Key Takeaways

    • Early on, you may put your own needs on the back burner and focus solely on the survival and well-being of your loved one.
    • Caregiving can be rewarding, scary, exhausting, and stressful at the same time. Don’t be afraid to ask family and friends for help with everyday tasks. You are not alone.
    • As your loved one becomes more independent, you also adjust your role from caregiver to champion to co-survivor. Importantly, you may become able to better prioritize self-care.
    • Communication between you and your partner is key in navigating to your new normal.
Will our relationship ever go back to normal?

Cardiac arrest and the associated trauma to both you and your loved one can take a toll on your relationship with your partner. Of course, you’re grateful for their survival. But, throughout the journey, you may feel conflicted about your emotions about what happened to your loved one and what happened to you. In this article by co-survivors for co-survivors, you’ll learn how others like you processed their feelings to find the new normal in their relationship.

What has happened?

When your partner suffers cardiac arrest, you experience a sudden and life-changing event that can be traumatic, regardless of whether you witnessed it or not. Your life changes in a heartbeat.

Every person’s experience is unique, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel. Initially, you may feel scared, helpless, or even shocked. Your focus turns to the survival and well-being of your partner, and you put your own needs on the back burner. You may feel like you’re watching from the sidelines, hoping your loved one can overcome each hurdle in their race back to health.

Once your partner is out of grave danger, you experience a sense of immense relief that their life has been spared. However, you know that the journey is far from over. Seeking information and knowledge to process what’s happened and reduce uncertainty about the future is important. You may feel upset and worried, as your partner may seem disconnected, agitated, confused, and not the person they once were. This can be particularly challenging in the early weeks of their recovery, and you may wonder if this is the new normal. The truth is that it’s too early to know. Be patient and hopeful. The human body and brain have an incredible capacity to heal, and recovery after cardiac arrest is often measured in months or even years.

Taking on the role of a co-survivor

When your partner comes home, your role, in most cases, will be to provide caregiving. Suddenly, you take on a vital part of your partner’s recovery, from nutrition to medications to their physical safety, in some cases. Caregiving can be rewarding, scary, exhausting, moving, and stressful all at the same time. You may feel unprepared in your new situation and completely responsible for your partner’s medical care, in addition to other tasks you previously shared. 

It’s in this familiar home setting that you may begin to process the magnitude of what you almost lost and what you did lose. Think about the most basic of human needs: breathing, the security of physical health, and safety. These are foundational to your psychological well-being. When your security is suddenly ripped out from under you, everything feels in disarray. Understanding this can help you rebuild your sense of security and confidence in handling challenging moments. You are resilient.

Co-survivor insight: “When we both understood that our foundational security had been rocked, that was an “Aha!” moment and a turning point for us about six months into our recovery after cardiac arrest. That’s when we started looking forward instead of backward.”

Managing the unexpected

Healing is a process that doesn’t follow a linear path. There may be ups and downs along the way. Medications may need to be adjusted, or there could be unexpected trips to the hospital. Perhaps additional testing or treatment is needed. These moments can be stressful, scary, and disruptive. They can also create tension in the relationship. Medical scares may bring back the initial trauma of cardiac arrest.

Co-survivor insight: “My husband returned to the hospital twice within the first month of coming home. The first time [was] just two days after discharge due to chest pain – a false alarm. He’d been on pain meds in [the] hospital for his broken ribs caused by CPR but was not sent home with any. Easy fix. The second time, he returned via ambulance for another one-week stay to recalibrate his meds that caused a low heart rate and fainting. My husband learned early on to listen to his body, and we get things checked out. Sometimes you do have to reason away any reluctance.”

Throughout your journey, you may feel a combination of unsettling and unexpected emotions:

    • Gratitude that your partner survived when most do not
    • Grief for what you fear you may have lost and an uncertain future
    • Guilt for feeling grief when you think you should only be grateful

It’s okay to let yourself feel your true emotions. Try not to be too hard on yourself. You are entitled to feel a range of emotions. Only you are walking this unfamiliar and winding path. You don’t yet know where it will lead. When you feel at your wit’s end, try to find comfort and strength in how far you and your partner have already come. As the saying goes, “Recovery is not a sprint. It’s a marathon” with hurdles along the way.

