Looking back, the circumstances surrounding my mother’s death happened in two phases: the six months of hospitalization before her passing and the subsequent four months without her.
The first phase was a dizzying whirlwind of misfortune. I watched her suffer in ways that still seem surreal. She entered the hospital on Mother’s Day 2015 for a routine procedure to correct a life-threatening condition. My mother never returned to her home.
Following this surgery, a series of unforeseeable events occurred.
She lay in a completely sedated state for five days because her chest was open. It was too swollen for them to sew it up.
She spent a large part of the six months on a ventilator. She went through the arduous process of being weaned from it only to have to be reintubated. The ventilator made communication with her a challenge.
Due to a reaction from a blood thinner, her limbs went gangrene. Before her passing, she endured two procedures in which eight fingers and both feet were amputated.
Numerous antibiotic resistant hospital-acquired infections weakened her body. In fact, it was an infection that caused her death.
As a result of her surgery, her kidneys failed. She was required to have four hour dialysis sessions three times a week.
I am the eldest of her trio of dutiful sons; we were right there in the trenches of this fight. I stepped up to the role of Mom’s chief advocate. This often required confronting hospital staff, holding hospital staff accountable, teaching myself how to use those bedside machines, moisturizing her body, arranging bedside hair appointments, applying her lipstick, making fashion accessory choices, educating myself about her condition, filling her in on the latest gossip, managing visitors, spending countless nights in her room, and doing anything to make her smile.
It was my job to prepare us for our “New Normal.” I picked out new furniture, a wheelchair, and made arrangements to have her living space modified to accommodate her disability.
My tank was a mixture full of optimism, hopefulness, and sleep deprivation. Watching her endure inordinate amounts of discomfort was unbearable to watch. In spite of this, she remained resilient, which was the very encouragement I needed to see the purpose of her pain. I relied on my spiritual beliefs. I thought since God brought her through all of this, the worst was behind us.
And the adversity kept on coming:
• During my mother’s six month ordeal, my father was hospitalized on two occasions. (both health emergencies occurred in my mother’s hospital room);
• My sibling learned he needed to have a procedure to correct a life-threatening condition that was identical to Mom’s above-mentioned procedure; and
• A month after we buried Mom, one of her best friends passed away.
We were with Mom when she made her transition on November 24, 2015 at 2:40 PM. We surrounded her with love and good energy. The time after her death and before her homegoing involved making arrangements and handling her affairs. It felt like planning a really sad party.
Family and friends from all over came to celebrate her life. The pace during the day of her homegoing was feverish; I did not get the big emotional release I expected. I cried but I was not inconsolable. I found the fortitude to eulogize my mom which is one of the most important things I have ever done.
After the service, the cards stopped coming in. The phone calls ceased. The donated fried chicken meals disappeared from the refrigerator. My loneliness was palpable.
And that is when everything went gray.
Although I couldn’t see it, a cloud had formed above me and blocked out the light. Suddenly, my favorite foods were bland tasting. I was losing the desire to care about anything.
GETTING MY GROOVE BACK
As a foodie, the fact that lemon pepper wings no longer gave me my Friday night euphoria warranted concern. Whatever was happening to me was considerable. I was coming undone.
I realized these superficial changes to my mental state were symptomatic of depression. I’ve experienced bouts of it throughout my life. However, it was never chronic.
Well, this wasn’t just another depressive episode. The emotional fallout resulting from Mom’s death was significant and had percolated above the surface. The images of her suffering continue to haunt me. Hospital smells, the sight of medical equipment, and even my telephone ringing are often sources of anxiety.
My mom’s absence rendered me into a perpetual disoriented state because her love sustained me. Without it, a part of me is dead. Losing her means I will not ever be loved like that again.
My belief that her death was preventable compounds my pain. It took me awhile to realize I was suffering from Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) and it was aggravating this mounting onset of depression.
I decided to get help and began looking for a therapist. I come from a racial subculture that doesn’t always seek therapy as a way to address mental-health issues. In my thirty-nine years, I have never known another black man to speak about their mental-health treatment.
PUTTING IN THE WORK
I found a wonderful therapist. A funny, down-to-earth, patient black woman who also had to deal with the recent loss of a parent. Going in, I didn’t understand how this was supposed to work. I couldn’t conceive how talking about my feelings was going to mitigate my pain.
It turns out, that isn’t how my therapy goes down. She got me to accept that the void of my mom would always be there. I will continue to experience sorrow and loneliness. And I will even have angry thoughts.
Surprisingly, my therapist and I created a coping strategy that rarely involved talking about Mom. It is tailored to my personality and motivation level. The plan is simple: creating a space that fosters my very OWN authentic happiness and joy.
I am writing again. I reserve time throughout my day for prayer and meditation. I spent five days in a secluded Costa Rican resort. I got a car I wanted. I spend time with people that make me laugh and who aren’t burdensome to my soul. I’ve resumed my Rosetta Stone Portuguese class. I always have something to look forward to.
Simply put, I made myself a priority. Since that wasn’t something I was always doing, taking care of myself in that manner was a bold step for me.
This space we constructed for me has to be protected. Because of the work I have done to get better, it houses the type of energy that propels me. It is becoming a force that is difficult to penetrate.
One of the benefits, if you will, of having the worst thing happen to you is that all of your other “problems” shrink. Therefore, there isn’t much that can threaten this space.
Using this benefit to dwarf my problems allowed me to let go of some disappointment that was plaguing my mind. During this journey, I felt like some people abandoned me. For reasons unbeknownst to me, certain people became distant. Others seemed to be impatient about my grieving process.
I realized that people have a myriad of responses to death. Some people simply do not know what to do or what to say. We all have limits with regard to our capacity to sympathize. My therapist explained to me that we don’t really have “all-purpose” type of friends and family. Certain friends are going to be better supporters than other friends in a particular situation. And that is O.K.
She was right. There are several friends and family that became our support network. In fact, my brothers and I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to a particular group of women who held us down.
Man, I miss my mom, immeasurably. She was an extraordinary human being with the best laugh I ever heard. Therapy taught me that I can be sad about losing her and hopeful about the future. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
In a society where black folks grapple with staggering amounts of stress and trauma, it logically follows that we would significantly benefit from mental-health treatment. I can’t say whether my therapy strategy will work for another person; however, what I know is that a good therapist can guide you toward mental wellness.