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Brain Injury Grief: The Experts Begin to Recognize and Define this Profound Loss

The last time I tried to find some info on grief and brain injury, I found nothing helpful. This past week, I half heartedly looked again. I was surprised and heartened to find that brain injury grief was being recognized at long last. Skimming articles from the US and UK validated my belief that brain injury grief is a different and much more difficult beast than other kinds of grief.

Janelle Breese Biagioni wrote on Brainline: “Then we have what I identify as extraordinary grief resulting from a disease such as Alzheimer’s or a catastrophic injury such as a brain injury. This kind of grief is profound. People must grieve who they were, and the family also grieves the person who is no longer there, albeit physically present. Sadly, I think society as a whole is only beginning to understand how profound this type of grief is….”

I’m not sure society is recognizing it. After all when most health care professionals don’t and I see person after person having to subsume their grief or being labelled depressed, you know social work and psychiatric care hasn’t evolved in this area yet.

Biagioni continues: “Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s Companioning Model identifies potential grief responses as shock, numbness, disbelief, disorganization, confusion, searching, anxiety, panic, fear, physiological changes, explosive emotions, guilt and regret, loss, emptiness, sadness, relief and release, and finally, reconciliation and healing.”

I so relate to this list up to sadness. And brain injury does complicate it because it causes confusion, disorganization all on its own. PTSD also overlaps many of those listed states. How does one tease out the cause for each? How does one address multiple causes for one state and know which order to treat the causes or if best done simultaneously?

She continued: “If one is allowed to truly feel — to grieve, this will lead to mourning. Mourning is the process of taking those feelings from the inside to the outside. It is giving expression to how we feel. This may be done in a variety of ways, such as funerals, talking, writing, art, and music. Wolfelt describes it like this: “Mourning is grief gone public.”

I have to wonder if we need to develop new rituals of mourning for internal deaths, deaths like reading, identity, musical accomplishment, hobby skills, memory, specific identity memories, sense of humour, emotions, etc. And then also develop rituals when some of them return in part, distorted, not the same or maybe fully suddenly years and years later. The pre-injury person suddenly returning isn’t always welcome — it’s another change after having adapted to fundamental change and perhaps you’ve come to like some radical new parts of you, like I liked not being so self-controlled to the nth degree. It was so freeing.

Dr Rudi Coetzer on Headway U.K. wrote with great insight: “brain injury survivors and their family members often find traditional approaches and support networks are unable to adequately address the problem. Reaching the acceptance stage is difficult and by no means a certainty, but after brain injury things can be further complicated by the unfamiliar, complex and often unpredictable effects of the condition…

“From a more academic perspective, factors such as time since injury, awareness, family support, pre-injury personality traits, social networks, and severity of the injury can all influence the person’s experience of grief.

“Furthermore, there is often a focus in the literature on the loss of ‘how things were’, but again, as a clinician, working psychotherapeutically I also often hear about the grief regarding the loss of ‘what might have been’, were it not for the injury.”