Asking for Help is Difficult but It is Harder to Survive Alone
Take care of yourself. When you can’t, let someone take care of you.
Forty-three days is not a lot in the course of a lifetime, but as our family lived the nightmare, each day following Kari’s stroke moved in slow motion. Waiting prompted fear. The unknown paralyzed emotions. When our 33-year-old daughter experienced a traumatic brain injury, a stroke, logic no longer existed.
The radiologist, Dr. Peal, entered the room to discuss test results; the medical explanations sounded like lines from the poem, Jaberwocky by Lewis Carroll .
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
At that moment, he made about as much sense as those lines. I stared wondering which questions to ask, “What is a . . .? Why did . . ? How can . . ? ? ? ? ? “
Dr. Peal’s compassion provided wisdom more valuable than the diagnosis. He encouraged us not to expect quick results because overcoming a stroke takes months – years. Let the hospital staff do their job and do not hurry the process.
“It is a long journey. Think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself.”
We had been in the hospital so many hours, time held no value. The first day, my husband and I never even thought about eating; our needs became secondary. Eventually, with coercion, we ventured to the cafeteria, attempted to eat a bowl of tomato soup, but when we discovered it was squash, we left it on the table with our appetites. Yes, labels probably provided that information. Reading would have required a higher level of consciousness. I am not sure we would have eaten much if it was tomato.
When my sister-in-law arrived, she ordered us home to sleep with strict instruction.
“Take are of yourselves.”
We went home and with the assistance of two over the counter sleeping pills, I slept. My husband’s body absorbed the rest as if coma induced. In a conversation driving back to the hospital the next morning, I commented on my exhaustion during the ride home the previous night. Randy pointed out I had driven my own car. OMG! I realized concerned, I possessed no memory of driving home – no recollection at all.
Our youngest daughter, Kat, called often to check on the situation but I think she was mostly checking on her dad and me.
“What have you eaten? Did you sleep? Are you taking care of yourself?”
My immediate response, “Yes, don’t worry about us.”
Even the social worker asked the dreaded question.
“Are you taking care of yourself?”
I wanted to scream, “It’s not about me. My daughter is laying in a bed. She can’t talk or move her right side. I must take care of her. I can’t even begin to take care of myself.”
Instead I said, “I’m fine.”
No until I sat and talked with my granddaughter, Kari’s oldest child, and her other grandmother that the situation turned surreal. In front of my granddaughter, Grandma Virnene asked, “How are you doing?”
There was THAT question, again! I stiffly replied, “I’m fine – just fine.”
To change the focus I asked Jodi, “How are you?”
This mature 12-year-old responded like a parrot, “I’m fine – just fine.” Her four simple words slapped me in the face. She lied.
We were all emotionally broken. At that moment I confessed and explained how I really felt. I looked her in the eye.
“OK. I will tell the truth. I am not fine! This situation sucks and maybe we should all be honest and share our pain.”
By modeling strength, persistence and optimism without sharing my pain, I stifled emotions, thereby; Jodi learned to do the same. Experience taught that emotions bottled too long exploded. By ignoring grief, it grew stronger. To conquer and control the suffering, we had to acknowledge it, support each other, and stand strong.
Dialogue flowed easier – healthier. I feared sharing my pain would expose my wounds, force me to lose control but in fact, sharing allowed me to garnish comfort and in return offer comfort. I felt less alone.
Identify Your Coping Mechanism
The next day improved because I started setting limits. I learned to limit my worry so it didn’t eat away at me; my strategy was to surrender to a higher power. Once I admitted I have no control in the outcome it, breathing became natural.
Everyone around me found a strategy to confront worry. Jim, Kari’s father-in-law, wrote positive affirmations, posted them in the hospital room, and read them aloud. My husband used humor and made work an outlet. Friends and family prayed, scheduled counseling appointments, and volunteered to help. Different approaches provided relief to the grief.
I learned the first lesson: When staring at what seems like an insurmountable challenge, take care of yourself.
If an athlete trains for a marathon, she consumes a balanced diet, stretches to warm-up muscles, practices daily, gets in shape. When a student prepares for an exam, they study, get a good night’s sleep, and eat a healthy breakfast before beginning the test.
Before Neil Armstrong traveled into space, before he walked on the moon, he followed a strict regimen including survival training, physical endurance, and mental acuity. When Commander Armstrong’s rocket launched into outer space, his life resided in the hands of many competent specialist at NASA. He trusted others to bring him home.
When I entered the hospital, raced to Kari’s bedside, watched her labored breathing, and looked into her frightened eyes, my first impulse pushed me to take control only to realize that the situation was uncontrollable. I surrendered to the professionals with the knowledge and skills to improve her health. I trusted them to send her home. Only then did I begin to understand the prescription, “Take care of yourself.”
Everyone believes their actions serve the best interests of the patient.
During our time at the hospital, I witnessed patients’ loved ones demand results, argue decisions, defy instructions, and question authority. I watched the hospital staff strive to make patients comfortable, comply with directions, simply put – get the job done.
A Kari’s mother and a team member, I accepted responsibilities: love her, provide hope, watch for human errors, offer supportive reminders, encourage, and be available when others were not. Slowly and with some resistance, I relinquished power knowing I faced failure if I didn’t take care of myself.
As my body tired, my faith wavered, and my spirit plummeted, I received the message.
“Take care of yourself.”
The lesson for everyone sitting beside a loved one’s bed or agonizing in a waiting room is to find a release: work, tell a joke, play a game, pray, write positive affirmations, seek counseling, whatever it might be, whatever provides comfort.
Though I am not a person who asks for help, I discovered the value in accepting help. When I was incapable of taking care of myself, others stepped up to take care of me.
Support came in the form of a friend who held my hand when fuzzy brain matter made paperwork impossible. It came in the body of my sister-in-law who provided relief at a moment’s notice or without being asked. People provided food (some strangers to me), financial support, and positive energy. People bestowed overwhelming love simply because they cared. They didn’t ask, “What can I do?” They simply checked on us and completed tasks that had to be accomplished.
When I said, “I am fine,” they heard my words but understood what I didn’t understand – didn’t admit. They took care of me when I couldn’t.
I appreciate them; I love them. If you are one of them, thank you.