One of the most profound effects of brain injury is changes in one’s personality and understanding of how the world works around them. Brain injury survivors can have issues that range from total and complete memory loss, depression, complete lack of outward connection or misunderstanding social cues, to name a few.
Many traumatic brain injury survivors struggle to find themselves in their new normal. It’s even more difficult when these survivors have a significant shift in their social life. Due to the cognitive challenges some survivors face, struggles with understanding social clues or the risk of overstimulation, they are often left out unintentionally, or because it feels awkward for others who knew the person before their injury to reconnect. But connection coupled with compassion can play a purposeful role in someone’s ongoing recovery.
If you are looking for practical ways to love a traumatic brain injury survivor, here are some of my thoughts.
1) If they are homebound, make sure you visit them often.
If they are non-verbal, it doesn’t mean they can’t hear or feel your presence. Bring your iPad and watch some fun YouTube videos. Talk about old times; share a special or funny memory. Be prepared for it to feel awkward, and know expressing those feelings with the survivor is OK. I would say what isn’t OK is disappearing. Survivors need endless connection.
2) For survivors that are more mobile, offer to take them for an activity.
Think outside the box. What might get their brain and body moving and make them smile? Bowling. Mini-golf. Boating. Hiking. Yoga. Fishing. Recovery is a lifelong affair for people who have sustained a brain injury; activity is good.
3) If you are far away, send some snail mail.
Tell them what is happening in your life. Send a funny photo. Enclose a story to be read. Send a lottery ticket. Think about bringing joy and giving joy. Ask yourself, “How can I bring light into this person’s day?” and go for it!
4) Include the survivor, but be understanding about limitations they may face.
If your birthday party or gathering is too much stimulation for a survivor and they are a friend, make time to get together later. Inclusion can occur in many forms, but being left out cannot be taken away.
5) Ask the survivor or their caregiver, “What can I do to help?”
Have some ideas in mind; show them you want to help and be present. If you have an area you see as a strength, offer to do that. Sometimes it can be as simple as listening, giving the survivor a safe place to be heard.
6) Accept and believe survivors are more than their injury, but they also have an injury.
Don’t blame a survivor for behaviors that are truly out of their control. Instead, educate yourself on what happens when certain parts of the brain are injured. Survivors live under a lot of pressure and are often looking for a person who accepts them unconditionally. Be that person.
7) Recognize the value of touch.
Brain injury is not contagious. It has been proven that hugs provide a source of positive energy in our brain. If the relationship is ready and comfortable, rub the survivor’s feet, give them a hand massage, or play with their hair. If those things aren’t in your wheelhouse, or wouldn’t normally be part of the relationship, offer a “high five” or a pat on the back. Connect. Connect. Connect.
8) Finally, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I get it. Seeing your friend who was once a bright, strong athlete living with physical and mental disabilities can be hard. If they are unable to communicate, it can be even more challenging. But remember it’s even harder for them. Get close. Get uncomfortable, and then get in there and be a friend.
Taking part in someone’s recovery through friendship is one of the most profound ways to impact the life of a brain injury survivor. I promise you will walk away with a new perspective on courage and resilience.