Who’s Who in This Family Now
By Rosemary Rawlins
It happens without warning.
One person takes the hit, the bullet, or the fall, while loved ones witness the wreckage. When traumatic brain injury strikes a family, everybody suffers.
TBI survivors awake in a fog that slowly gives way to bewildering awareness of limitations, deficits, and a new way of living. Family members wait out the initial hours and days following the injury in cliffhanger mode, hanging onto any branch of hope within reach.
One family life ends, and another begins.
Depending upon which family member is injured—father, mother, child, sister, or brother—roles flip, responsibilities shift, and stress can mount. Until the extent of the injury is known, and healing begins, remaining family members take on what added responsibilities they can, and learn to do without—without the counsel, connection, and comfort of someone they once relied on.
In my case, my husband, Hugh, was hurt. On April 13, 2002, a car hit him as he rode his bicycle home from an afternoon workout. He was forty-six years old, athletic, smart, and seemingly invincible. To his children, he was “Huperman,” the dad who would always protect and defend. He was the main breadwinner in our household.
After two emergency brain surgeries in three days, Hugh slept in a coma. In the space of those first harrowing days, I became a single parent. Being in charge of his medical care felt like a monumental task to handle alone, but I also had to communicate with his employer, pay our bills, and manage our insurance policies, my part-time job, the house, and family.
Hugh was sent home within thirty-three days wearing a helmet on his head (a chunk of his skull had been removed to relieve brain swelling). I held tight to the gait belt strapped around his waist for balance. His deficits were numerous, and some had not even revealed themselves yet.
Our children became caregivers
Our twin daughters, Anna and Mary, age 14 and once the center of our universe, were now left off to the side or enlisted as caregivers. “Can you stay with Dad while I go out to the store?” I’d ask. “Remember to be sure he keeps his helmet on.” They both did their best to help out, but I know it was hard—hard to see their father disabled, hard to care for a parent who used to care for them, and hard not to complain about it, because there were so many competing emotions. In truth, they lost both parents for a period of time because I was focused solely on Hugh and his treatment.
Children are forced to grow up fast after a parent suffers a TBI. Their needs will not come first and may not even seem important. But over time, the experience will have taught family members lessons about love, commitment, patience, and overcoming adversity.
Our family made it through the hardest first two years, and looking back, here’s what helped us:
Structure: Keeping the children on schedule for school and extracurricular activities so there was a continuation of familiar past activities. This requires family and friends to chip in with driving and other tasks.
Support System: Relying on emotional support and help from family, friends, church, teachers, therapists, and doctors.
Surrogate Parents: Close family and friends stepping in to give children needed attention and help when parents are overwhelmed.
Open Communication: Being honest and open with each other’s feelings—venting, laughing, and crying together as a family.
Reasonable Expectations: Letting kids be kids. Asking only age appropriate caregiving help from children, and only when absolutely necessary.
Using our Strengths: Anna was great at helping in the kitchen. Mary liked to stay up late, so she helped out when the night nurse was off duty.
Accepting: Acknowledging that life was different, but we’re all in this together.
Encouragement: Bolstering each other’s spirits during hard times.
Reaffirming: Telling each other we loved each other often.
Staying flexible: Understanding that last minute changes might happen, and that roles would continually shift and change as Hugh’s health improved.
Life is never the same after brain injury
Life for families will be different and often difficult after one member sustains a TBI. But in the long run, some families may grow closer than they ever dreamed possible.
Ten months after his injury, Hugh earned his driver’s license back, and one evening, he drove himself to the gym to work out. A while later, a fireman called the house to tell us that Hugh had suffered a seizure. Mary and Anna swung into action. “I’ll come to the hospital with you, Mom,” Anna said.
“It will be okay,” Mary said, rubbing my back, and I knew it would, as long as we all had each other.
Rosemary Rawlins is the author of Learning by Accident, a memoir. You can learn more about Rosemary at www.rosemaryrawlins.com