I wish someone had taught me how to mourn. — Being white, straight, middle-class, American, and male has shielded me from a lot of life’s pain and many occasions for mourning. Whenever I experience physical, emotional, or relational pain, I have learned to deal with it by denying that it is there. Not only was I never taught how to mourn; I was taught not to mourn. The mantras of my childhood included: “Big boys don’t cry!” “Tough it out!” “Show no visible sign of weakness!” “Focus on the positive!”
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pat McLeod.
Pat and his wife Tammy McLeod coauthored the book Hit Hard: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was — and Learning to Live Well with What Is in which they share their journey into the world of ambiguous loss that began after their son suffered a traumatic brain injury playing football. Pat and Tammy serve as Harvard Chaplains for Cru, an interdenominational Christian ministry. They are founding members of the Mamelodi Initiative in the township of Mamelodi, South Africa — a project that connects Harvard students with at-risk youth in a mentoring and educational program to prepare them for college.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Even though my family was not particularly religious, I always felt tethered to questions about life’s meaning and purpose — questions about the source of hope and what makes that source reliable.
In college, I began to wrestle with these questions within a community of student athletes led by a chaplain. After graduating, I taught science and coached high school football, but soon realized that I wasn’t the only one wrestling with those questions. What I most loved about my job was passing along to others the same lessons, experiences, and practices that had transformed my life.
By the end of the year, it was clear that no vocation could be more satisfying to me than coming alongside of people and helping them to be formed and transformed by their faith. We joined the staff of Cru — an international, interdenominational Christian organization.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Two months after becoming a chaplain at Harvard a student from the school newspaper asked to interview me for an article about the various Christian groups on campus. I showed up dressed in a maroon cardigan sweater draped over the top of an off-white turtle-neck shirt. I was going for the safe and trustworthy Mr. Rogers look. It didn’t quite work. In the article he described me as having committed “a Christian fashion no-no!”
Ever since, my wife, Tammy, has insisted that I have a student go through my wardrobe every couple of years and throw out all of my “Christian fashion no-no’s.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Two years after arriving in Boston, I spoke at a conference on one of Jesus’ most outlandish statements, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
After the talk someone approached me and began pelting me with questions. “Have you ever really suffered? Have you ever lost someone you love? Have you ever really mourned?”
Judging from the look on his face and the tone in his voice, he wasn’t asking a question. He was making a statement. He clearly had no interest in having someone who had never really suffered lecture him about grief.
He was right. Who was I to talk about the blessed sacredness of mourning? I had never really mourned.
That all began to change six years later when I received a phone call that informed me that my 16-year-old son had collapsed on the football field and was being airlifted to a hospital to undergo emergency brain surgery. The privileged life that had insulated me from pain, suffering, and mourning ended that day and my first experiential understanding of what Jesus may have meant by “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” began.
Can you describe how you are making a significant social impact?
I take great joy in hearing about the ways that our smaller story of pain and loss has drawn others into a deeper understanding of the message of hope, meaning, redemption, peace and joy — that state of blessedness — that Jesus referenced in his most famous sermon.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Six years after Zach’s accident, on the day that falls between the anniversary his injury and his birthday we hosted two events. One event was a huge birthday party celebrating the Zach we still have. Prior to that event, we held a ceremony of remembrance with our family and closest friends, but without Zach. Together we mourned the losses that accompanied Zach’s traumatic brain injury. At the end of the ceremony two participants who were initially put-off by the idea of holding the “funeral-like” ceremony said, one with tears running down his face, “Thank you for doing this. I needed it way more than I thought.”
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1) Read and tell redemptive stories.
Pauline Boss insists that religion and spirituality can help us deal with ambiguous loss. Religion is the bastion of redemptive stories. These stories give us hope, and finding hope grows resilience in the midst of ambiguous loss.
2) Probe the riches of our religious traditions when it comes to grief, our mortality, and what it means to die well.
The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with teaching, prayers, stories about mourning — 1/3 of the Psalms and an entire book of the Bible are about lament. At the center of the Christian story is a someone who shows up at a close friends funeral and weeps and who suffers a tortuous death.
