Introduction: Traumatic Brain Injury – Grey’s Hit the Nail on the Head

Most viewers watching Grey’s Anatomy last Thursday evening would have found it difficult to get through the hour without a box of kleenex.  I’ve found that there are often moments like this on the program, but this particular episode struck a number of chords for me. 

I have been working towards sharing my personal experience of tragedy and loss, and each time I’m close to uploading the first in what will be a series of posts about my husband’s traumatic brain injury, something holds me back and I question whether or not I am quite ready to do so because, once I start, it will be out there and I can’t take it back.  

(As a side note, nothing I say on the subject of tragedy is for sympathy.  Anything I post about my experience is to help people understand and perhaps help at least one other person who deals with brain injury to feel less alone.)

After watching Grey’s, I was inspired to use it as a springboard for my own story, because every character that suffered last night reminded me of a stage I have gone through or people I have encountered over this past couple of years.  On some level, I related to all of them.  

April and Jackson

April, faced with the fact that doing her best to be the Christian she was “supposed” to be – doing the “right” things and living her life a certain way – didn’t protect her from tragedy, cried in anguish that there was no justice, not even a little bit, in what she was going through.  She wanted to hold onto her faith and know that God was still there but, as hard as she tried, she was doubting; she just couldn’t believe that she would feel so abandoned by her loving God. She needed a miracle; she knew they happened for some, but she wasn’t getting one.

Jackson acknowledged that miracles happen, but sadly explained that their case isn’t going to be one of them.  Then, even as someone who didn’t necessarily “believe”, he took the leap for the sake of his wife and begged God to just “show up”, reminding God that April has believed in, worked for, and held onto Him through it all and she deserved for Him to just SHOW UP.  He put aside his own doubts and fears to just get that prayer through to whoever was out there.

At first, it was easier to hold onto faith and believe that because Pat was alive things would be OK.  I was scared, but not angry – yet – and while my prayers became very simple, they were still there.  Later, I screamed, cried, begged and waited for help that never seemed to come.  I doubted and questioned and felt like everything I’ve ever done in my faith was irrelevant because at that moment (and as time went on, many other moments) it just didn’t matter who I was or what I had done or how I had tried to live.  I was as vulnerable and seemingly unprotected as anyone else, as the “other” people to whom we often think are the only ones that bad things happen.  Finally, when my own faith was broken and crumbled and, despite the many success stories I had been told, I wasn’t getting my own miracle, the only prayer I seemed able to offer was Jackson’s: “Please God give Pat his miracle because he deserves it, and don’t let my lack of faith prevent him from getting it.”

Their friends just want to “do something”

Of course the people surrounding April and Jackson wanted to help.  They wanted to do something but had no idea what to do.  They came up with various ideas based on their own thoughts about what might be appreciated and were interrupted by Amelia who “knows” what will be needed.  Leave them alone.  Light a candle, it will make you feel better.  And one by one they do just that, believers or not, they go to find some kind of peace in the only place they can think of finding it, because not only do they want to honour their friends, but they need something for themselves in the midst of it all.

At the end of the program, Amelia walks into the chapel and is clearly pleased to see that all the candles have been lit.  She has made a difference somehow.  She was the voice of experience even though the rest of them didn’t know it. 

At first this might sound strange; they’re trying to help the couple and the suggestion is made to help themselves.  But in reality, this is very true.  Good and well meaning people often say things like “Everything will be OK” or ”Just keep praying and trust God” or “At least he is alive” or “So-and-so was in a coma too and look how they recovered”, because deep down they need to feel better about the whole thing themselves.  They don’t realize that words like this don’t bring comfort or peace to someone who knows things aren’t going to be OK.  If you are telling them to pray and keep the faith, then the best thing you can do is go “light a candle”, make sure you are praying damn hard, because they might not be able to pray at all.

“Leave them alone” – this doesn’t mean literally “alone”.  It means that unless you really know how they feel, put aside your own ideas of it and just be there, hold them, stay with them while they try to sleep, rub their back, love them, listen without trying to solve something you can’t solve.  You don’t have to talk.  There is nothing you can say that will make it better.  I was so very thankful to have good friends and family who knew that what I needed was their love and their presence and that that was enough.  They were there, right away, taking care of me, making sure I had everything I needed without asking me questions or telling me things to “cheer me up”. They did bring me things and take me for meals and offer me help so I knew I could count on them.  But they didn’t promise me things they had no way of giving me, like having my husband back.  And they are still here for me.

