Figuring Out How to Live AJD (After Jake Died)
May 2021 Issue
Story and Photography by Laurie Kellogg
On the morning of January 6, 2020, the “Office Girls” received a text from Regina Banis that said, “Jake’s dead.”
It was the exact moment Regina discovered her 23-year-old son, Jake, had died from an accidental drug overdose that divided eternity in two. Everything before that precise second was experienced BJD (before Jake died), and everything that followed—every breath, every thought, every sound, every smell, Every. Single. Thing.—passes through a filter of grief labeled AJD (after Jake died). Just that quickly life goes from being experienced to being endured.
“I have two children. One lives on this side of the veil. One lives on the other side of the veil. Much like when they were toddlers and ran off in two different directions, I can’t decide which way to look.” Regina asks herself, “Do I keep my eyes on the child who is still here, who is dealing with her own pain at losing her baby brother? Or do I let my eyes stay on the child who has drifted to the other side of the veil that separates this life from the afterlife?”
The maternal instinct to follow one child is still just as strong as the maternal instinct to follow the other. Living is a daily conscious decision. “Things will never be the same. I have to figure out how to live with it,” says Regina.
Regina is the only attorney in her office. Misti, Emily and I are “The Office Girls.” We work for Regina, but really, we are more like surrogate sisters. While Regina is figuring out how to survive this grief, we are learning how to really be there for someone who’s experiencing an indescribable loss.
Regina reflects, “I always knew I had the best, most supportive family in the world. And they proved it when Jake died. They flew. They drove. They did whatever they had to do to get to me as quickly as possible. They surrounded me with love, held me up, held me together, in my darkest hour.”
Regina is loved. It wasn’t just family. It was everyone who brought food for every meal for every day her whole big Texas-sized family was holed up at the Holiday Inn. It was everyone who came out to Jake’s Celebration of Life Ceremony at Oyster Factory Park, and every restaurant owner who had it on their heart to bring enough food for a feast that day. It was all the cakes and flowers and personalized paper bag lanterns. It was all the local musicians who put on a show that Jake would have loved. It was Regina’s mom, Barb Banis, jamming out to “Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G. It was the beginning of life AJD.
“In the beginning, it was mostly shock and numbness.” Once the shock wore off and the world went on living, grief filled the chasm between mother and son.
For the first few weeks, Misti would call Regina in the morning to remind her to shower and brush her teeth. I’d hear her say, “Do you need someone to come help you get dressed?” That’s how you love someone whose heart is broken. You show up and be whatever they need. “My friends and family have held me while I wailed, ‘My baby is dead. My baby is dead. My baby is dead.’ They’ve taken turns flying in from around the country to lie in bed with me and watch TV. They text me and keep me in touch with this life.”
While the rest of us are learning how to be comfortable comforting someone who’s grieving, Jake’s best friends just get it. They were there chilling around the fire and enjoying the music at Jake’s End of Life Celebration.
Seven months later, on Jake’s birthday, they were still showing up to Regina’s house to show love, as they assembled and hung a new swing that had just arrived from Amazon. They send Regina songs that make them think of Jake and share the stories and pictures that only they were privy to, joyful moments. It’s not often that a man in pajama pants holding a skateboard shows up at the law firm, but it’s happened. Those are Jake’s friends.
Regina realized she has two choices: Live or die. We discussed the instinct to avoid emotional pain. “I tried to numb it. I tried to become an alcoholic that one time that I drank a half glass of wine and then slept for five hours straight, but you can never get drunk at that rate,” we laugh.
Having another child here who needs her, Regina began doing some serious soul work, including counseling, to learn how to live AJD. As the person who answers the phones at the office, I’m often asked, “How’s Regina?” and I’m never exactly sure what to say because the truth is, she’s completely devastated. Her heart is broken, and at the same time, she seems to be really emotionally healthy. She still cries every day, but she’s doing great.
Learning to live AJD has meant taking proper care of herself. Regina says, “That’s the only way to keep it together; otherwise I would splinter into a thousand pieces.” It requires self-love and grace, drinking water instead of Dr. Pepper, cooking healthy meals instead of grabbing fast food. Sometimes it means yoga in the morning, and other times it means staying in bed all day. It requires having healthy boundaries with people “because I only have so much energy to give.” It’s listening closely to one’s own mind, body and soul, and giving it whatever it needs. It’s playing the ukulele, losing herself in music to give her grief brain a break.
Regina has chosen to be transparent about the cause of Jake’s death in the hope that it might help one grieving mother know she isn’t alone. She has chosen to be equally honest about her grief for the same reason. If her sharing helps one person better comfort a grieving friend, or one mother know she isn’t grieving alone, it’s worth the price she pays for sharing her pain.
Grief is the price of love, and as much as it costs, Regina would do it all over again just to get to be Jake’s mom.