Question: Last year, my husband was hit from behind by a truck that lost control on ice. In the accident our seven year old niece was killed, our year old niece was injured and their step father was injured. My husband suffered life threatening injures. They didn't believe he would ever walk again but he is. Since the accident there have been nine surgeries and he is now treated for chronic pain, heart issues and high blood pressure. He has gone from a very active hard working man to a person who can't even take off his own socks some evenings. He has been lashing out at me regularly over foolish things. He has been told by the doctors he will never be able to work again at a job he loved. It is getting harder every day to see him at a complete loss. At times he is angry and takes it out on me. Since the accident he has had some short term memory loss, this will cause him to get upset with me when he doesn't remember a conversation. I don't know how to help him or myself. I find myself getting upset easily and crying all the time. I am at a loss as to how to help either of us.
Dr. Amy: I am sure you are heartbroken over the events of the past year. Getting back on track is going to take time and effort, and you can't do it alone. Nor can your husband. Naturally, after so many losses, he is experiencing profound grief. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about grief that comes with death and dying. You might like to read one of her books. Your husband is still living, but your niece died and his old way of life did too.
Dr. Kubler-Ross talks about five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are natural responses to loss. At the same, it's important to note there is no typical response because there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as we are.
In denial, your husband may feel shock, disbelief, numbness. "This can't be happening, not to me." Denial is a helpful defense mechanism because sometimes accepting bad news all at once can be totally overwhelming. Being in denial is a way for the mind to take in the news more slowly.
In anger, he may feel "Why me? It's not fair!" or '"Who is to blame?" Naming it and expressing anger can be healthy and help him move on. But when someone is very angry, they can be more difficult to care for. It's important to remain a little detached and nonjudgmental. His anger is not about you.
Bargaining is about hope that somehow they current reality can be avoided.
Depression can come on when your husband realizes his old life is really gone. He may wonder why anything is worth the bother since he's lost so much. He may become silent or withdrawn. It's natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage. This shows he is starting to accept his losses. As difficult and painful as it is, he is on the road to healing when he lets himself feel all these tough feelings and work through them. If it lasts too long or becomes too painful, he may need help from his medical doctor or a counsellor to work through it.
Acceptance is the ultimate goal. Hopefully, your husband will come to accept the past and begin to create a new and better life for himself. It may sound hard to believe right now.
I offer the above in the hopes that it helps you see your husband's reactions through the lens of grief and grieving, and gives you a better understanding of why he is acting the way he is acting. Now let's look a the more practical ideas to help with the day-to-day:
I encourage you both to join a grief support group. You can find one near you by doing a Google search, or by calling your local hospital.
You and your husband may find it helpful to have a counsellor coach you through this grief process. You are likely struggling with your family's losses as much as your husband, and you need to look after your own emotional wellbeing.
It's a good idea for your husband talk to his doctor about his feelings and his short term memory loss. It is always wise to seek medical help when we experience a shift in our health or level of functioning, to rule out any underlying condition.
I send you strength.
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