My story

Creating Space for Grief

A strong advocate who found her calling in helping other Black moms survive loss.
Felica Turner-Walton

It was March 4, 2016, what seemed to be a normal day in my household. All except Zaire was sick and I decided to call my oldest son to let him know I’d be staying home with Zaire and Kayla, my 4 yr. old daughter.  We were all excited because they’d be starting daycare on Monday. Except they’d never start day care. That day would be one like no other.  There would never be another day comparable to March 4, 2016.  

As I sat in the front of a police car, I cried my eyes out. I wondered “was this really happening to me. Was I really headed to the hospital with my son?”  I quickly realized this was my reality and I couldn’t run away from this experience. This one was mine to keep. I had no way out of this one; this was the one--and I had found what would become my purpose.

Zaire was taken to St. Mary’s Emergency Center in Sun Prairie, WI. As they worked on him, I sat in a room alone and delirious. I couldn’t think, and I was all over the place. I was finally able at some point to call my sister and I recall mumbling “Zaire and UW hospital”. We were still at St. Mary’s for what seemed like hours before he was airlifted to UW Hospital in Madison, WI. I was taken by police car.  During this time some of my family and friends had already made it to the ER, and because they didn’t know specifically what was going on, they were all scared and nervous trying to find out information. The staff and security threatened to eject them from the hospital if they didn’t have a seat, not acknowledging that they were simply concerned and scared.

During this time Zaire was undergoing a string of different scans and tests. My friend was able to pick my kids up from school and bring them to me at the hospital.  Before I had the chance to speak to my children, two CPS representatives had whisked them away to separate rooms and asked them if I had ever abused them or Zaire. They finally allowed me to see my kids. Once my oldest son got back to the room, I attempted to explain to everyone the minor details that I had been given about Zaire. I did my best to explain what happened earlier that morning when we were home and leading up to the present moment. I ended by saying “he’s on life support and from what I was told, he was deprived of oxygen and his brain isn't functioning properly. If Zaire makes it, he may come out of it with a brain injury." In understanding this, of course, our family and friends all cried and hugged one another as my 18 year old son stood breaking down in the corner. My dad and brother grabbed him as he attempted to curl up on the floor.

The next two days were crucial and would determine the rest of our lives. I sat there every hour weeping and crying, praying and begging for my son’s life. I bargained and even went into the bathroom and turned off the lights and had a meltdown. I was suffering and I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do. I closed the blinds to have a moment of peace and silence with Zaire. I laid under his hospital bed, crying to the point that I couldn’t breathe. I noticed a nurse come in to look over Zaire and open the blinds as she walked out. Until I was cleared by CPS, I wasn’t “allowed” a private moment with my son.  What didn’t make sense was I had taken him to the ER days prior explaining to them that he didn’t look right and that something was wrong. Even the nurse we saw that day agreed. The student doctor would send us home 45 minutes later with discharge instructions to give him Pedialyte. No one listened to me when I asked for him to be monitored.

On March 6, the doctors sat and explained that they’d be performing a test to measure his brain activity to determine where we were in this process. I said to them "speak to me plain! What does this mean?! Tell me in English!" One of the doctors went on to say that they were measuring his brain waves and eye function to check for stimulation. "If there is no response, that means that he is brain dead", she said. "We will perform this test twice and then you will have to decide whether to keep him on life support or to remove him". I made every decision for and about Zaire except that one. I wasn’t in the room when they did either test on him. I couldn’t stomach that moment, or to remove my son from what was sustaining his life. That decision was made by his other parent. After each test, the doctor would come find me and explain to me (in plain English) that there was brain activity. Then they’d have a conversation with us about his organs and if we wanted to donate them. I made the decision to donate Zaire’s heart and his liver. His organs would go one to save two other babies.

Zaire’s life ended on March 7, 2016. His cause of death was a heart attack at 4 months old.

When Zaire passed, it catapulted everything that I had experienced in life. I had so much on me and within me. My job called to advise me that I had 3 days of bereavement and offered the normal “so sorry about this.” There I was, less than two weeks after Zaire passed away, back at work doing what I had to do for my kids--blindly suffering because no one knew what to say to me. They just kind of stayed away. There were whispers from superiors asking “how’s she doing” instead of just asking me. When I returned, I was put back into customer service and my new seat was placed in front of the lactation room, the same room that I pumped Zaire’s food in, the one that when you walk by, the light came on.

At work, I began to get more and more calls from people experiencing loss, some before and some after me. I couldn’t deal with it, so I left that job for a different one. But at the new job, the same thing began to occur....a call from a mom...her son had passed. I sat up in my chair and vividly said to myself; “stop running. This is it. You asked for your purpose, so stop trying to escape it". I handled that call and that was the best conversation I’d had with a stranger in a while. I provided input and foresight into what was to come, and she told me “if you didn’t know your purpose, I hope you know it now.”

I made myself and my son a promise that I would make him proud because I know him leaving here was for something great, and that there had to be a reason. It was for me to find my purpose. I enrolled in UW Odyssey. I was determined to start somewhere.  That was my start--the Odyssey and my journey to continue the mission and my purpose for being on this earth.  I began to go to support groups to find a place for folks like me to be able to talk. But I immediately found no “safe place for me”---you know, the 'barely making it, thinking of suicide, barely breathing, robbing Peter to pay Paul' folks like me.  The 'limited insured ones, but thankfully that job offered it' folks. You know the black folk, who could talk about this stuff and understand me. That space was hard to find. When I attended support groups, most of the families were white or other people of color. Other than one counselor, 9 out of 10 people in most groups I attended didn’t look like me.  I couldn’t receive support in those spaces because they first needed to understand my Black grief was different and that, like them, I loved my son. Religious temples were available. However, I describe that period of my life as “God and I weren’t seeing eye to eye”, so I didn’t want to go there. And though the hospitals were all familiar places, I couldn't bring myself to seek help there after seeing my son born at one, and experiencing my last moments with him in one.

Thus, Healing Our Hearts LLC, was created in honor of my son Zaire--and Princeton, Za’Mour, Prince, Madison, Aprina and Laylah---other babies whose moms I knew and met along my journey. I could call up the moms of these kids and talk to them about Zaire, and we’d share stories and laugh at some of the things our kids would do when they were with us. It was refreshing to make the heart smile, providing a little healing to the heart.  We’d talk for hours about our kids and some of the struggles we were facing and what the experience of losing them was like.  We discussed our struggles and ways that we could be supported in the workplace and beyond--how disenfranchised grief that went unspoken wasn’t discussed, and how talking about it gave it a voice to be told, heard and understood.

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