Essay: What do birthdays mean after tragedy?

As you probably know, I’m a survivor of a nearly fatal accident that resulted in a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and other injuries. This happened nearly three years ago. I am healing and have worked very hard to get where I am today. In nine days I will turn 40. I would like to discuss in this monthly essay how after surviving near death (or trauma) birthdays take on a different meaning.

I have never been one of those people who hid their age from people or lied about it in an attempt to appear younger. I’ve come across several people like that in recent years and never fully understood it. By refusing to tell your age or hiding that information it brings much more attention to it (in my opinion). So I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m about to turn 40. After my accident, birthdays have also taken on a different meaning. They were always joyous but now they’re special because they signify another year lived.

I think as I move through my recovery and healing process I realize that my attitude really shapes my healing process. It affects how I heal and how others respond to me.

So I’ve developed an informal list of tips on celebrating (birthdays or any special celebratory occasion) after you have personally survived a traumatic event.

Don’t put expectations on yourself as to “who” you’re going to be or what life events you will achieve by certain milestones: In society there can be expectations on what life mile markers a person should hit and when (e.g. By the time I’m 40 I will have: X number of kids, be married and have a career doing X and making X amount of $). This is a big one. And perhaps encompasses everything on the list. I have fallen into the trap of wanting to achieve certain things by certain age markers. Guess what? No one is keeping track of that. God isn’t up there raising His/Her eyebrows that I haven’t gotten married yet at 40. (My deceased maternal grandmother might be sitting next to God shaking her head though.)

Adjust your attitude as well as your expectations. What I mean by this is to go into any celebration joyously. YOU MADE IT TO LIVE ANOTHER DAY AND EXPERIENCE ANOTHER BIRTHDAY. This is perhaps dark at its core because I’m saying embrace another year that you’re here. What I mean is in my case a lot of people have worked hard to get me to this point (myself included) and celebrating another birthday means celebrating the fruits of that labor.

Celebrate for others as well as yourself. In my case my family has been incredibly supportive and involved in every second of my survival and care post-accident. So celebrating another year of my life isn’t just for me. It’s for them too.

Use your birthday as a mile marker in your recovery. For me the last big hurdle (besides my hearing… which I can’t control) is walking and endurance. I have been using my birthday as a touchstone for when I want to hit goals. Last year I wanted to successfully switch from using a walker to a cane by my birthday (I met that goal). This year I want to get rid of the cane. I’ve been working with a personal trainer to help continue my fitness goals post physical therapy and it’s working. I’ve been using my cane less and transitioned to a new collapsible cane. (Remind me to talk about how companies need to be careful when branding products that will be used to aid people with medical needs. My cane is the “Hurrycane.” I dislike the name.) I suppose there is the risk with this one of not hitting the goal and being disappointed. However, I just mean to use the birthday as a motivator. If you don’t hit it just move the goalposts a little and keep striving.

Take this opportunity to be less serious and more jovial (you are celebrating after all). Recovering from near death is serious business. Or it can be. I’m choosing to bask in the celebratory mood in order to justify being silly. Ok. I admit that I’m kind of a goof ordinarily so this is almost an excuse to extend the goofiness! I find that when I make others smile and laugh it makes me feel good (it’s like the surge of endorphins runners get, a “runner’s high” without the physical exertion)! And if you’re looking for examples of my goofiness go to the page on this blog where I’ve archived all my “Watching Pop Culture With My Parents” posts from my old blog. Or my dog’s Instagram (@selbysweetie) or my sister’s dog’s Instagram (@bellajocavalier).

Now, I’m not an expert by any means on recovering after trauma or injury. I just feel like I can speak to what’s working for me and my loved ones. And 1 and 4 might seem like they are fighting against each other. What I mean in number 1 is don’t get into the mental trap of thinking your life is going to look a certain way especially by a certain age or time. Anyone who has survived trauma or chronic illness can tell you that there is a “new normal” and the sooner you accept that the better. What I mean by number 4 is I’m good with deadlines and goals. They help me achieve and have something to strive for. As long your deadlines and goals are reasonable with your conditions and situation and you’re helping yourself by reaching those goals on that timeline.

Here are my tips in a pretty graphic:

Now I’m hungry for cake after making all these graphics.

Laura is turning 40: Let them eat cake!

5 thoughts on “Essay: What do birthdays mean after tragedy?

  1. After my TBI (although it wasn’t referred to as such at the time), milestone events were a huge deal. First birthday, first new year day and of course the anniversary of the accident. these were huge. But it fades in time, so many other things have happened in the 25 years since my accident that it crosses my mind in a different way than “I get to do this now because I survived.” It’s really similar to how I felt after my mother died. At first, *everything* was seen through the prism of her death, and then after years, that also faded. Now I think about her rather than her death.

    One of the biggest moments after my TBI was watching it’s a wonderful life. It was two or three years after the accident and when George Bailey comes back to the world to find a celebration of his life, my wife and I started crying… sobbing really, and we couldn’t stop. You’re probably one of the few people who is likely to understand that.


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Yes, I hadn’t quite thought of the longevity perspective of TBI. But you make some very valid and interesting points. I’m in a TBI support group with some people who had their injuries 20, 40, and 50 years ago. I see them talking about the injury because it’s TBI Support Group but I’m sure they don’t as much in their daily lives. As far as movies, my TBI as leveled out my emotions (especially sadness and crying) however I avoid certain movies anyway (mainly because those I watch them with would get sad).


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