Family Support after Brain Injury: Empathy and Compassion – Part 2

How do we understand family support  after brain injury, when we are all different? Each of our families work differently, whether a family member has experienced a major trauma, such as brain injury, or not.

Last week, the discussion was about the responses and reactions family might have when a family member has a brain injury.

Understanding this, is a starting point to having a family sensitive approach to family support after brain injury. Now we can discuss how we provide family support after brain injury, when not only each family is different, brain injury is different in every person.

Compassion and Empathy

How to best support family after brain injury? Compassion and empathy, are great foundations.

I believe both these words are very misunderstood in our world today, they seem to be seen as soft, or weak. We will talk more about them in the future. For now, in very simple terms:

Compassion is well described in the principle “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. You will likely have heard this in many different forms; treating others as you would like yourself or those dear to you treated.

Empathy very simply (simply said but difficult to truly do) means putting yourself in an the other person’s (in this case a family member’s) shoes. Thinking from the other person’s place in the world, not your own point of view.

This may sound way too simple, or maybe it sounds way too airy fairy.

Really examining compassion and empathy, and working from these two principles, is a foundation for good work with other people. It is particularly important when working with families after brain injury.

It is not simple, it is not easy, and it needs our ongoing attention. Whether we are beginners in supporting others, or we have been around for years, a valuable part of lifelong learning is to explore and understand what these two words mean for us, and our ability to support others.

Ooops starting to sound a bit pompous.  Here is a more lighthearted, beginners definition of EMPATHY in a short clip from the lovely Audrey Hepburn describing empathy to Fred Astaire in the 1957 movie “Funny Face:

Other People’s Families


Sit for a minute and think about a time in your family, or a family you have been a part of, when things were not going so well for some reason.

Picture that moment in time.

Now imagine a stranger is beamed into the middle of that situation to help one of the family members.

How might you feel about that stranger, and what that stranger was seeing in your family?

What interpretations might the stranger make about what was happening, about you and about your family?

The point of this imagining is, that when we work alongside family after brain injury, we (the supporters) are the strangers.

Alix Kates Shulman wrote a wonderful book “To Love What Is” about the experiences of herself, and husband Scott York, following a traumatic brain injury he sustained falling from a sleeping loft. Alix describes life after this traumatic event, the impact on them both, their relationship, their family and friends, and also the practical day to day life changes.

The following is just one of the many powerful quotes in the book. It is a description of what I have just suggested you imagine. What is it like when a stranger comes into your life and home?

“Anyway whether I like it or not, he won’t permit anyone but me in the bathroom with him; no one knows better than I what he likes to eat; I alone can detect subtle changes in is condition and anticipate his needs. He is mine, and I am his: all others are intruders whom I would never entrust him to and cannot wait to be rid of.”  (Alix Kates Shulman, 2008)

I think this is such a strong and clear explanation of how it can feel for family when a stranger comes along to help. This is what makes being a supporter, and an outsider, such a tricky role. Needed, but not necessarily wanted.

We can assist by really understanding (with compassion and empathy), this reluctance, to allow someone else to care for a family member, and  how we might feel in this situation. This can help you and the family to find a way to make it work successfully. Alix describes several experiences in “To Love What Is” where ‘strangers’ were engaged to help, some successful others not so.

We often think all this is “other” families. Yet it is not “them”; it is not other families; it is not “they are a dysfunctional family”. It is any, and each of us.

Think about how your family might look to others? Maybe to others looking in, we are all dysfunctional families!

Each of our families would most likely have habits, ways of interacting, and lifestyles that outsiders would think odd, different, maybe even damaging. Add a large stressor, such as a family member sustaining a brain injury (whatever the cause), and these factors often become even stronger.

The following clip discusses a bit more about the impact of brain injury on relationships.  ‘How Brain Injury Affects Marriage’ gives a brief picture of the impact on brain injury on partners.

Family Support After Brain Injury

Being with a family, when they are coping with brain injury can be challenging. More so when you are not a skilled counsellor, or family therapist, for most supporters family support after brain injury can seem overwhelming.

From my experience family support after brain injury, and managing challenging behaviour, are the two most requested topics in training sessions throughout my years of running sessions. We will continue to talk about both these topics, and about compassion and empathy in future posts.

What Can You Do:

  • Learn about, explore and practice Compassion and Empathy. You could share your thoughts and learning in the comments here.
  • Find and share resources about Compassion and Empathy – it would be wonderful if you could post comments here with any resources that you find.
  • Meantime next week we will have a final-for-now look (for a while, not forever) at family support after brain injury. We will talk about four starting points to help you to understand, and be sensitive to the needs of family and the person with brain injury.

, ,


  1. In So Many Ways Life Changes after Brain Injury. - Changed Lives, New Journeys - November 20, 2013

    […] partner / spouse may become caregiver. An earlier article HERE refers to the relationship and life changes Alix Kates Shulman and her husband Scott York […]

  2. Open Ears, Open Eyes, Open Mind, Closed Mouth: Supporting Family after Brain Injury - Part 3 - Changed Lives, New Journeys - September 30, 2014

    […] Over the past couple of posts I have talked about being alongside family after brain injury. Firstly the responses and reactions family members might experience and then about responding with empathy and compassion. […]