TBI & Moving through Grief: Part I

Experiencing a life-changing trauma of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) presents all sorts of clinical symptoms and challenges, and there is the still-somewhat-taboo challenge and reality of grief that sets in, and can last for months to decades.

Not until around the fifth anniversary of my TBI did I fully realize and acknowledge that grief had taken hold of me and affected, and still does affect, me physically, emotionally and spiritually. For a long time I tried to sweep it under the rug and pretend that it didn’t exist. In my quest for healing, wholeness, moving forward, and helping other TBI survivors, I jumped too quickly to finding the gift in my experience at the expense of addressing the grief that had taken hold of my heart for quite some time.

When I realized that ignoring the grief was hurting more than helping me, I asked for help, slightly reluctantly, and made the decision to fully feel the pain, rage, and sadness that I feel, so that I can one day fully move into acceptance.

Depending on what you read, there are five to seven stages of grief (note that these are not in a linear order). These include:

  • Shock and Denial
  • Pain and Guilt
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Reconstruction
  • Acceptance and Hope

Shock and Denial

When my TBI occurred in 2013, and more challenges kept popping up, I remember thinking to myself, “This can’t be happening.” At the time of my TBI I was incredibly active, a Type A, go-get-‘em personality, morning person, entrepreneur and practitioner with things to do. I didn’t have time for this. One of my friends had told me “You get shit done,” and I certainly did.

To go from that persona to not being able to get out of bed in the morning, inability to exercise the way I used to, extreme fatigue, and so much more, was devastating to say the least. My days became filled with medical appointments and seeing my clients, and that was about it.

Just a few months after my TBI, I was diagnosed with PTSD. My body and psyche were definitely traumatized, and it seemed like the diagnoses just kept coming. I couldn’t handle stress well at all, and my resilience plummeted. For the first few years I tried to make it all go away, throwing nearly everything but the kitchen sink into my treatment plan. No one talked to me about acceptance or adapting. I thought that I could go back to “normal (pre-TBI Me)” if I just kept trying. Over time the truth hit me that going back to “normal” wasn’t an option, only a fantasy. This didn’t mean that life was to suck from now on, or that I wouldn’t be happy. It meant that I had to learn to love and live with a new version of my Self.

Pain and Guilt

My heart broke at this loss of Self and identity as I knew it. I felt robbed. In two separate incidents that happened within about 25 hours of one another, my life totally changed, and neither was my fault. They were simply accidents and acts of fate, but I kept coming back to the question, “What did I do to deserve this?” Had I done something wrong in the eyes of God? Was I somehow a bad person? While this didn’t follow my spiritual beliefs or logic, the question was there.

Then I began to blame myself:

“If I had been a better [horseback] rider I wouldn’t have fallen off the horse when she spooked.”

“If I hadn’t fallen off then we wouldn’t have been in the car accident on the way home from the ER because we wouldn’t have needed to go there.”

“If this hadn’t happened we wouldn’t have incurred thousands of dollars in medical bills and debt.”

“If this wouldn’t have happened our lives would be better.”

“If I didn’t exist everyone else would be better off.”

No one else in my life thought these things at all. No one else blamed me for any of this. It just happened. Yet, because they “just happened,” I had no one to blame, other than the driver that caused the car accident (in which I was passenger). When there is no one to blame, it’s human nature to then point the finger towards ourselves.

Though I certainly did experience physical pain because of these incidents, with treatment, self-care, and time they subsided for the most part. It is the emotional pain that has stayed with me the longest, and seems the most challenging to address. Even as an avid yogi and yoga instructor, at times I avoided coming to my mat because I didn’t want to feel. Moving your body through yoga, dance and therapeutic bodywork, among others, can cause emotions to surface (in order to discharge them), and I didn’t want to feel the pain. Staying numb and in my head (rather than my body) felt safer and easier, even though I knew full well that this wasn’t serving me. As one of my practitioners and colleagues says, “You cannot heal what you cannot feel,” and I completely agree. Allowing pain to surface, feeling it, and releasing it are all necessary to continue moving through grief.

Feeling and working with anger is our next stage in the grief process. We will dive into that rich topic in Part II.