Key Takeaways

    • Slow down the pace and take care of yourself. 
    • Lean into the idea of a new normal. 
    • Find a way to make some good out of all of this.
How do I cope and find balance?

When a loved one is in the hospital after cardiac arrest, adjusting to your new reality and navigating your role as a co-survivor can be incredibly challenging. In this guide, we offer personal tips to help you cope and find balance during this difficult time. 

Having a loved one in the ICU is complicated, and getting back to “real” life is also hard in different ways. Here are some of the learnings that we hope will help you navigate your role as a co-survivor in the hospital and beyond. Be gentle with yourself. This journey is not going to be easy. 

Write things down

Use the Notes application on your phone or a physical notebook to write down your questions and the answers you receive from doctors, nurses, and other members of the medical care team. Write down any new medications and procedures and what they are for.  Make a log of daily events – both ups and downs. Even with the best of intentions, you can’t remember everything, and having a notebook to record things may help you feel more in control. This process of writing down daily events, changes, and facts, also known as an ICU diary, has been shown to help reduce some of the residual emotional trauma after all this is over. You might not share this with the survivor, but the process of writing will help you get the negative thoughts out and help you sleep better.

Slow things down

Changing your pace will also help you feel more in control. Take a breath. Actually, take the time to wash your hair or sit down for a meal. This will make you feel better in the long run, and a few extra minutes won’t hurt. Instead of a rushed conversation with the care team, make sure you say, “Do you have a moment for me to check my notes? I want to make sure I don’t miss anything.”

Share the burden

Sharing the burden means telling people what’s going on and also letting them help you.

Co-survivor insight: “For me, in the hospital setting, this meant telling a nurse that I wanted to breastfeed and was having trouble. They connected me with a lactation consultant.”     

Let your friends set up a meal train for you. After being in an ICU and hospital building with cold temperatures all day, it can be healing to have a hot, home-cooked meal. Being direct about what you need, when you need it, is the best way forward for you and the person trying to help you. What you really need and what others think you may need can be different. Be direct, tell them what will make you comfortable, and see if they can assist.


Besides showering and eating a full meal, what else do you need to function optimally? For some, this might include reading or watching a movie. Others might need a full eight hours of sleep or a particular exercise regimen. Physical activity, especially walking, is key to staying healthy. You must take care of yourself before you can care for anyone else. As they advise you in an airplane, you must put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others. That is true here as well.

Mourn what you are missing

New mothers with babies in the pediatric intensive care unit are told that it’s okay to mourn the new baby experience that they didn’t have. Similarly, in whatever stage of life you find yourself, it is okay for you to say, “This is not how I wanted things to go,” and be sad about that.

Lean into the idea of a new normal

Recognizing that life is different now, you can still engage with all the things that you planned to do, but accept that they may look a little different than what you had expected. Different doesn’t have to mean less meaningful.

Pay attention to your mental health and seek support

You might not have the time or capacity to seek out mental health support when your loved one is in the hospital. You could seek hospital resources including social workers, nurses, chaplains, or the palliative care team, to name a few. There are many free meditation applications that you can also download on your phone, or you can visit the chapel in the hospital for a quiet, safe space. Unfortunately, when we don’t deal with negative or stressful emotions, they can cause other problems in our lives. Eventually, you will need to process everything that has happened, and a support group or therapist could help.

Find a way to make some good out of all of this

Speaking of stress and anxiety, those feelings don’t automatically go away once you leave the hospital. You can keep letting that energy hurt you, or you can redirect it into something more productive, like learning CPR and/or advocating for or training others on how to give CPR or use an AED. Other ideas include putting your energy towards fundraising for a cause that you are passionate about, volunteering at the hospital, or sharing your experiences with others.

Supporting a loved one in the hospital and transitioning back to “real” life can be a challenging and emotional journey. By following these personal tips and focusing on self-care, open communication, and mental health support, you can better navigate your role as a co-survivor. Remember to be gentle with yourself and take the time to process your emotions, adapt to your new normal, and find ways to make something positive out of the experience. By doing so, you can not only support your loved one, but also maintain your own well-being during this difficult time.

Thank You to Our Contributors

Alessandra Dinin & Matthew Douma

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