Parenting After TBI

Some things I’ll never forget:

My invincible husband, Hugh, stretched out on a gurney, unconscious after being hit by a car on his bike. His clothing ripped in shreds, his body bruised and banged up. The chaplain telling me he has a massive head injury; I might want to say, “Good-bye.”

I have children. I need to take care of the children.

Telling my twin daughters, Anna and Mary, their father is hurt. Their young voices asking questions, “How hurt? What’s going to happen to him — to us?”

I have children. I need to take care of the children.

Feeling every cell in my body combine with the man on the gurney, the man on the hospital bed in the ICU, the man who doesn’t remember where “home” is.  

I have children. I need to take care of the children.

Words flood through my mind straight to my beating heart and spray through the tingling nerves of my body — so many words I can’t understand them, my mind won’t register them, because they represent everything I never wanted to happen, everything I never wanted to see, hear, feel, or do.

In the center of this thick fog is a fear, blacker than the darkest night, made tolerable only by the immense love I feel for my husband and our children. In the aftermath of the crash, we scatter, physically and emotionally, to corners of rooms, curled up in chairs or beds, crying silently to a universe we’re not sure is listening. We regroup and clutch each other for affirmation, to hear each other’s heartbeats, evidence we are still living. Grief and love. Grief and love.

TBI wrenched me from my children’s lives, the lives I had taken such care to fill with wellness and joy, with nurturing attention. Others stepped in: grandparents, aunts, and uncles, friends, and teachers. Without their surrogate parenting, Mary and Anna might have drifted away and been lost forever.

Later, when Hugh recovered, we shared the role of parenting again. Life was different in big and small ways. Hugh always used to drive, but now I drove a lot. He was once the strict parent, but I had to be the disciplinarian because he was puppy-doggish around his girls, willing to concede anything to repay them for calling him back from the dead.

And then time took over and did its work. Hugh grew stronger; his old personality traits reemerged, and as he grew sharper, we made decisions together again. He earned back his license and drove the girls to college and helped them make adult decisions. He took them surfing. He was a parent again in every sense of the word. I can’t say for sure when exactly that happened, or how it came about, but our family started over after months of some kind of strange abnormal blackout.

Parenting after TBI dissolves into something else — absence maybe — as if a pause button were pushed on parenting itself. What saved us was the parenting we did before the crash, the strong bonds and open communication we had in our family that were well in place so we could scatter and return to each other again, bruised but not broken.

Mary and Anna have told me that seeing how much I loved their father, how I cared for him, meant a lot to them. It pulled them out of their teenage self-centered world and placed them squarely into our romance, seeing us as a couple rather than as the parents they always knew separately as Mom and Dad.  This new necessity to look outside themselves helped them develop empathy, concern for others, and most of all, a desire to help at a very young age — mature characteristics that I had hoped they would learn later in life, under easier circumstances.

From all that I learned from my girls and our whole family after Hugh’s brain injury, here are some tips for parenting after TBI:

  • Allow trusted friends and family to care for your children when you can’t.
  • Keep schedules as consistent as possible: school, activities, etc.
  • Maintain your spiritual practices and involve children in them.
  • Be honest with your children in an age-appropriate way.
  • Keep communication open. Ask what they are thinking, how life is going.
  • Involve your children in your spouse’s rehab exercises: they will feel useful and appreciated.
  • Send your children to camp or on vacation with other relatives and friends when offers are made so they can have fun time away from a stressful household.
  • Say, “Thank you. I love you, and I appreciate your help” often.

Comments (2)

My TBI happened 35 plus years ago so my wife did not know me before my car wreck. My children were easier to manage at a young age but when older they were more difficult for me to parent. My wife is resentful being the bad guy consistently and my lack of parent demanding caused a strain. I guess my family adapted to my personage and this need has passed. I blame my TBI on my exaggerated sense of being nice to a fault i wish i could change but find very difficult. I know that if i have the resource i might be able to give but how i can give something that i can't give? I wished that TBI did not effect the higher level of functioning in a person but it does, darn'it
I got my TBI my Sr year of high school, I thought your last year of high school was supposed to be your best, mine was spent in the hospital. My accident happend Sept 23,02 in hospital till Dec 7, 02. You know you think when your in your early 20s your supposed to find your right one and start having kids and moving out of house; Whats hard is not understanding why you cant get out like you used to, Why you cant move out, how people react; Im thinkin I'm still human. My left side was damaged where I cant use it like I can right side, it still works but not as good. I fully believe GOD is the biggest reason Ive gotten as far as I have gotten; and my gah my faith has grown much more since then, because I heard how bad I was and all he's done through my situation. I just wish other people could realize yes the outside appearance may of changed but your still the same person and not treat you any different because you have this injury