Social worker, heal thyself
by Judson Mead
Tabatha Lumley (MSW ’14) has known some bad days. She was left to fend for herself and her deaf brother, Michael, when her mother was deported to Jamaica from Buffalo six years ago (her father had been deported a few years before).
Seventeen at the time, Tabatha lived for a while without heat or electricity, getting Michael ready and onto the bus to his school for the deaf every morning and then getting herself to high school.
It was tough. But she got through. A grandmother and siblings in Rochester made a semblance of a whole family. Thanksgiving and Christmas were very special family celebrations. Tabatha became an American citizen. She earned a degree in criminal justice at Buffalo State College. She enrolled in UB’s MSW program intending to add a law degree eventually.
Then she suffered a loss she hasn’t recovered from.
On Nov. 23, the Saturday before Thanksgiving last year, Tabatha’s beloved 19-year-old sister, Kadijah, was killed by a drunken diver in a highway accident on Interstate-490 in Rochester.
Kadijah was finally buried in Jamaica on Dec. 27. When the coffin was opened so mourners could say a final good-bye, the sight of her sister seared itself onto Tabatha’s memory and still brings shock and tears.
So, what can a social work student do with her own trauma? Tabatha is still answering that question.
She had to jump right back into school, “confused, exhausted and angry,” she remembers. She’d been scheduled to start her field placement as a liaison between the Court Improvement Project and attorneys and judges in New York’s Eighth Judicial District on Dec. 29. She told herself, “Either I do my school work or I don’t do it.”
And that was really no choice, so Tabatha set aside her own grieving. And beyond that abeyance she had to limit the support she could give her family. If she had to write a paper, she couldn’t answer the phone when her mother called. “I had to set boundaries,” she says. “I learned that as a social worker.”
But she couldn’t shut out her sadness. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Kadijah. I have to get used to not hearing her voice. I have to get used to not hearing her raspy, unique laughter.”
By an almost mocking coincidence, before her sister died, Tabatha had signed up to take the course, Nature and treatment of alcohol and drug problems. She says it helped her understand what the drunk driver might have been going through on the fateful afternoon. She also says there were times when she wanted to flee the classroom.
As part of the coursework, she attended AA meetings. “I didn’t know how I’d get through that. I was very focused. I sat there and listened to everything the alcoholics had to say with complete attention and thought about Kadijah the entire time like a tape of her was running in my head. When I left I was so angry.”
Tabatha may be a victim of grievous loss but she’s also a social worker. “When I experience anger, I can think my way out of it. If I’m angry, I allow it to take its course but I find ways to control it.”
And yet, as much as her learning helped her cope with her trouble, it isn’t a panacea. Tabatha says understanding alcoholism and addictions, even from a trauma-informed perspective, doesn’t make her loss easier to live with: “The hole will always be there.”
She pays attention to herself. She knows she has overdue business with her own delayed grieving. When she was anticipating a break between the end of school and finding her first job, Tabatha made a plan for the extra time she expected to rush into the vacuum: She would spend some of it with her young son who has been waiting in daycare everyday for her school day to end, and she would care for herself by exercising.
She knows, in her own words, she’s “battled and succeeded” before.