The brain is a delicate organ. That’s why it’s housed in its own secure compartment inside your body. But sometimes, even impressive human evolution can’t protect our body’s most important asset from being harmed when exigent factors come into play. Accidents like car crashes or slip and falls can sometimes leave our loved ones with debilitating brain injuries that change the course of not only their lives but ours too.
As the friend, family, or direct caregiver of someone who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, it can be hard to understand the role you now need to play in their lives. Supporting a loved one following a brain injury isn’t just tough—it can be grueling. It changes relationship dynamics and can even change the very person who’s suffered the injury.
But before you go thinking that all hope is lost after an injury like this, we want you to know that there are ways to make their life and yours manageable. The brain may be delicate, but it’s also incredibly powerful. It can help us adapt to the situation we find ourselves in, including realizing the best ways to support our loved one in their gravest time of need.
The Warning Signs of a Brain Injury
The human brain is delicate, powerful, and also a highly complex creature. When a human suffers harm to the head, it has the potential to result in a brain injury of varying degrees, from mild concussion to severe functional loss. What makes them complex, however, is that they don’t always manifest themselves like other bodily injuries.
Not every severe brain injury may result in visible external injuries like cuts or bruises. Sometimes, if the brain is damaged, it may not even exhibit that damage until hours or days later. Say your loved one trips coming down the stairs and bumps their head on the banister. They may count their lucky stars when they’re able to pick themselves up and walk away seemingly unscathed, but they may be unaware that they’ve hit their noggin harder than they realize.
People who have experienced a brain injury that could warrant a trip to the hospital may be experiencing a range of symptoms like:
- Mood swings
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty with memory
- Dilated pupils
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Motor dysfunction
- Cognitive changes
- Sensory changes
A few of these potential symptoms are easier for the injured person to recognize on their own, such as headaches or nausea. But they may need help identifying some of the other unusual behaviors, like slurred speech, loss of memory, or mood swings.
In these scenarios, it’s always better to air on the side of caution. Even if it’s possible their mood swings and memory loss could be the result of a stressful day at work, if they’ve hit their head recently, it’s safer to assume something more might be going on. Especially if these symptoms are persistent, it’s always better to play it safe and get them checked out by a medical professional. You’re not overreacting if you notice changes in your loved one—after a brain injury, those changes can be very real side effects.
Emotionally Coping with Brain Injuries
There’s no official handbook that definitively spells out how to deal with every brain injury. That’s because no two injuries or the people they affect are exactly the same. But if a traumatic brain injury has occurred that leaves your loved one debilitated in some way, chances are you’re going to feel a very common range of emotions that are entirely normal for this situation. It’s important to understand how to cope with these emotions so that you can be the effective support system your loved one needs during this difficult time.
It can be more than frustrating for both the injured person and you to deal with the lifestyle changes that may have occurred after a brain injury. They may need 24/7 care, have to relearn simple functions, suffer memory loss, or have a changed personality. Whatever the case, they need your help understanding and coping with their new normal. And you need those things too.
First, it’s so crucial to call on all the patience and understanding you possess. If this is the worst experience of your life, just imagine how your injured loved one must be feeling. Frustration with their inabilities, sorrow over what they’ve lost, and anger about how it happened are just the tip of the iceberg. These emotions may manifest themselves in hostility toward you, but just try to remember that it’s not a reflection of your care—it’s a reflection of everything they’re personally going through.
Instead of lashing out in return, make effort to educate yourself on their injury and its effects so you better understand why they may be acting a certain way. Believe in their emotions and their pain when they communicate them to you. Validation may seem trivial, but it can make a world of difference for someone who feels like they’re misunderstood in their experience. If they complain about pain or their situation in general, try to refrain from responses like, “At least you’re lucky to be alive,” or “Others still have it much worse than you.” While these might seem like uplifting perspectives, these kinds of responses actually minimize the very legitimate feelings your loved one has.
It may be a difficult adjustment at first, but over time and with the right affirmations, the situation will get more manageable. It may never be easy, but it will be entirely possible to help your loved one realize they still possess a life worth living.
Physically Coping with Brain Injuries
Any severe injury should be medically treated. A broken arm needs a cast; a deep cut needs stitches; and a brain injury needs…well, that one can be a little trickier, because there’s such a vast range of symptoms and effects of brain injuries.
While patience and understanding are key emotional coping methods, you might be wondering what you should actively and physically be doing to help your loved one. Doctors and nurses play their role in treating the injury, and likely give you clear instruction on how to medically care for the patient going forward. But where does that leave you in terms of knowing what actions can help your loved one live their new life?
Start by establishing a daily routine for both you and your loved one. When they feel like their life has become haphazard, emphasizing and enacting the familiar is a great way to help them feel included and active in their life and yours. Establish certain times for certain activities, always leaving additional room for patience as needed. The simpler you can make the activities to start, the better, like holding an easy conversation, doing some simple exercises, or recalling memories through photos.
Simple acts of kindness can also go a long way, especially when you’re not the primary caregiver for the injured person. Offering to take care of household chores, drive the patient to a doctor’s appointment, or babysit their kids so they can have a quiet evening can make all the difference when the going gets especially tough. A little can mean a lot—more than you might think.
Also try to consistently highlight the progress your loved one is making, no matter how small or slow it may be. Positive reinforcement is the best way to encourage them to never give up on themselves. And it’s a great way to remind yourself to never give up on them either. Your words and the support they create can mean the world. Don’t be afraid to let your loved one know how proud of them you are, and how much you love them.
Finally, remember to take care of yourself through all of this too. Your loved one may need most of your attention and care these days, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve some self-care too. Don’t be afraid to take breaks, step away every once in a while, and make sure you’re paying attention to what your body and brain need in order to keep going. You can’t care for someone else if you don’t care for yourself too.