Pity and Friendship after TBI

Pity and Friendship after TBI

We’ve all see that face. The well-meaning face of pity: the downturned brows and lips, the misty eyes. It’s not the kind of pity that involves shame; it’s the kind of profound pity you receive when you have been the victim of a tragic and enduring misfortune.

After Hugh’s TBI, I seldom met a friend or acquaintance who did not flash this expression at me every time we met. Gloomy greetings were followed by unanswerable questions: “How are you doing this? How is Hugh?” said in a voice laced with concern. After a month or two, these encounters wore on me.

My daughters felt it, too. One night, we went out for ice cream and hid around corners to avoid people we knew so we could enjoy ourselves without answering the inevitable inquiries. Our evening became a game of cat and mouse — a hypervigilant ice cream extravaganza.

The funny thing is, we did not want pity. We’d had our fill of it in the ICU.

There were so many things we did want. First and foremost, we wanted to erase the conditions that led to that pity, but that was not possible. We wanted help, connection, answers. We wanted time to ourselves that was not spent thinking about TBI. We wanted a crystal ball to tell our future (only if it was good news). We wanted peace and a good night’s sleep. We wanted our friends to laugh with us until we cried, to tell us stories of their own, to share their trials and heartbreaks, their jokes; and we wanted to be silly again. Being silly didn’t mean we didn’t care. It meant we took five minutes off to remember what once tickled us. And when we laughed, boy did we laugh.

Some friends really got this. They knew us well enough to realize we needed to escape with dark humor from time to time, to entertain ourselves through comedy, or nuttiness. We needed to belt out songs, to dance, and blow off steam with physical activity.

My closest friend took my girls out shopping. She indulged them with junk food and let them sing in the car. She listened to me, cooked for me, and said outlandish things that made my eyes bulge; she suggested crazy cures for all that ailed us, and then she knew when to sit quietly and listen, to shed a tear as we confessed our fears, to offer a hug.

It’s a gift to have a friend like this; one who knows exactly what you need in the moment. And after Hugh’s no good very bad TBI year (or two), I could be that friend to others.

Families that go through TBI are like any family. They may have some unique needs, but not all of their needs require commiseration. They can’t live in a lifetime bubble of seriousness and sadness. They need laughter, joy, celebration, wonder, awe, and fun. Life is a cocktail of bitter and sweet. It’s not improper to smile in the midst of pain or laugh at the absurdity of what’s happening. All of us deserve the sparks of elation humor can bring to ease sorrow and pain.

And while some may think it’s inappropriate to find anything to laugh about, consider the zany workings of the human brain when it misfires. My husband wasn’t the only one in my family to put his clothes on inside out; I did it a few times due to exhaustion or stress. I was in a mad rush. Let’s hurry through this and get it done! I’d think. If I go fast enough, maybe time will pass quickly, and we can all move on and get this part over with! Yes, the brain works in mysterious ways. I lived life in fast-forward while my husband existed in reverse.

When did I start laughing again? It didn’t take long. Laughter is part of my DNA. I uttered the short laugh of neuroticism when the doctor told me that Hugh would be coming home from rehab “next week.” I was sure he’d have several more months in the hospital! I chuckled at a child’s innocent question about Hugh’s awkward looking helmet. And I let loose a full-blown belly laugh when I heard someone say, “Don’t worry. Everything works out for the best.” Really? Does it? Are you kidding me?

As time went on, the pity heaped on me melted off as I laughed when Hugh tried to turn me off with the remote. It dissipated when my long-distance friend heard on the weather channel that there was a tornado warning in my town and called to say, “It’s going to hit your house. You have the worst luck of anyone I know!” And all that pity slid away as I laughed with my daughters while we watched reruns of The Carol Burnett Show.

I laughed because I felt human when I did. I laughed to remember who I was.

Life throws so much at families going through TBI. In the beginning, it’s impossible to grasp the magnitude of what’s happened. It’s impossible to imagine how life will change. It’s understandable that people feel the need to give you the long stare of pity, but two weeks or so of that is enough.

What did I want people to say to me? Anything like this:

“Rosemary, you won’t believe what just happened to me!”
“Did you hear that so and so just got married?”
“A grapefruit and a pineapple walk into a bar ….”

Anything like that. I was not going to break if I heard good news.

TBI will throw stuff at you and it will hit you at first; it will knock you flat. But then, you will learn to catch what it throws at you; you’ll look at it, and you’ll figure out what to do about it. You will take matters into your own hands. And finally, you will laugh out loud if it kills you, because when you do, you will no longer be pitied or pitiful. You will have rejoined the living.

Comments (8)

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My TBI was in 2002. And I am so tired of "my story" as well. I wish I could move on, but my story makes it so hard. I am one of the many who suffered a TBI. And then not long after, my spouse left me. And I rarely saw my one now adult child. I don't seek pity. I am just looking for my "next" family in life. I sense that pity is really for those who express it to think they are helping the one pitied, when it doesn't help at all. It just makes the barrier higher, and even harder to climb.

Ah, the blessed relief that comes with dark humor. Sarah and I have woven laughter into our lives like never before. In our case, she would have loved a remote to shut me off.

Your words bring light into the sometimes dark world of TBI.

Thanks, David! I bet I could talk to your wife for days on end and laugh quite a bit!

You never fail me Rosemary, and for that I am eternally grateful!! I don't have that one friend, but I am slowly learning how to BECOME that friend to myself! Unfortunately, I am realizing that I have been masking my feelings for so long that I feel like I have very little idea about how I really feel about ANYTHING and it really scares me...I realize I have been living with the "peace at any price" mentality, keeping my thoughts and opinions to myself...and resenting the hell out of it! Thank you for your blog and for knowing how I'm feeling when I don't even know!

P :)

This really touched me. Thank you for commenting!

Thank you for this post. I remember laughing at what others considered serious during my husband’s journey with TBI. Sometimes it was the only thing that held me together. Prior to, and now 28 months post injury, it is laughter that sustains our family.

Reminds me off a quote from Nietzsche, "It is fellowship in joy, not sympathy in sorrow, that makes good friends."

Thank you for writing this, Rosemary. The culturally approved response to crises (were so sorry for your loss) is inappropriate and not restorative, but folks are at a loss for how to help emotionally.

Thanks for that great quote, Mike!