3) Beware of the insidious effects of radical individualism.
We are made from the material of our communal lives. Work hard at keeping your relationships in good repair, particularly when dealing with loss.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
“Blessed are those who mourn,” was not the only outlandish statement Jesus made. His teaching about leadership was equally radical. He once admonished his followers, “Don’t let anyone call you leader.” When his band of followers began to quarrel about the pecking order in their movement, he said that in this world people tend to measure greatness by how many serve you, but in the kingdom of God greatness is measured by how many you serve. That vision of leadership challenges and motivates me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In A Grief Disguised, C.S. Lewis says, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
I am often asked if the tragic losses related to Zach’s injury has led me to doubt my faith. The honest answer is that I have often doubted and wrestled with God’s existence, but ironically never in the in the context of Zach’s injury. To the contrary, I have never felt as close to God as I have in the midst of this loss. However, the God who met me in the midst of my pain was not the philosophers God — the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle, for example. It was the suffering God I meet in the pages of the Bible.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) I wish someone had taught me how to mourn.
Being white, straight, middle-class, American, and male has shielded me from a lot of life’s pain and many occasions for mourning. Whenever I experience physical, emotional, or relational pain, I have learned to deal with it by denying that it is there. Not only was I never taught how to mourn; I was taught not to mourn. The mantras of my childhood included: “Big boys don’t cry!” “Tough it out!” “Show no visible sign of weakness!” “Focus on the positive!”
Not surprisingly, when tragedy hit our family, I was at a loss myself on how to mourn, and I wasn’t there in the way that I wanted to be for my family.
2) I wish someone had been able to name the kind of loss we were experiencing.
Our son, Zach, survived five brain surgeries, but portions of his brain did not. Our marriage, family, and faith also survived, but everything changed.
Tammy and I struggled for 6 years with those changes and our two very different responses to our loss. Tammy mourned as if Zach had died, but struggled to revise her attachment to the Zach who lived. I lived in complete denial of the loss, but obsessed over the son we still had.
Tammy consumed every grief book she could find, but none of them connected with the kind of loss we were experiencing. After several years she came across the research of Dr. Pauline Boss who described the situation of both having and not having someone the way you once had them. She named it “ambiguous loss.”
3) I wish I had known what it was about ambiguous loss that made it “the most stressful kind of loss.”
Boss’s research not only validated our loss by giving it a name, but helped us better understand and better manage what it was that made it so stressful personally and relationally. Finding closure is already enormously difficult with an ordinary loss, but it is nearly impossible with ambiguous loss. In the absence of a ceremony — e.g., a funeral — that socially validated our loss, we were left to either live in denial like I did, or become frozen in a grief like Tammy did.
4) I wish someone had told me the key to dealing with ambiguous loss.
The key to growing your resilience in ambiguous loss involves learning to live well with both having and not having someone at the same time. That’s not easy to do. We tend to do one, or the other, but not both. It’s even more complicated when two people are experiencing the same loss and one is doing one and the other is doing the other. That was our experience and is the major conflict running through the story Hit Hard: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was — and Learning to Live Well with What Is.
5) I wish someone could have shared a story that validated our struggle and gave us hope.
We wrote the book that we wished someone could have given us in the first year of our journey into the unknown world of ambiguous loss.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Napoleon once said, “I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world, there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love, and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.”
I would like to inspire a return to that kind of Jesus — not one that has been politicized on the right or the left; not one that allows you to justify a kind of triumphalism; and not one that has been used to create artificial boundaries between different kinds of people — but the Jesus who consistently centered himself on the love of God and pushing our boundaries of moral concern outside of ourselves to others — including our enemies.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Ellen DeGeneres — I would love for Ellen to meet Zach. She strikes me as an extraordinarily empathetic and authentic daytime television host. Zach is by far the most empathetic person I have ever known. Ellen seem right up there with him in the empathy category and like Zach she loves to dance. They would be soulmates for life. I know she would fall in love with him.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!