Although Jacob had problems from the time he was born addicted to cocaine and alcohol, life with his adopted family was good by the time he was a teenager. As a baby, he screamed constantly for about six months and required three shifts of being carried around, but the family’s biological kids eventually fell in love with him.
Then tragedy struck.
The family has a daughter who has cerebral palsy, so they were building a wheelchair lift off their front porch. Jacob was outside when his father, Robert, fell off the porch and cracked his skull on concrete, severing his brain stem. He remained on life support for nine days before he died. Robert’s wife, Susan, stayed at the hospital with him almost round the clock.
Although he was almost 16 at the time, Jacob didn’t really understand what was happening. One evening he asked Susan, “When dad gets better, can we get a CD player?”
“Dad’s not coming home,” Susan tearfully told Jacob.
“Oh, my god, you’re going to be a widow!” was his response.
Jacob got to go to the hospital to see his dad before he died, and told him, “I’m sorry for everything I ever did to you!” He didn’t cry at the funeral, Susan said, but about a month after his father’s death, he broke down and cried inconsolably at a family outing at a water park. Then things got really bad.
Jacob has developmental problems, bipolar disorder, ADHD and mild cerebral palsy. He also experiences anxiety and has social difficulties. An addition of severe grief made life almost unbearable for him. He turned on Susan.
He told her she should have been the one who died, started kicking her, swearing at her and wanted to run away. He used to like school, but he started doing poorly. After awhile, his anger turned to depression, and he said he wanted to die.
“He didn’t know where else to go with his blame,” Susan said. “We all had lost everything, and Jacob’s base, his foundation was gone.”
Susan tried to hold things together, but her husband had been the one who paid the bills and took care of things overall. He used to joke with his wife that she’d better be the one who went first because she relied on him so much and couldn’t go it alone.
“I was lost without him; my confidence was shaken. And there was a big cloud hanging over the house. Things were very chaotic, and Jacob just wanted peace.”
Then an adult daughter who knew about the Wraparound REACH program confronted Susan.
“He needs help now, Mom!” she said.
Enter Sarah Dunlap, a REACH care coordinator at SaintA. The voluntary program helps families like this one develop a care plan that taps resources from a community support network and avoids mental health hospitalization. Sarah set Jacob up with a crisis intervention mentor and in-home therapy, and she helped him get the psychiatric testing he needed to secure Social Security disability income.
She helped Susan get guardianship for Jacob so she can make decisions for him past age 18, and he is now able to stay in high school until he is 21. Susan said the family saw or heard from Sarah almost weekly.
“She really went over and beyond.”
Jacob’s mentor took him on outings like baseball games or a trip to the library twice a week. “He’d even get on his case to clean his bedroom!” Susan said. Sarah took Jacob to a comedy club.
“He made consistent strides,” Sarah said, and gradually, Jacob learned more appropriate social behavior. Susan credits constant re-directing of the teenager, counseling and the passage of time.
“I really don’t think I could have gotten through without REACH,” she said. “I needed the professionals, and they became like friends.”
Jacob is even better now than he was before his father’s death, Susan said. He has matured and learned to be more patient.
“’Oh my god,’ he’ll say, ‘Look at this movie that Dad and I watched!’” He can remember things and cherish memories.
“Everybody regrets somebody dying, but we all learned there was nothing we could have done to prevent it,” Susan said. “I’m not saying any of us are over this, but it’s now normal grieving, and Jacob now has a lot of acceptance.”
When asked how he would assess what he has been through, Jacob said, “I felt horrible, and now I’m feeling good. But I still miss him.”
He said he likes Sarah a lot “because she’s nice and she helps me out.”
Would things have been harder without her help?