It can take years to accept a loved one’s afterlife, and it may take a decade. I’m not talking about life after death; I’m talking about life after a family member’s TBI.
The changes following my husband’s injury were intense. After Hugh had suffered a severe TBI, I did not see the world in the same way. Life felt cruel as I watched him struggle and suffer. It felt unfair when dealing with insurance battles, traffic court, and endless phone calls to figure out who and what might help. Money drained from our household at an alarming rate, and I was too busy and exhausted to work. Life was not only different; it felt alien.
But one thing didn’t change. My family had love before the accident and love after—the kind of family love that deepened from this family tragedy. There were tensions and arguments because all families go through that, but we somehow managed to get through the most difficult experience of our lives.
A lot of the tension, I now know, came from me. I cared for Hugh after his TBI with a singular, laser-fixed focus. It was similar to the protective feeling I had when my premature twins were first born, tiny and fragile, but it was more intense because Hugh was dangling near death, grasping the thin rope of survival, and I jumped on that rope with him. I was with him, body and soul. All of my mental and emotional energy surged through me to him, as if electricity were running through my veins. I sometimes felt as if people should see sparks shining off my skin from the amount of fight or flight hormones flooding my body. For a full year, I had no interest or energy for anything or anyone that wasn’t directly working on my husband’s TBI.
This left our young teenage daughters on their own, although many surrogate parents stepped up to help: friends, my sisters, and grandparents. While I lived with my daughters and acted like their mother, my mind was far off, and they knew it. They saw that I was unreachable and made their way as best they could without causing any extra pain. Fearing they might lose both parents, they clung to each other, and to this day, I am grateful these sisters had one another.
It took me some time to realize they had significant residual effects from this family injury that remain to this day. Both of them know, in a visceral way, that life can change instantly. Both of them know too well the intricate workings of an ICU. Both of them learned how quickly they could lose a loved one at too young an age. They lost the chance to be kids when their carefree life ended in a split second at age fourteen, and I know they saw and heard many things they wish they could forget.
Both girls have told me that perhaps their father’s injury has made us all stronger and closer because we drew on family love—the kind of love that made us able to cope with all the pain and all the struggles his TBI threw at us. That’s the one thing Hugh’s TBI did not strip away.
If you are a family at the beginning of this journey, please remember that through all the tension and heartache, through the pain and waiting, love remains constant.
Love doesn’t change. Circumstances do. Injuries may cause pain and suffering, but love comforts and soothes. Counting on and accepting family love after an injury can make the changes that take place in the afterlife easier to navigate. You may feel lost for a while, but you will find your way eventually. Things will calm down. Outcomes will occur, and you will deal with each one as they arise—not because you want to—because you have to.
One therapist reminded me to take one minute at a time and to stay close to those who could help me. She advised me not to push people away out of grief or frustration. Living through and openly expressing the pain you feel can solidify relationships and help family members cope when times get rough. I know that talking, crying, hugging, and insisting on hope helped my family to heal.
My wish for all families that go through this devastating injury is that they rely on each other for support and understanding because it’s so impossible to adequately express feelings to people who have not lived through a TBI.
There is a large community here at BrainLine that can connect with you even when the immensity of the situation makes you feel like you are drowning. Keep looking up to the surface. Eventually, although it may take a very long time, the after in afterlife will drop away, and you’ll just be living your life again.