The Family Dynamic after Acquired Brain Injury

Brain injury can change nearly everything, not only in the injured person’s life, but also within the lives of his or her family members.

Early after a brain injury, family systems become embroiled in the injury as they address arising issues. Sleep gives way to ICU vigils. Quiet moments give way to prayer. Casual discussions give way to serious conversation. These days are ruled by fear, with small glimmers of hope to serve as momentary relief.

Recovery, to a greater or lesser degree, eventually occurs. Time passes, hospital stays end, and the injured often return home.

Unfortunately, families are all too often solely responsible for redefining a new normal, as our society does not yet effectively provide sustained support. Understanding how to cope with the many changes after brain injury, and a willingness to implement coping mechanisms will make all the difference.

These eight tips are a great place to start:

  1. Counseling

Counseling can ease burdens and facilitate grieving, adjusting, and managing, all without giving up hope. However, not all families can afford such care, and for that reason, there are the other seven tips.

  1. Attitude

Realistic optimism, positivity, and hope offer an opportunity for a brighter and happier new normal. Humor can help keep spirits high. And in spiritually oriented families, solace and confidence come from actively practicing their faith.

  1. Communication

Everyone handles grief and the subsequent changes within their lives differently. However, it is important to remember that each family member, no matter their role in the injured person’s life, is going through these changes together. Communication is a portal to common ground and unity.

Scheduling a regular time to discuss the injured person, and any related issues, can help family members to open up, creating a more approachable and manageable situation.

  1. Individual Focus

Imagine a wagon wheel with a hub and spokes. Families often operate by moving one member or another in and out of the center of the wheel, as his or her issues and needs call for priority. After a brain injury, it can become habitual to keep the injured person in the center of the wheel. It’s important for families to find a way to move others in and out of the circle again.

  1. Self-Care

Taking care of oneself can seem inappropriate, especially for parents. However, if one uses oneself up in the care of others, there will come a time when the person has nothing left to offer others. Take time for yourself, and maintain some semblance of your hobbies and interests.

  1. Socialization

Because of the many demands of brain injury, it can be difficult to find the energy or money to socialize outside of the home. And it can feel wrong to seek pleasure while a family member with brain injury cannot do the same. Yet, socializing can help heal by providing a healthy sense of perspective.

Tell your friends what works, when you need to discuss the injury, and when you need to discuss anything but the injury. Friends and family may need your patience and forgiveness, as they may offer advice that is not useful or feels judgmental. No one knows how to act in these situations, and they are no exception.

7. When to Feel

There is time for grieving, sadness, and loss. So too, there must be time for hope, joy, and laughter. It is okay to take out the “pity pot” filled with your sorrow, despair, and loss. But then, with deliberation, put the “pity pot” back in the closet for another day. You will use it again and again, just always remember to put it away. In this way, you can avoid becoming mired in grief.

  1. Balancing Acceptance

Some parents fear doing anything that might look or feel like they’ve accepted their child’s level of disability. It’s good to desire further growth and improvement post-injury, but there is a limit, and it is not healthy to be consumed by the drive to wring more recovery out of an injury. It is crucial to balance both acceptance of your new normal and hope for continued improvement.

One day I noticed the fine print on a cereal box, “Contents may settle during shipping.” The advisory served to avert any concern I might develop when opening the cereal to find it only three fourths full. I liken this advisory to balancing acceptance. So too will your “contents” settle as you move through your family’s changed world. One can and should actively explore changes wrought by brain injury in the family because realization of these changes will happen eventually, with or without your consent.

Those who find a way to bring balance back into their world are more apt to successfully take on the ripple effects of brain injury on their family dynamic. And, to be sure, the injured person will also flourish to the best of his or her ability in this normalizing and positive environment.

So, please make the decision to thrive. Be a light for you and your family. Find opportunities each day to laugh, dance, socialize, and communicate deeply. In this way, you can adjust to and manage in your new world.

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