Carly saunters in to our coffee date in designer sunglasses and stylish workout clothes. At 24 years old with her hair piled into a ponytail on top of her head, she looks like the picture of health.
Even though the effects of her TBI and mild post-concussive disorder are mostly cognitive, Carly still struggles with exhaustion and anxiety from only small bouts of work.
She assures me that she’s mostly content with her life post-TBI, but she mentions she still feels sad from time to time.
Carly tells me, “Sometimes I grieve who I was before, but I think that‟s normal. Itss sad knowing you‟ll never be that person you were before the brain injury… It makes me sad, and I miss who I was before…
“I miss that young, carefree person, and it took me a long time to get over that. I still don’t think I’m over it.”
If we perceive coping with the loss of identity as mourning the loss of an actual person – who we were before the event – we gain insight into the challenging emotional recovery from brain injury: it feels similar to losing someone very close to us and may involve a comparable grieving process.
Frank (2013) explains that experiencing illness and loss involves great suffering, which “threatens the intactness of a person” (p. 169).
I like thinking of it that way: intactness.
My peers and I have experienced, and still continue to experience, a suffering from brain injury that threatens to untangle the intactness of our lives.
It might be Richard‟s story that best illustrates the full depth of loss, though.
After multiple ABIs and a long recovery that was incomplete, he faced a challenging turning point in his life.
Richard explains, “I was low… I mean, I was at the lowest of lows. Here I had lost all of who I was, my basketball, all of my strength, and ability. What did I have left? Of course, it‟s hard to see all the good in your life when you‟re going through something as painful as losing yourself.”
Imagine losing the person closest to you – you.
“I considered ending it all a couple times,” Richard whispers. “Really ending my life, I mean. The old me was dead anyway… Why would I want to live?
Richard‟s story saddens me, makes me want to reach out to him and give him a hug. I almost do, but decide against it. Instead, I let silence fall between us.
No words can describe the immensity of his sorrow, so I let his words hang.
Finally, slowly, I continue our conversation. “What made you decide against ending your life?” I ask gently.
“My wife,” he says simply. “I don‟t know what I would do without her. God knows why she has stuck by me this long.” His “good” right hand falls to his lap once more, this time in exasperation. I wait for him to continue.
I don’t know what eventually got me through those dark days…. whether it was my wife, my family, God, what. But it’s gotten easier, that’s for sure. Once I finished grieving that I wouldn’t be who I was before, once I came to terms with it I mean, then I realized that life goes on.
Richard‟s account of having to mourn his former self was important before he could move on with the rest of his life. I can remember my own “dark days” when it seemed like the sadness over the loss of my former self would never end.