Peer & Family Support Spotlight: Kathy Griffin

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on June 29, 2021 # Peer & Family Support Program

IKathy and TJ Griffin in front of Hamilton Broadwayn the 30 years since her son’s spinal cord injury, Kathy Griffin has learned a lot — and she is grateful to be able to share her knowledge with others.

“It is a unique experience being the parent of someone living with a spinal cord injury,” says Griffin whose son, TJ, sustained a C4-C5 injury in a high school football game. “Each person approaches an injury differently and I think TJ’s positive attitude really helped all of us.”

Ten years ago, TJ joined the Reeve Foundation and is now a program coordinator for the Peer & Family Support Program. Griffin was one of the first mentors to be trained through the program in 2012. Since then, she has spoken with more than 20 parents like herself.

“I usually speak with someone within the first six months of their child’s injury and it always brings back a lot of memories of how I felt,” says Griffin. “My hope is to give parents some guidance and support.”

When TJ was injured in 1990, there weren’t a lot of resources available to families. Now with access to so much information on the internet, Griffin finds that many people do their own research about the basics and what they need from a mentor is often personal and emotional support.

Celeste Monaco is one of the many people Griffin has helped.

“Kathy went out of her way to spend time with me over the phone in regards to my son, James,” says Monaco, whose son is in his mid-20s. “She shared her journey with me, and I found it helpful to speak to someone who gets it as we both have sons that got hurt in a sporting event. Mothers need to have someone to talk to and I have appreciated that.”

Sometimes Griffin will only speak with a peer one time; other times the relationship will continue for years.

“Often people just need to vent and share their frustrations with someone who understands,” says Griffin. “Eventually you need to get to a point where you can look beyond the injury, and I encourage them to be supportive but also give their child space.”

Griffin understands the fine line between treating an adult child with dignity and encouraging your loved one to reach out when they need to ask for help.

“Each person has a unique story and unique connection and you need to learn how to find the right balance,” says Griffin.

Griffin advises parents to make their child feel as normal as they can and to encourage friends to treat them like they always have.

“They are physically handicapped; there is nothing wrong with them mentally,” says Griffin. “You need to help them let everyone know who they are. You need to tell them, ‘you are still you, you are the same,’ that hasn’t changed and won’t.”

She also encourages parents to let their kids make mistakes, just like when they were young.

“They are going to fall out of the chair. There is a learning process that needs to take place. You can’t keep them in a bubble. Let them try to be themselves and learn the boundaries of what they need and when to ask for help,” says Griffin.

Following this approach at home, she is amazed with all the things TJ has done that she never thought would be possible.

“Don’t close any doors. There are so many things they can do, they may just need to do them differently,” says Griffin.

In speaking with other parents over the years, Griffin thinks that the biggest takeaway she can offer others is the knowledge that they are not alone. She also cautions parents not to drop everything and only focus on the injured child.

“You can’t close yourself off. To be a healthy person, you need to do all that you can to stay connected with others. If you don’t, you will, as I like to say, ‘stay injured,’” says Griffin. “You have other people in your family. It is ok to focus on one family member for a little while, but then you need to get back to normal.”

Even after 30 years, Griffin says she is still learning new ways to help, and she looks forward to continuing to support others on their journey.

You can request a Peer & Family Support Program mentor here.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.