It's easy to see, that if something bad happens to us, we are afraid it will happen again. If it’s something really bad, like a heart attack or cardiac arrest, the survivor can expect to suffer some real physical, psychological, and emotional repercussions – perhaps even a PTSD response – because they have come face to face with their own mortality. The cardiologist or cardiac nurse expects that many of their patients will have anxiety, depression, or fear about what will happen next as the patient’s body and mind deals with the trauma of a near death experience, but what about the spouse or significant other? What can they do about the trauma that they’ve been through?
I’m always bewildered when I meet a couple where the patient tells the story as if it were a scene in a movie – totally unaffected – but the spouse or loved one, completely traumatized, sits in silence – emotionally devastated by the mere thought of what they have just experienced. Often, the patient was in a coma or otherwise unaware of how sick they were or how close to death, but the spouse or on-looker sat at the bedside living through uncertain terror as their loved one struggled each day to cling to life
I began my nursing career taking care of my dear mother who had kidney failure and, as a result, have often contemplated this question: what is worse, going through a serious illness yourself, or watching helplessly as someone you love struggles in a day-to-day battle to survive? Your heart breaks as you fight to find a way to ease the pain or make the suffering stop. You witness a great deception as the body you once trusted to protect the soul and very being of the one you love turns into weakness, sickness – demanding incredible amounts of attention, as it becomes a source of agony and uncertainty rather than the strong walls of wellness that once housed them.
We can easily see how the survivor’s life has changed as they deal with the fear of having another heart attack or wonder how much exertion it will take to trigger another one. They have questions about how this heart condition will affect their sex life or their ability to do the things they always enjoyed doing? The on-looker’s life has also changed as they deal with, not only their own emotions and fears, but that of their loved one. Often the survivor is given a certain grace that helps them cope, but the on-looker suffers alone. Like the adrenaline flood or shock response that helps victims of a traumatic accident – all the on-looker can do is apply an emotional tourniquet and hope for the best.
I can still recall my own experience when my husband had his heart attack. I was never so scared in my life. I remember sitting in a dark waiting room in shock, crying out to God for His mercy, while David was in the cath lab. A nurse came out at one point, held my hand, and let me know that all was going well. I could not hold back the tears as that flood of emotions erupted, and as I thanked God for being so present with us, I wondered if that nurse knew how much that simple act of kindness helped me.
For months afterward I lived with the trauma of what we’d both been through and though I knew my first priority was to build confidence in my husband, it was important that we both faced our individual fears together. We encouraged each other and it was understood that if I texted or called him and he didn’t answer quickly, I would be calling 911. Consideration from David of simple things like texting me when he was going to take a shower or be incommunicado really let me know he understood what I was going through. Being there for each other was a big factor in helping us both deal with the fear and trauma of nearly losing what we had.
I wish I could say I had an easy solution for you on this one, but these can be complex and emotionally charged issues that are difficult to address. However, if you recognize that you’re suffering the effects of on-looker trauma, I think you’ve already accomplished the first step toward healing. The truth is, we are in uncharted territory here because most people who experience this are too afraid to say anything and seldom ask for help in deference to their loved one.
My advice to you is, tell your spouse or loved one how you feel and partner together to bring a solution. Take advantage of the support available to them. Talk to their cardiologist, join them in their cardiac rehab program as much as possible, if there are patient support groups available, offer to go with them – meeting with others that have been through the same thing can be a big help. If you don’t feel able to share your feelings with your spouse, talk to your own doctor in private or seek counseling from a professional or perhaps from a friend you trust.
Most of all, be encouraged knowing that marvelous things can happen through great difficulty. Just as muscle is built through exercise and hard work, relationships can be strengthened by going through problems together. Your loved one has survived something that not everyone does, so now you both have the God-given opportunity to appreciate all you have together by demonstrating love to each other over the course of each day given to you. Over time, the heart will heal – you will be able to trust it again, and you will have gained a new understanding of the precious fragility of life. Now you can be the on-looker that witnesses new wonders as healing replaces hurt and peace overwhelms the trauma you’ve experienced.