barely leave our hotel room. The first time I stepped onto the campus and saw all of the college kids, I was holding back tears. I kept looking for Jordan. I watched the students with their rightful looks of freedom and invincibility and wanted to see my son. I looked at the students and thought repeatedly, “Jordan should be at college, not me.” It was an emotionally exhausting weekend. I walked with vigilance and apprehension, praying Mark and I wouldn’t run into anyone. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the exchange. I dreaded being asked, “How have you been?” or “What have you been up to?” I had no idea how I would answer these questions. My biggest fear was that I would start crying and not be able to stop.

The brief encounters I did have with former classmates were strategic. I made sure to stop by my freshman dorm reunion as I had promised, to see friends who I hadn’t seen since I graduated. The other event I attended was the meeting of the Black Alumni Association to thank them for the scholarship fund they started in honor of a classmate from my graduating year who died in the years after our graduation and in honor of Jordan (even though he didn’t attend my alma mater). I was determined to thank them for honoring my son.

Fast forward four months and here I was feeling excitement and anticipation when I was headed to the same place that had recently brought me to my knees with anxiety and tears. I realized Mark was right. I needed to be called “Jackie” for a few days. The responsibilities of marriage, motherhood and grieving have absorbed the majority of my heart and mind. I wanted to reminisce with friends, rekindle my intellectual self and think about career options that have lain dormant. For the first time since Jordan died I was leading with joy not fear or regret.

College Graduation

The weekend was transformative. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you tomorrow.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

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.

Blessings

We didn’t go to the open house at the high school. After all of my hand wringing, guilt and finally fortitude I wasn’t able to go. Mentally and emotionally I was prepared. In the end lupus took over. After a fitful night’s sleep, I woke up yesterday morning with swollen joints and fatigue. I probably could have soldiered through but I talked to Mark and we decided that we would email Merrick’s teachers and set up individual meetings with them. I was in bed early and looked at the clock realizing had I gone, I would still be at the high school. Taking care of myself while Mark supervised dinner and homework turned out to be the best solution.

I didn’t want to push myself too much yesterday and feel even sicker today. My 22nd wedding anniversary is today. I am so honored and proud to have Mark as my partner on our journey. Through health scares, moves and the ultimate loss, the death of our son Jordan, I have never doubted the strength of my marriage. Even in loss and sorrow when we’ve held each other and wept together I’ve been grateful that he is my life partner. I’m glad that I’m feeling better. Today is for celebrating 22 years with a man who brings perspective, comfort and so much laughter into my world.

Mark and I summer of '08

Here is the song played during our first dance at our wedding.

I’m feeling sentimental today and very blessed.

Freestyle

Merrick has been coming home for lunch everyday since school started. I’m trying to get used to this new development as it directly conflicts with the vision I had for my days once school started. I imagined the 6 hours I’d have as my time. One of the things that I miss during the summer when my kids are out of school, as much as I relish the lack of scheduled activities, are the chunks of time I have to myself that the school year affords me. My son’s new routine is making me realize just how much I looked forward to my “bastion of solitude”, interrupted only when I chose it to be. This school year, I’ve already started proportioning my days differently. Now, there is the block of time after dropping girls off at school until M comes home for lunch. The next block is after lunch until it’s time to pick up the girls.

It’s not as though I have to prepare meals for Merrick, or spoon-feed him but it’s an adjustment to how I spend my days. Even on days when I’m out, when I get back home, there’s no mistaking he’s been here. There are telltale crumbs on the counter, occasionally the TV has been left on (even though he’s not supposed to watch TV during school time), the microwave door is standing open, and there are condiments left out for me to either clean up or leave out and move around until he gets home and cleans up his own mess. For those of you wondering how I can complain about the habits of my children that drive me crazy in the midst of my loss, trust me I’m learning that wistfulness makes room for annoyance, anxiety, and impatience; behaviors most mothers would put on the “con” list of parenting.

Right now my son enjoys having his lunch break at home between morning and afternoon classes. After being at home for a little while midday, he seems energized when he walks out the door. I’m learning to make room in my “bastion” for him and his respite needs. Today while I was out for an appointment, I texted Merrick telling him I would bring home lunch. When I got home we sat together eating and talking. He told me how his morning went (“Good”), and which colleges he’s considering. I told him about an article I read in Time magazine that I thought he’d like. Then, as if on cue, he asked the daily question I get from all my kids, “What’s for dinner?” We can be in the middle of a meal and they still need to know what’s for dinner.

As Merrick was finishing up lunch and about to go back to school he reminded me that he had Spoken Word Club after school. Talking about Spoken Word made him remember  his first time publicly freestyling (rapping without prepared lyrics). He was in the basement of one of Jordan’s best friends. He talked about Jordan’s and now Merrick’s friend Billy, who was yelling and waving his hand throughout his performance. Merrick said with a laugh that Billy is the perfect hype man. He decided he wanted Billy to be on stage with him whenever he performed.

I listened to Merrick just as caught up as he was in his memory of his inaugural performance. As we grew quiet, I relayed a memory of mine from that time. I told him that whenever I think about him freestyling in front of Jordan’s friends, I remember Jordan words about his brother. I said to Merrick, “Your freshman year in high school when you were having trouble adjusting Jordan worried about you. He was away at school but he called one night to talk about you. One of the things he said to me was,

“ I wish Merrick could see how great he is. He freestyled in front of my friends before I did and he was good. All of my friends think he is cool.”

My voice trembled as I recalled my conversation with Jordan. I looked at Merrick whose eyes were as shiny with tears as mine. While looking down at his sandwich he said, “Jordan said that about me? I kind of remember that.”

“Yes he did. He always wanted you to know how talented and special you are.”

Merrick shook his head in agreement saying, “That’s right, I did freestyle before he did. He told me that.”

“Think of it this way, you were Jordan’s inspiration too. You two were good for each other.”

Merrick was silent for a moment, seeming to take in all we’d talked about. Then in the way he’s had since he was a little boy, he looked at me and in his most sincere voice said, “Thanks Mom.”

I watched him get up from the table to throw away the trash from his lunch and to retrieve his backpack. He ambled down the hall towards the front door calling out, “See ya,” as he left. I sat at the table a little longer hoping what Merrick and I had talked about would give him a boost. I realized as I sat, that my son and I could share the sacred space that lunchtime provides. It is true that wistfulness is with me all the time. On the positive side, it shares space with love, laughter and so many sweet memories. There are still many lessons for me to learn as the mother of four.

My sons deep in conversation

Merrick and Billy performing at our "Express Yourself" event