5 Things NOT to Say to Someone with a Brain Injury
1. I wouldn't have know you had an accident unless you told me.
This is by far the most common observation people make aloud to someone with a brain injury. While it could be meant as a compliment, it is quite the opposite. This is like saying, "I can tell something happened to you, but let's just pretend it is not THAT bad. Okay?"
Often known as the invisible injury, a brain injury can indeed camouflage the underlying physical, mental, and emotional trauma. Many people with brain injury feel they constantly have to compensate for what "normal." This produces a great amount of stress. Yet, the nurturing support of others is an important part of recovery and healing.
ALTERNATIVE - I cannot imagine what you've had to overcome...you are a fighter.
2. Let me do that for you
Offering help is a noble gesture that may be appropriate depending on a situation. For example, if someone falls or cannot reach an object, he may need assistance. Observe body language to determine if the person looks frustrated or seems anxious. These are clear indicators that additional support may be needed and likely welcomed. Whenever in doubt, it is okay to say, "I am here if you need me". Just don't overstate your intention to help.
Take a second to evaluate the situation before you act. If there is an opportunity for you to guide the person towards helping themselves, do it. One of the most empowering questions you could ask a person is "How do you think you can help yourself to...?"
Everyone likes to feel independent. There is not greater satisfaction than the feeling we get when WE CAN do something on our own. People with brain injury may not always do things as fast as others. Speed is relative to their ability to move faster, think faster, eat faster, etc. Be patient and resist the temptation of helping someone that can help himself, even if it takes them a little longer.
ALTERNATIVE - Observe, guide, facilitate.
3. You are so lucky to be alive
Hmm...would you feel lucky if you weren't be able to walk, communicate with your loved ones, think on your own, or drive yourself to where you want to go? Under normal conditions most of us feel grateful to be alive, but brain injury oftentimes leads to depression. Suddenly, you do not feel that lucky anymore. Actually, quite the opposite. Depression can lead to feelings of intense sadness, unhappiness, and isolation. Many brain injury survivors have described feeling trapped in their own mind and/or body. Things that once were easy, may seem nearly impossible after a brain injury. Lucky, NOT.
Generally, people do not like to be singled out as "the lucky one." Well, unless you are in the Forbes list of the Richest Men In America. I've met people with brain injury that suffered terrible accidents in which other lives were lost. Feelings of grief and guilt surrounding their own survival are sometimes in conflict with each other. Rather than generalizing it as the luck of the draw, acknowledge the importance of someone's presence in your life. This makes us feel connected, as if we matter to others. More importantly, we feel loved.
ALTERNATIVE - I am happy you are here. I am so grateful to be your friend.
5. Everything will be okay.
Really? Unless we are zapped by a mysterious force of nature, our ability to predict the future is limited at best. No one know this better than a brain injury survivor. Life as they knew it, changed in an instant. I can understand having hope and faith, but predictions can be tricky, especially when it comes to our overall health. Different to cancer and/or other diseases that are well researched, brain injury cannot be generalized as a disease with specific symptom(s), treatment(s), and diagnosis. All brain injuries are different. This is why brain injured people are often compared to snowflakes- not one is the same as the other.
This is similar to saying, "You will be cured soon enough."
We sometimes believe that by relating our own experience to someone who is sharing their sorrow, the person will feel better. Yet, it is not about us. By acknowledging that life can be difficult we instantly value the other persons' feelings instead of minimizing and/or ignoring their concern. Be honest.
It is great to be positive and uplifting but unless you are walking on someone else's shoes, do not pretend to know more than they do. Sometimes things are okay, other times, they suck. The brain injury recovery process is not linear. Initial stages of brain injury recovery can be frustrating and highly unpredictable. Two steps forward, five steps back. Not everything is rainbows and unicorns.
ALTERNATIVE - One a day at a time.