Zoey Mendoza Zimmerman ’95 lost her children. She hasn’t lost her hope or passion to help others.
“I want the world to know my children. I understand the kind of sensationalistic nature of the way they died, but I don’t want that to be why people know who my children are.”
Zoey Mendoza Zimmerman ’95 has gone through one of the most dramatic traumas a parent can imagine. In October 2010, her husband, in an inexplicable act that changed her life forever, shot and killed their two young children and himself.
In the five-plus years that have followed, Zoey has lived with grief, fighting to find ways to move forward in her life and help others who have experienced similar losses — and also to honor the lives of her children.
“Jada was unlike any other child I’ve ever met in my life. She was the most charismatic, verbal, articulate, sweet thing you’ve ever met,” Zoey said. “If you walked into a room of 2-year-olds, your eyes would go to Jada.”
Zoey grew up in Ashland, Ore., and attended Pacific University, where she doubled-majored in social work and psychology. She always knew she wanted to work in human services, helping people, and she ultimately went on to earn a master’s in social work from Portland State University.
She met her first husband, Kurtis, while she was in graduate school, and they moved to his home state of New Jersey. They struggled to conceive, eventually turning to in vitro fertilization to have Jada.
“Even in the womb, we seemed to have an incredibly interesting connection. Whenever I would think, ‘Jeez, she hasn’t moved,’ she would immediately start moving. We always just knew each other.”
Jada was a high-energy, inquisitive little girl who never wanted to miss out on anything.
“They grew up in love.”
Two years later, when her brother was born, he became Jada’s world.
“Her entire focus really became Jordan,” Zoey said. “It was like he belonged to her.”
Jordan was different: active and athletic, but more introverted than his sister. He was comfortable entertaining himself and loved to create stories in his head.
Their young lives were happy and full of love.
“That’s always something I feel strongly about,” Zoey said. “Based on how they passed away and the violent nature of their deaths, there are a lot of assumptions that, ‘Jeez, there must have been a lot of domestic violence.’
“There just wasn’t,” Zoey said. “They were both secure and nurtured and loved by both of their parents. They grew up in love.”
What came next, then, is impossible to understand.
Zoey and Kurtis had their problems. They were discussing separation. But, she said, it wasn’t a violent, or even yelling, end to the marriage.
“We were in marital therapy together. He was in individual therapy. He was prescribed an antidepressant. He didn’t want the marriage to end, but he recognized that my desire to leave was because of his actions.
“He was despondent, apologetic and sorrowful … but we weren’t a screaming, yelling kind of couple.
“I thought I was doing it the right way. I didn’t hate him by any means. We were co-parenting every day.”
The last time Zoey saw her kids, she was dropping them off at school on her way to work. Kurtis had stayed home to meet a crew installing new carpet in their home.
They talked about whether Jordan needed to see the pediatrician for a cough.
“It was just a normal day. He asked me to bring him McDonald’s for lunch, and I did. We talked to the carpeting guy, then I had another session,” Zoey said. “The last time I saw Kurtis, I gave him a kiss on the cheek.”
Fifteen minutes later, her cell phone rang. The mood had changed completely.
“He was sounding very erratic: ‘Why can’t you just love me again?’
“I said, ‘I’m going to cancel my session and come home so we can have this talk,’ but he left before I got home. He never answered his phone after that.”
Zoey didn’t know immediately that he had picked up the kids from daycare. Kurtis drove Jada and Jordan to his parents’ abandoned home, where he apparently shot them and then himself.
Jada was 5. Jordan was 3.
“My babies lived a beautiful, adventurous, wonderful life.
“And then it’s just over one day.”
Zoey considers herself blessed to be surrounded by an incredible support system of personal friends and family, as well as an international community of people with whom she has connected via social media.
“People have been unbelievably compassionate and giving and loving and patient and kind with me,” Zoey said. “That had a lot to do with not only the acute phases of grief — literally having an army around me — but also in the long-term.”
Living with the grief — and the anger, and guilt, and confusion, and more — has taken intense therapy and effort.
She spent the first 18 months working with a PhD-level clinician in intensive, 6-hour-a-week therapy.
“I was a therapist. I am a therapist. I’ve been trained in the stages of grief and loss. I needed somebody who could think beyond what I already knew,” she said.
“She met me wherever I was, whether sobbing and unable to be consoled, or furious and raging at Kurtis, or wanting to show her videos of my children. That was life-saving for me.”
“I know physically they died, but I know they’re not gone. Where are they?”
One of the biggest struggles has been trying to forgive herself for not anticipating the unimaginable.
“Kurtis’ decision to kill my kids before he killed himself was not an escalation in violence. He’d never displayed violence. I’d never seen him hold a weapon,” Zoey said. “It was very much a mental break.”
Still, the questions plagued her: “How could I be so trained in mental health issues and human behavior and not recognize how deep his pain was that he felt as though his best option was to kill my kids and himself? How did I not know he was capable of that?”
“That’s been a big element of forgiveness: my forgiving him and forgiving myself as well,” Zoey said.
More, though, holding onto the memory of Jada and Jordan has kept Zoey moving.
“My mom can remember me saying, after two days or so, ‘Where are they? I know physically they died, but I know they’re not gone. Where are they?’”
She found herself reading and researching everything she could about child loss, faith and the afterlife and developing her own faith — one in which she could know her children beyond their death.
“I developed this amazing relationship with Jada and Jordan that is outside of what we as humans know,” she said. “I’ve had to learn to relate to my children through intuition and through feeling, learning how to feel them.”
Like many parents, Zoey’s Facebook page is awash with pictures of children.
But hers never age.
She doesn’t stop posting them, though.
For her, Jada and Jordan are still a central part of her life — even as she has kept her heart open and moved forward.
“I just decided a very long time ago to be an active participant in my grief, to learn about myself, learn about my kids and learn about where they are,” she said. “I feel like my life is in a beautiful place. I met my husband now — Curt — who has saved my life and given me purpose again.”
It’s an interesting balance, she said.
“You have one foot here and one foot where your kids are,” she said. “I feel very grounded her in my life with Curt and my stepchildren and my family and friends. But I always feel challenged to find ways to honor my children.”
She also wants to be a resource for the other parents — unfortunately, she knows too many who have shared similar losses — in their own journeys.
“I don’t ever claim to have the answers. Everybody’s experience is so much their own,” Zoey said. “But I am somebody who has continued to live through traumatic bereavement, and it doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
“I want people to know that I’m here and I’m alive, and there is a way to navigate through the craziness.”