The wandering woman

At the beginning of the show, while April was talking about seeing tragedy as a doctor and not engaging fully in it, we got a glimpse of the grieving woman, crying and crumbling down a wall because her fiancé was killed.  Later, she was wandering around aimlessly, unsure of what to do because her life had just been shattered to pieces, shared plans, shared future, shared dreams, gone in an instant.  And April was the one who reached out, no longer “protecting herself”, to comfort her, and through this she got what she needed to face her own tragedy.  She found someone she could relate to.

I was there. The crumbling down the wall, the shattered pieces of shared plans, dreams, future, and it happened in a flash.  It was over.  But something remained, and whatever it turned into after that moment was something else, something uncertain, unknown, no answers, no guarantees, no explanations of why or how.  No chance for closure, no goodbyes, emptiness.

There were nurses and social workers along the way who moved from their self-protection to personal contact and comfort, who knew from experience that they didn’t really understand, but knew enough to reach out, support, and engage with me and the others around me who needed them.  They cared not just for Pat, knowing that a traumatic brain injury was something that blasted through an entire family and that we all needed them.


The “Surprise” Baby

As the injured woman was trying to deliver her baby while enduring various complications from her gunshot wound and then later swung between life and death as her husband held their little girl, we saw the doctors fighting to make sure the story had a happy ending.  We saw on their faces and heard in their voices the very human reasoning that, after all, she and her husband had just been given the unexpected chance to be a family and surely that wouldn’t be taken away from them, would it?
 
I remember thinking so many things out in that way, concluding that things must balance out somehow, that surely if one thing happened, another wouldn’t, and so on.  I just figured that God wouldn’t throw too many curveballs at once.  But then, in the midst of our family tragedy, while I was away from home with my husband in hospital, my dad got sick.  My dad – the strong one, the one who looked after my mom and all of us, even moreso after Pat’s accident, holding things together, being there for all of us like a rock, was suddenly hit out of nowhere with an illness that took him in a very short time, just hours before I was to make it home.  No goodbyes.   
 
As if my trust, hope and faith weren’t already hanging by a thread, this event convinced me that I can no longer expect anything to “balance out”.  That just isn’t how life works no matter how much sense it makes in your head.  I was on the edge of my seat last night, expecting the mother to die. I wasn’t with the doctors who were cheering her on.  I was convinced it was over because that is the kind of data I have in my brain.  
 

Katherine Avery

At the end of it all, Jackson’s mom asked Richard if he could take her home and just hold her.  The strong woman we’ve seen over and over again, through tragedy has been broken down to the simple human level – I need someone to hold me.  Nothing I’ve ever known or done could have prepared me for this.  Nothing has ever felt this terrible, this empty, this lonely.

Yes, when all is said and done, the doctors have gone home, the work is finished, and whatever result you are left with is what you have from now on no matter how hard you’ve worked for something else, what you have left is just that: I need someone, please hold me.  There’s nothing left to ask for, there’s nothing left to try, it is what it is and tomorrow it will still be that way and if you are lucky enough to sleep through the night, you might have the strength to get up and keep going, day after day, one day at a time.  And the best gift anyone can give you in any moment is their love – NEVER underestimate the effect of a hug.  It has become a cliche, and I don’t normally like those.  But hugs are balm for wounds that no one sees, wounds that will never heal.  

Conclusion

Overall I was actually quite surprised with how this episode played out.  We saw very realistic inner and outer struggles of faith, loss, painful decisions in which there appears to be no good choice, and a closing scene that reminded us that no matter who we are or what we think we know, there are times when we just need to believe there is something else, something bigger than us who can take on whatever it is we can’t bear.  

Sometimes all I can do now is “light a candle”.  It’s very hard to pray because I often don’t know how or what to pray for anymore.  One day, there will be a blog post about the way my own relationship with God has been affected by all of this, but for now I hang onto the fact that even if I’m no longer certain of many things, I know God is still there. He just has to be. 

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