The Many Faces of Brain Injury and Grief

The Many Faces of Brain Injury and Grief

Our journey, one chosen for us, not by us has been described as complex, unthinkable, unimaginable. It’s those descriptions and so many more.

What started out as brothers spending a Sunday together, ended in tragedy when Aaron’s truck unexplainably hit a tree. The same fatal impact causing Aaron’s death and Steven’s Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), caused irreversible heart damage to their parents. The kind of damage that is incurable. We are told time will help, but more than five years have passed, the pain doesn’t subside, we just learn to live with and tolerate it.

Throughout my life, I have held many titles, but none as prestigious as wife to my husband Carlan and mom to our two sons. I never imagined I’d add the titles of survivor and caregiver to my portfolio on the same day. All at once, I was a survivor for surviving the death of my first-born son, Aaron, and a caregiver for my son, Steven, who sustained a TBI. Being thrust into the foreign world of caregiving, coupled with grieving the earthly separation from Aaron, left my body physically depleted and consumed with shock, a kind of shock that numbed me. The numbness allowed me to function but prevented me from clearly seeing the ocean of faces affected by Steven’s TBI and Aaron’s death. As the shock began to fade, it felt like a curtain lifted, and I was cast in a play with all the characters, one by one revealing how they were affected. Amidst their grief, they wondered if I would ever laugh again, have date nights or travel. They wondered how this trauma would affect my marriage and my friendships. Their fears, mingled with those of our own, weighed on our minds. After all, how can you think about experiencing happiness when your world has been turned upside down by a diagnosis, with an integral part of your family suddenly gone?

The face of grief that makes my heart skip a beat daily is that of Steven. As if life with a TBI isn’t challenging enough, despite his pain, he bravely faces each day without his brother, his best friend. As Mom, I want to fix it, but I can’t. I can only remind him that Aaron would expect us to make the most of each day, even when we don’t think we can.

I hope my words convey the message that while it took time to regain our equilibrium, we sincerely acknowledge your loss and pain. There are no adequate words to express our gratitude for the role you played in making a difference in Steven’s recovery while putting your pain on hold to provide strength to me and my family in our time of desperate need.

Some examples of the Many Faces of TBI and Grief:

  • Good Samaritans that found our sons and stayed until help arrived.
  • Fire and rescue team ensuring our sons made it safely off the mountain.
  • The trauma team that embraced the magnitude of our loss, refusing to give up on saving Steven’s life.
  • Family and friends that kept vigil by our side at the hospital as Steven fought for his life, and stood by us as we celebrated Aaron’s life. You stayed, seamlessly switching gears working behind the scenes, taking care of everything that we could not.
  • Aaron and Steven’s friends that showed up at the hospital and funeral, not knowing what to say. They did the most important thing; they showed up.
  • Expected Moms in the visitation line with tears streaming down their faces, those tears an acknowledgment of my pain.
  • Co-workers from employers past and present, eagerly showing their support. 
  • Our community on standby to come to our rescue, and without fail they did.
  • Healthcare providers. Many have stayed the course, proudly witnessing Steven’s miraculous recovery.
  • Charity foundations that said, “Yes,” we will help.
  • Our TBI Community—near and far—offering support and resources.
  • Steven’s Trauma team that encouraged us to reach out to other family members facing loss.

We’ve experienced the double-sided emotions of birthdays, holidays and anniversaries, a time when happiness collides with grief as we simultaneously celebrate Steven’s recovery and Aaron’s death.

A dear friend recently shared her thoughts on two very impactful words: acknowledge and accept. These words deeply struck a chord in my heart. I can acknowledge and accept Steven’s TBI, after all, he’s here! While I acknowledge Aaron’s death, my heart will not and cannot accept losing a son at the tender age of 26, with his life ahead of him. No parent should have to live with this unnatural pain.

I believe that God brings those that we need into our lives at just the right moment, for such crucial times as then and now. Some of the faces affected by our journey showed up on day one, others, year one, and now almost five years later, are still showing up, right on time. It takes a village. We’re forever thankful that you are an integral part of ours. 

Posted on BrainLine April 30, 2018.

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There is a new documentary about veterans with combat trauma in the judicial system. It needs your and others' support.
A timely and unflinching look at whether combat trauma should
be considered in our nation’s courtrooms.

With hundreds of thousand of veterans returning from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 20% of them will suffer from PTSD and another sizeable portion with Traumatic Brain Injury. Without proper treatment, many will end up in our criminal justice system.

This legal crisis is covered in a new feature-length documentary, THOSE WHO SERVE, in the hands of Emmy award-winning filmmaker Jeff Werner, who explores whether veterans’ psychological disorders stemming from their service to this nation, should be considered mitigating factors in a court of law.

"The person who goes to war is not the person who comes home." This powerful line in the film THOSE WHO SERVE is from David, a 10-year Marine veteran.

Werner has shot the film and is now entering post-production. He has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for finishing the film.

Werner had access not only to experts in the legal and psychological fields, but he also was granted rarely given access to two murder trials, one in Los Angeles and the other in San Diego, California, as well as the Los Angeles Veterans Court’s proceedings. “I believe the judges involved realized how critical this issue is and will most likely become as time goes by,” said Werner.

Army veteran and criminal justice attorney Brock Hunter suggests, “This is a ticking time bomb…this is going to be a huge issue that we’ll be dealing with for the rest of our lives.”

The Kickstarter Campaign is a common way these days for funding independently made films. THOSE WHO SERVE follows the personal journey of three returning young Marines who were model citizens and soldiers. They risked their lives for their country and experienced severe combat trauma. Back home, each of them has now committed a crime. Their new battlefield is the courtroom, where they fight to find mercy. Their future is in the hands of our criminal justice system, which must decide whether their years of service -- and resulting psychological trauma, sustained while volunteering to defend and protect us -- should be a factor in determining how much time they will serve behind bars.

Since a fifth of the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (symptoms include depression,anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts) it is not unusual for there to be substance abuse, inability to find or hold a job, and relationship problems. These all add to a downward spiral.

Bureaucracy and a backlog of cases at the Veterans Administration, as well as the service members’ reluctance to admit to the problem, make timely medical treatment and counseling extremely difficult to get. Many of us are familiar with these devastating challenges that await returning soldiers but lesser known are the stories of veterans who, with no prior criminal record, are ending up in jail. Their experience in our courts is being addressed for the first time in THOSE WHO SERVE.

The veterans and their families, along with the rest of the people in the documentary,want to share their stories in the hope that the film will start a conversation about this critical issue.

Very inspiring