Remember to prioritize your own self-care, too. Reach out for help when you need it, whether it’s from friends, family, or a professional. Take time for yourself to recharge, and try to maintain a healthy balance between caregiving and other aspects of your life. Be patient with yourself and your partner, and celebrate the small victories along the way. You can get through this together.

Fear of intimacy after cardiac arrest

Prior to your partner’s cardiac arrest, you may have had an active sex life. Post cardiac arrest, one or both of you may feel apprehensive out of fear of causing harm. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner’s doctor when you can resume sex. This is a normal feeling and an often-asked question. Try to be understanding of each other’s needs, desires, and fears. Remember, in most cases, exercise is a healthy activity.

Regaining independence and letting go

While cardiac arrest outcomes vary, the hope for every survivor is to recover to their fullest potential and live the most fulfilling and independent life possible. Gradually, your caregiving role may begin to shift. Your partner may start to regain aspects of independence. Perhaps they can manage daily tasks and parts of their healthcare (e.g., medication management, exercise).

As your partner becomes more independent, you also adjust and become more of a mentor and champion on their behalf. As a co-survivor, this can be a wonderful yet anxious time.

Co-survivor protectiveness

For co-survivors, the reference point for life going forward is the cardiac arrest, particularly if they witnessed it. However, for survivors, the reference point is often life before the cardiac arrest – what they used to be. This difference in reference points can lead to different concerns between co-survivors and survivors. From these concerns emerge co-survivor protectiveness, while the survivor feels a sense of entrapment because of restrictions. One of the main reasons for co-survivor protectiveness is a dramatic fear of recurrent cardiac arrest. Other reasons could include the co-survivor’s guilt and a sense that they must take control of the survivor’s life to prevent a recurrence. As a result, many co-survivors do not want to leave the survivor unattended.

For a long time, you may have been their protector, attending to their every need. Your partner may be working hard to regain their own confidence and freedom to get back to life after cardiac arrest. Letting go can be difficult. It’s normal to be hypervigilant, checking on them all the time and panicking if they don’t answer the phone. You may be in a state of constant anxiety and high alertness. Try to work through it with your partner. This time of transition is when many co-survivors start focusing more on their own healing.

Communication is key

A candid discussion on the quality of the relationship with your loved one after cardiac arrest is difficult. You may feel adrift, like a sailboat that’s lost its mast in a storm. Your sailing partner is fighting the waves at one end of the boat, while you are doing the same at the other end. It’s hard to communicate, but it’s necessary. It takes both of you working together in different ways, from different perspectives, to weather the storm. 

To emphasize the power of communication, four years into their recovery journey, a survivor husband shared his perspective with his co-survivor/lay rescuer wife. They found a way to balance their individual feelings and respect each other’s truth. This is their how that conversation went: 

Survivor: “Dying is hard.”  

Co-survivor: “Yes, I bet it is. I can never fully know how you feel. And you can never fully know how I feel. But that’s okay. This happened to both of us in different ways. We both are healing.”

The same but different

Throughout your co-survivor journey, the intensity of your own emotions evolves over time, as does your psychological well-being. 

Some co-survivors indicate they grow into their new normal. They recapture some of the old parts of their relationship and create new parts. In time, that becomes normal. Change is still hard. But co-survivors can learn how to better manage change over time.

Co-survivor insight: “The journey after cardiac arrest is not an easy one for either of us. In ways, we both are very different people today. Only those who have walked in our shoes can understand that we grieve the loss of security and what once was. At the same time, we have so much more in our lives as a result of this experience… so much more… We live differently than before. We make memories that may not have been.”

A special note from the authors to their fellow co-survivors

You can do this! When you think back to the early days after your partner’s cardiac arrest, perhaps you thought you were on the sidelines while your partner was jumping all those hurdles. Far from it. 

We hope you’ll come to realize you’ve been jumping your own hurdles quietly and out of the view of the roaring crowd. 

We see you. You are not alone. 

Throughout the ups and downs of your recovery journey with your partner, never lose sight of just how amazing you are.

Thank you to our contributors

Cindy Marchionda & Jennifer Chap

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