When we hear a story about someone surviving a stroke, or living a normal life after a traumatic brain injury we tend to experience joy. Joy for the person who survived. Joy for the family. Joy for the friends. We’re happy for them and their good fortune.
I’d like to talk about the flip side. Having someone you love survive, but as a different person, can be heartbreaking.
We don’t often talk about the pain experienced when you talk to your loved one and realize they aren’t the same person anymore. It’s jarring and painful and confusing. You want to cling to pure joy that they’ve survived, and people seem to assume that’s your only response, the “appropriate” response, but the pain hovers just below the surface and it can be all encompassing.
You can get to know the new person. You can grow to love the new person just as much. But you still grieve the loss of the person who used to exist in that body. The person who used to stare back at you. This new person may have their memories, and their mannerisms and their face, but not their personality.
The guilt experienced by the family members and friends of the survivor for grieving even though they survived is miles deep. Some people try to pretend everything is fine. They never let themselves process the pain of the loss.
I just want to tell you that it’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to feel like your heart is being ripped out of your chest every time you talk to them. It’s ok to feel like you’re losing them over and over every time you have a conversation that doesn’t feel right. It’s ok to mourn the loss of the person you used to know who is standing right in front of you.
But when you feel those things, consider what it’s like to be the survivor. Some families try to force the survivor into the mold of the person they were before the accident or illness because they want so badly for things to be exactly as they were before. They never will be, and that’s ok. You just need to remember that the person who you loved is still there, they’ve just changed.
Everyone changes. We all get older, have new life experiences, and grow. Some changes are positive and some aren’t. When tragedy strikes, those changes are compacted into a tiny frame of time, and as family and friends we tend to have a really difficult time processing them.
If you had met me 10 years ago, you’d have met a version of me with a very different view on life, different friends, different relationships with family, different goals, and different ways of interacting with the world. And it’s a good thing. Having this decade of life experience helped me grow into a stronger, better version of myself.
Now imagine your brain experiencing a decade worth of change in 3 minutes. Then imagine everyone around you treating you like the way you act now is wrong. Expecting you to be like you were, even though you’ve had an experience that changed who you are at your core. Acting like the new version of you is a blurry copy rather than a version with more life experience.
Grieve the loss of the person they were, but don’t give up on the new person looking back at you. Will your relationship change? Probably. Would it have changed over time anyway? Probably. It’s hard for you, but imagine how hard it is for the person who folks keep comparing to a person they look like, but no longer feel like or identify with inside.
Be patient. Grieve. Don’t feel guilty for missing who they were. But get to know the new person without strings attached. Stop comparing them to who they were. Accept that we all change, and they just did it more rapidly than most. Be gentle with them and with yourself. And keep moving forward.