Post-stroke: How You and Loved Ones Can Handle Your trauma

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

I often reflect how my medical trauma affected my loved ones. It’s something I will never understand because those feelings belong to them. I’ve seen bits and pieces surface through my husband acting nervous and helpless. I’ve seen my mom cry when we reflect. My father stays stoic, reasonable and the glue holding our family together, despite the impact on him. My worried in-laws were also a fortified source to give relief to my family who were emotionally and physically drained. At last, in the moment, I did not know how my five siblings felt.  The complexity to sort all of this out mystified me.  How do I convert everything so that I can register my own emotions and my family? How do I heal myself, while making sure my family is ok? What is the best approach for a family member dealing with someone in a medical trauma? 

I had to stand back for a moment and look at it from afar. There are so many moving pieces, each one at a different tempo. Things change, it’s never the same and news from the doctors' shift day to day. Your vitals, pain and level of conceptualizing become a lot to digest and your loved ones can only sit back and feel helpless. It’s a contrast from a time when I was that child that fell and scrapped my knee, and my mom came to my rescue to clean my wound and gently place a Band-Aid on my knee and tell me it’s okay. I’m not that child knocking on my parent's door during a severe thunderstorm needing my dad to reassure me it’s just God bowling in the sky and stay with me until I fell asleep. This is incomparable and out of all our hands and I couldn’t ask them to fix this.  Now that I’m seven months post-stroke, my curiosity manifested into asking how everyone felt. I started with a few siblings. They disclosed that they were worried but optimistic. Full disclosure, we kept one sibling in the dark about my trauma. I know it sounds peculiar; however, my younger brother and I are close, and I knew it would crush his soul.  He was focused on something important for work and we didn’t want the news to impact what he was doing. So, we made a collective decision to withhold information from him until he was done, and I was in the clear. Was this a good decision? I don’t know, but I felt that it was best knowing him and his emotions. In general, our family is well equipped because we collectively have been through a fair share of medical trauma from car wrecks, life-threatening ischemia, accidents, blows to the head, so we are well conditioned. We also have medical knowledge which helps.  One thing that my mother told me that gave her solace was seeing how I acted as normal as I could. Whether watching me write from the hospital bed or joking with the nurses. My husband, who isn’t privy to much medical knowledge, told me he felt helpless. This wasn’t something he could fix, and he had to depend on others to save me. The feeling of not being in control to help me was hard.  Seven months out, I will be honest, it’s still hard to talk about it, especially with my mom. We are extremely close, and this took a toll on her. I tread on what I talk about so to not upset her. To my fellow survivors when did you gather the courage to ask how your loved ones handled the situation?  Are you avoiding it? Is it too painful?  Next, when is the right time to ask them how they are doing? It’s a sticky situation to confront the elephant in the room, but it’s also essential to make sure everyone is on a healthy path toward healing. In my own experience, I am extremely open, perhaps too open. I felt the need to tackle this, but I had to keep in mind who I talk to and adjust the conversation in accordance to be mindful and delicate with their feelings. I also had to be cautious on what I discussed, because there are dark moments, that I don’t want to worry people.  Which brings me to share about how I handled my own emotions. 

How do I let everything out without upsetting someone or seeming crazy? For me, there are days I’m elated, empowered, tired, defeated, depressed, back to happy. Almost bipolar in a sense, but not clinically speaking. I feel like a hypocrite at times because I endorse words of wisdom through Instagram and other social media platforms, but sometimes on a day, I’m not feeling strong and I am an emotional mess. To divulge, I take medication that is typically prescribed for someone with severe anxiety and depression. The reason for these medications predates my stroke and prescribed to help my autonomic disorder not a mood disorder. I figured these medications would aid my mental recovery and coping skills, but it doesn’t seem to be effective. I’m afraid to convey my reality, because I don’t want others to view me as someone wallowing in their circumstance, especially when my circumstance is not what it could have been. I had to find an outlet to express my messy but powerful thoughts. It’s effective, but not wide spreading for my emotional well-being. Honesty is the only thing that served me well. I don’t mean that in a sense of being honest with others, but with myself. All-embracing and being true to myself is therapeutic. While, it’s suggested to seek outside guidance, we live in a world that blocks the help that was once available. I was forced to learn how to process my feelings, forgive intrusive thoughts and celebrate the good. It’s a circle that never ends but I have learned acceptance.

So, what do you as a survivor do? 

First and foremost, the focus should be primarily about your well-being. Your approach to mental health after a medical trauma needs to be well thought out on what works best for you. Sometimes you will try several different things and it won’t work, but something will. I learned that letting all my emotions surface was an essential part of recovery. From crying, laughing, anger, pity, etc. It doesn’t come out all at once, because this is a process. Allowing the emotion to come and not suppress, is a gentle approach. Once those emotions reach its max capacity and you feel more grounded, document those feelings and what worked, or what triggered it. From there you can utilize tools to help you the next time you feel yourself go into a dark hole.  Those dark holes don’t disappear, but they do grow smaller in time. 

