Can Children Cope with Both Parents Lost in the Trenches of TBI?

Can Children Cope With Both Parents Lost in the Trenches of TBI?

I often talk about how much I leaned on my own parents after Hugh’s TBI, and how much my family and friends helped, but my young teenage daughters, Anna and Mary, lived through every day with me, and together we took care of Hugh as best we could. Our relationship shifted wildly over the first six months of Hugh’s recovery, and there were times I leaned heavily on them for support.

When a parent is as severely injured as Hugh was, older children can become caregivers at times, like Anna and Mary did. They helped out while under enormous strain. Recently, I asked Mary and Anna who comforted them most after their father was injured. Mary answered, “It had to do with energy. I gravitated to very specific people: Kelly King, a family friend who had been our neighbor since second grade; Charlotte, a nurse in the ICU who has one of the most open, caring and calming presences I have ever encountered (although I have not seen her since she watched over my dad in the first couple of weeks, that is still how I remember her today); and my mom’s sister Mary O’Brien who is a nurse by profession. They all have a soft and silent strength about them that can fill a room, a quality I envied and wanted to take on myself. I just wanted to be close to them, to float on their energy, a kind of energy I could not muster inside. In that place, there was a sense that everything would work out okay.”

Anna leaned heavily on her best friend, C.J. “I’d call her late at night and just go on and on about everything,” she said. “She would always pick up and listen. I think she knew that was all I needed. I tried to stay emotionally detached as much as possible to stay strong, too.”

When I asked them what helped them cope, Mary and Anna had the same response: each other.

Referring to the first time they were brought to the hospital after the accident, Anna said to me, “When you first picked us up on the car ride to the hospital, you told us that Dad was in an accident. I remember Mary and I looked at each other and we just knew we were there for each other. We had always done everything together, and we would do this together, too. We coped in really different ways, but Mary really saved me. Knowing that I wasn’t alone in the whole situation, that there was someone going through the same thing as me during the same time of my life, was extremely comforting. No one else could understand what was happening in the same way, no one else could talk as candidly about the situation as we could together.”

Mary agreed. “My sister is my other half and makes me feel whole. A sense of wholeness goes a long way, and just being together got me through. That being said, there were times when we were both so broken that we could not put together each other’s pieces. We dealt with the situation very differently emotionally, and that both helped and hindered our ability to lift each other up. That’s how sisters are, but at the end of the day, we were in it together and knew we always would be.”

After all these years, I know a lot about my own children but wondered what still lingered, and I asked them what, if anything, do they still struggle with today?

Anna, who is fairly good at disguising her emotions, surprised me most. She admitted,

“I worry too much and always think the worst. When someone is late, I think car wreck and hospital. I feel guilty if I ever part on bad terms, I try to make sure everyone knows I love them in case it’s the last time they’ll hear it. I still haven’t gotten used to riding a bike again.

“It has made me more cautious and anxious, but it has also taught me to try to love more deeply, to be gracious, and do the best with what I have. I try to be fully present in every moment and make it a good one, because you have it and it may be the last. It’s what kick-started my fascination with the capacity for the body to heal itself. It was so inspiring to see someone overcome such a hurdle. From sitting on Dad’s arm to try and straighten it, to paddling out in head high waves, I’m still in awe of where he has been and where he is now. He has such a zest for life, a sense of humor, and a love that he expresses more deeply than before. How many kids can say they have witnessed love and devotion on that level? I think it has really strengthened our family. I feel like I may not have been close with you and dad if it hadn’t happened.”

Mary remembered back to high school. “At school, when someone had an early dismissal for a vacation or a dentist appointment, the person picking up a student would report to the front office where the secretary would call the classroom on an intercom phone. As a student taking a quiz or listening to a presentation, we loved when the phone would ring. It distracted the teacher enough to give us a minute to whisper or pass notes. We would cross our fingers that our name would be called for early dismissal. After the accident, the sound of the classroom phone would send chills and fear down my body. I stopped crossing my fingers and turning to my best friend to answer her question about my latest crush; I sat silently in stillness knowing it would be for me, and that I would have to leave to face another emergency. I held my breath for those thirty seconds, which all of a sudden felt like half an hour. In my adult life, I still struggle to answer the phone if I don’t know the number on the caller ID. My nerves get jumpy when I have voicemails waiting, and I never really want to listen to them.

“Mostly, the whole experience manifests itself in my fear of the unknown.  I constantly step back and watch myself, give reality checks as needed, and make sure I'm seeing everything as it is.  It can be exhausting sometimes. I sometimes wish I could let that part go, but I have what feels like an instinctual need to keep myself from being blindsided again.

“On the positive side, I have gained the ability to somehow remain calm in stressful situations (even if only on the outside). More importantly, I have learned how priceless it is to be present in a moment, to be grateful for what I have, to express my love for others, and my passion with the world. I take life as it comes, but not always free of fear. I combat that with love. Lots and lots of love.”

Comments (7)

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What a great article. I have found in life that we either hide our wounds or somehow allow them to be transformed into a gift we can witness to others. Either bury our pain or we become (as Hemmingway said) "strong in the broken places." I am so proud of what Mary and Anna have accomplished and consider myself blessed by being a part of their lives. I still remember vividly the conversation we had at the hospital the night of the accident about what to tell the girls and when to tell them. I told you that you needed to be honest and honest immediately because you needed to go through this as a family - perhaps the single best counsel I have ever given anyone. Words cannot describe my joy over Hugh's amazing recovery and the life you all have together. I pray the work you are now doing as an author and advocate will help others to get to the place where you now are. Keith
So True
Beautifully written, Rosemary. It was you and your girls who taught me about strength. Think of you all often. Kelly
Kelly and Keith, Many thanks for your lovely notes. You are great friends. There's no way to ever really thank you or the many people who stepped in to help us. You will hold a special place in our hearts, always.
I wish my kids would write down their feelings or, at least, talk about them. Kyle had just turned 12 and Caroline was 14 when Dad was injured. Christmas 2010 was non existent . I developed tunnel vision in trying to help my husband. Friends and family had to fill my role for many months. My son hid in his Xbox games. Caroline hands and feet swelled from nerves. She had to become a 14 year old adult. It's been 3 years and they both don't talk about it -EVER. Kyle has developed an anxiety disorder, but never links it to the accident. Maybe when we have more years under our belt, our kids will be able to share their view. Great blogs Rosemary.
I wrote a whole essay on Friday and it didn't get posted. Hoping this one makes it. My children were 12 and 14 respectively when their Dad was injured. They NEVER talk about it anymore because it was so hard for them - 3 years out. They lost me for 6 months because I was so involved in Greg's recovery. My son turned to Xbox to hide and my daughter had hives from all the emotional stress. She was such a rock. Yet I could never make it up to them for the time and innocence they lost. Kyle is afraid to get his drivers license and still has lots of anxiety, but he is seeing a therapist to help him calm down. As much as they never want to admit it, the accident had a profound effect on their childhood. We are still healing from 11/2010.
Stories like these warm my heart. In some way, they comfort me. We usually read different things in Invisible Disabilities, etc... and that is where I fit somewhere. It's lonely, isolating, and because no one will talk, there is an under lying anger. I cry up my toes every few months. I know with out a doubt, that I would be more successful in my recovery, if it was believed, and there was love shown from those who meant the most to me, and recovery was done the way it was asked.. I was warned by doctors, but one can't make something happen - only working as a loving team, does one see the goal more clearer. Thank you, and give you daughters special hugs.