Trauma’s Prison

A number of things have happened in the past month that have reminded me of the trauma of watching my mother die. The moments of her death are forever burned into my memory. It was not the peaceful experience I have heard so many describe. Her body convulsed unnaturally with her last breaths until she was finally still, jaw dropped open and head laying to the side. Thankfully, her eyes were closed, as she had been sleeping most of the time those last few days.

Recently our son, Ben, has had some health scares. My response to these events has made me reflective. First, he choked on a slice of Clementine at dinner one night. Thankfully my husband was there, and he took charge. He picked Ben up and slapped him repeatedly on the back until the piece dislodged and fell to the floor. I, on the other hand, was completely frozen, my eyes tearing up at the thought of what would happen if we couldn’t help Ben get that thing out of his throat. It only last about 10 seconds, but those moments dragged on and on in my mind. “What are we going to do? By the time we get him to the ER, he could be dead. Oh, God, I can’t lose another family member! Please, God, don’t take him away! I can’t go through this again. I just can’t.”
And then it was over, and he was fine. Crying, but fine. I was still frozen. I couldn’t move, and I could barely breathe for another few minutes. I don’t think Jon or our daughter Heidi even noticed my reaction, but I knew. I knew something wasn’t right in me.

A few nights later, Ben was struggling with a cold, and his normal snoring was worse than usual. I heard every breath he took that night. I couldn’t sleep. I was sure he was going to stop breathing because of the congestion, and I wanted to be awake to take him to the ER if I had to. I was pumped with adrenaline, my heart pounding. “I can’t lose him. I just can’t. I won’t. God, please. What am I going to do if he dies?” I imagined those moments of waking up in the morning to find him cold and dead. I imagined what I would do next. Call Jon at work? Call his mom? Call my sister or my dad? What would I do? Sadly, I’m afraid I might just sit there frozen and do nothing but cry silently and rage against this enemy of mine, death.

Then, this past weekend, we were visiting my dad in Virginia. We awoke Sunday morning– the kids first, of course. Jon and I just laid in bed and listened to them chatter happily. Soon they hopped up in bed with us, giggling and begging us to get up. Then Heidi wanted to help Ben get dressed, so we let her try. Unfortunately, in the process of pulling his PJ-shirt off his head, she was a little rough and he began screaming… and shaking and holding his neck. Jon jumped out of bed and once again, took charge of the situation. I forced my body to move and go over to Heidi and reassure her this wasn’t her fault. I couldn’t even look at Ben shaking and crying and holding his neck. My thoughts were racing, and I had no idea what we should do next.

Jon was holding Ben and walking him around the room, trying to soothe him, but he was obviously still in pain after about 15 minutes. “What should we do? What are we going to do? What if his neck is broken or dislocated? How are we going to walk Heidi through all of this, so that she doesn’t grow up feeling guilty?” I kept imagining the scene at the hospital… sometimes I wish I didn’t have such a vivid imagination…

Jon finally got Ben settled a bit, resting on his shoulder, but any time Jon moved he screamed in pain. I went out to the store to buy some children’s pain reliever, which, in the end, seemed to solve the problem. Apparently, Ben just pulled muscle in his neck when he was resisting Heidi’s attempts to take his shirt off. Everything has turned out fine, but I am mystified by my over-reactions to these things. I feel the tension holding my body back. I feel my emotions freeze and my mind whirling with worst-case-scenarios. Why do I live in fear? Why can’t I take one moment at a time instead of jumping to these terrible conclusions? Why can’t I see that death is a natural part of life? How do I heal? I’ve been through it before, so I know I can handle it. I know I’m stronger than I feel when these things happen. I know I can force myself to do what I need to do. But I also know something is wrong.

I know it has to do with Mom. I know I was traumatized by her dying moments. I know I’m broken. But what do I do now?

….but how do I get out of this prison?….


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