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Caregiving for a Spouse After a Traumatic Accident

Learning to accept the situation, no matter how tough, can help you move forward

spinner image doctor in a hospital talking to a man and his daughter
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On a bright spring morning in the North Georgia mountains, Gene and Kathleen Mori of Atlanta were on a walk when Gene became dizzy and fell, causing him to suffer a severe head injury and lose consciousness. Due to the remote location, Gene was flown by helicopter to the closest trauma center, where doctors removed part of his skull to relieve his brain pressure.

Gene remained in ICU for 17 days before he was transferred to a hospital for acute brain injury patients. Two months later he was transferred to an outpatient facility for another two months, and while he has passed the one-year mark of this life-altering moment in 2019, he is still working toward his recovery.

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"You don't understand just how easily your life can change in an instant,” says Kathleen. “One minute we were enjoying family time and suddenly we were plunged into a different world.”

Processing difficult news

Thinking back on the day of the accident, she realizes she was initially in such a state of shock she didn't understand the doctors were trying to save her husband's life. “I walked in the hospital and asked how Gene was doing, and they offered to pray with me,” she recalls. “When family members finally arrived, it was such a relief because they could listen and ask questions, take notes and talk to the doctor if I wasn't quite tracking."

"The staff was firing questions at me about what medications he was on, asking for consent for surgery; things were happening so fast and I was still processing how we had gotten here from a simple walk in the mountains,” recalls Kathleen.

On the home front, Kathleen was fortunate to have had friends and family members supporting her and their three children, who were ages 19, 17 and 13 at the time of the accident. “It's hard for any child to see someone they love in pain or in a vulnerable place,” explains Kathleen. “Each of us parents differently, and I understood my children wanted to put their heads in the sand a little. I didn't want to have them sit vigil at the hospital, so I was determined to be the one to carry the yoke."

Circling your posse

Kathleen is a CPA and describes herself as someone who always likes to have the right answer. She is “fiercely independent” and was always the person other people called on when they needed to get things done. She recognized the importance of having a support system outside of the family whom she could count on when she felt fearful or tried to think too far into the future.

"You need people in your inner circle to whom you can show the broken parts and your messiness,” says Kathleen. “It was important for me to push back from the bedside and go for a walk and get a gut check with those friends or my therapist. They might not be able to fix it, but just being able to talk about it is so helpful."

Kathleen recognized the value of simply having people with her, even when she didn't have the energy to talk. The physical presence of loved ones was critical to her well-being, as was the spiritual support of knowing others were praying for their family.

Coping with caregiving guilt

She also struggled with the guilt that comes with being a caregiver. A few months after the injury, her girlfriends kidnapped her for a respite getaway to the beach. Kathleen struggled the entire weekend with feelings of guilt over doing something for herself. It was that weekend she hit on the metaphor of “the wet bathing suit."

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"The beach is a magical place and — for many — a place of healing,” explains Kathleen. It can also present you with a few unpleasant experiences: jellyfish, storms, and the unwelcome realization that sometimes you have to get back into your wet bathing suit to continue to enjoy the magic.

"Figuring out how to cope after a tragic experience is like putting on a wet bathing suit,” says Kathleen. “That act is uncomfortable and somewhat unfamiliar, but you have to force yourself to do so in order to dive into the next phase of your life. In the discomfort of sitting with my sadness and grief, I had to accept where we were in order to move forward with positivity."

Dealing with a new world

For Gene, the recovery he has worked at so hard came with an unpleasant surprise. Just as he was preparing to return to his job in the alternative energy field, the pandemic hit, forcing everyone to work from home. The loss of physically and socially returning to his work community was a blow to both of them.

Kathleen has adopted a philosophical take on caregiving in a pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic will force many of us to act and behave in new ways, and it's hard to imagine things going back to where we were before,” she says. “If you can't find gratitude in today's world with all that is going on, then you need to seek a way to make it happen."

Kathleen's caregiver tips

• Sleep is everything, especially when you need to make decisions. Even if you are a person who doesn't like to take medicine, find something that helps you sleep — from melatonin to tea — or whatever works for you.

• Meditation is helpful in clearing your mind and bringing clarity to your thoughts for the remaining part of the day.

• Therapy can be a very important part of the journey and can provide perspective, identify patterns and pathways to help you navigate forward.

• In the aftermath of a big traumatic event, fight the tendency to pull away and retreat. Stay engaged with your network of people and let them in to assist.

• Resources like Caring Bridge are critical in helping you stay connected to your community without having to spend bandwidth you don't have to text and email people on a daily basis.

Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and author. She and her husband, Bob, cofounded the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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