Next, think about how you want to approach your family. I think it’s important to talk it out, or at best, ask them if they need someone to talk to, in order to sort through their emotions. To circle back what I expressed in the beginning about my family, I approached it by writing down each family member and noted their general way of how they handle situations. Who is fragile and who is strong?  I assigned an impact score next to them, and then wrote out how I would ask them how my situation affected them. It’s hard to rehash something that’s scary and behind you, but I think it’s important to have an honest conversation. First, I started with my husband. He told me that the first day he was scared and didn’t know the severity of the situation. He felt helpless that this is one thing he can’t solve a problem for me and had to put a lot of trust into the doctors. He also admitted that he didn’t know enough about strokes and didn’t view them as serious as my situation.  I don’t think he realized that I had a stroke and ruptured aneurysm at that point in time. Once he researched, SAH and saw the stats, he was amazed that I happened to be the 1/3 that didn’t die or have a disability. He felt better as time went on in the hospital because I was acting like myself. For him, that gave him comfort. Next, I approached my sister and asked her how she felt. She said that she was optimistic because that’s the only thing she could think. Which is a healthy approach truthfully. My situation had an impact, but she was the cheerleader. I called my mom next and asked her about how she felt. Now, I know this heavily impacted her, since she babysat me for a couple months. Talking about stuff, you could tell it was heavy on her shoulder. She told me that in the moment, both her and my father did not have room to be too emotional. They had to be the ears of what the physicians were saying and paying attention to everything going on. They both have a medical background, so they were in medical mode. My mom said after my second surgery, which was awful, she cried when she got home because she couldn’t stand to see me in so much pain. I told her I agreed. The first surgery, the most invasive did not cause too much pain. The second one, a non-invasive surgery should be categorized differently because it’s barbaric how they insert a VP shunt. I was pumped full of drugs because the pain was too much, and at one point I wished I would stop breathing and let it be. For everyone else in my family, I didn’t get to get impact statements from them, but I know they were more so like my sister, optimistic and realistic about the situation. As I stated before, our family has been through several medical issues, that we are well equipped on handling situations and know that breaking down is not good for the person trying to recover. If I saw tears or worry, then I would think something isn’t right. Their method worked. 

You really need to dive into your feelings to change anger to love.  This freedom allows you to be honest, authentic and better served to other people, especially people that are in the same position as you. I admit, it was a bit strange to embody this new version of myself. I’m still trying to figure it out and how to use the exposure the best I can. I find it a blessing that I am outwardly capable of showing compassion. With this power, it slows down the anger. Anger is probably one of the easiest emotions for people to express. We see it all over through Facebook comments, anarchy, hate speeches, squabbles between family and friends.  It’s not projected through media or personal experience of people being uplifting toward one another. With that said, I initially felt my anger come out in different forms from lashing out, being frustrated with others who don’t understand the hell I’ve gone through, and most of all anger at myself for things I can and can’t control. It’s all a juggling act, trying to navigate your loved one's feelings and better yet your own.  It’s doable, and important to transform. 

With all the work I have done for myself, I mull over how the circle of healing works for loved ones. Their well-being is essential too. 

There is an abundance of are groups specifically geared for stroke victims and their families.  Sadly, these groups had to shut down during the most crucial time that it was needed because of the pandemic. I’ve looked to see if there are zoom meetings, and it looks like there are a few out there, which I recommend anyone to investigate.  Without any clinical training whatsoever, nor the authority of what is the best practice, I thought deep about impact on families, by projecting myself on the other side. What would I want to hear? How do I manage the pain? How do I approach my loved one? How to I make sure I’m still taking care of myself?  

So, last how do you handle someone who has been through medical trauma? This is a tricky question to answer because it depends on the family dynamic, and what each person is comfortable with. I advise with great emphasis, don’t lose control of your emotions in front of your loved one while they are in the hospital. You need to be a source of strength, and the person laying in the bed is taking inventory on your facial expressions and words. If you are crumbling, you are not serving your loved one well. Emotions are best expressed outside of the room or at home. You should however allow yourself to express your emotions, just not in the moment, in front of your loved one. Develop a thick armor, because you will witness many emotions that come out from your loved one. This can be lashing out because they are frustrated, thinking doom and gloom, crying, and saying things you don’t want to hear. Remember, this is very real for them and they are feeling it and they are scared. Often loved ones, are the safest person for someone to take out those feeling because they know you understand, and you are safe. Give grace during the healing time. It’s a battle zone for the affected person. Eventually after they sort through the grievous portion, they will have room to join you and the family to work through the coming days. Healing together is essential by open conversation, seeing a specialist together or privately seeing someone to express how you feel without making the other person feel like a burden. Bottom line everyone needs to make room for themselves to heal. It’s also beneficial to research the type of stroke your loved one had, and what to expect. There is a plethora of information in many forms for your disposal. 

Overall, I would say my personal experience is different than most. Not that I’m more capable than others, but by grace, my neurosurgeon did a great job that I came out with minimal long-term issues. What saved me and my family is my openness about how I feel. It gives comfort for my family because I’m back to myself. Internally I still struggle, but I expect that. In fact, I expect this will haunt myself and my family for life, but we are now equipped on how to handle these situations.  The magic ingredients to make this situation successful for both you and your family is open-line communication, reaching out, become a source of strength, ask for help, and take care of yourself. 

To those who are reading this that are part of the medical trauma- you have strength. It’s deep inside and you have the power to pull it out and do something with it. 

To those who are reading this that are family or friends of someone that went through trauma- you are strong, you must be strong. Don’t feel guilty if you have weak moments because you feel helpless. There is plenty of support out there that can help pull you through. 

This is a team effort. 

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