Tammy McLeod: “I wish that someone would have warned me that grief can isolate because people grieve in different ways”

I wish that more people would have just listened to my pain without trying to solve my problems, fix me, or read their autobiography into my life. I found it difficult to listen to people when they shared ideas of new procedures to help Zach recover when I had already tried these ideas, or when they […]

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I wish that more people would have just listened to my pain without trying to solve my problems, fix me, or read their autobiography into my life.

I found it difficult to listen to people when they shared ideas of new procedures to help Zach recover when I had already tried these ideas, or when they told me if I just had more faith Zach would be fully healed, or when they said they could relate to me and then launched into their story of pain. What helped most was people just listening.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tammy McLeod.

Tammy and her husband Pat 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?

During my sophomore year in college my sorority president asked me three tough questions: “Why are you here? Where are you going? What really makes you happy?” Over Christmas break, I tried to write out the answer to my friend’s questions.

I began writing about growing up in a loving family, being surrounded by many friends and having a great boyfriend. Then I made a list of accomplishments in academics, athletics, sorority, music, and student government. I thought in those accomplishments I would find the answers to my friend’s questions, but as I reflected and wrote, I realized that these accomplishments did not bring fulfillment or happiness. All they did was keep me too busy to realize the emptiness I felt deep inside. I crumpled the papers on which I was writing and threw them across the floor crying, “What is missing?” The persons who came alongside me and helped answer those questions were chaplains who did then what I do now. After college, I felt called to help students do what chaplains did for me.

What drew me to writing and speaking about ambiguous loss in particular is that twelve years ago, my sixteen-year-old son suffered a massive traumatic brain injury playing high school football and became severely disabled for life. I read numerous books on grief, but they didn’t help much because my son had not died. In the process of my graduate studies I came across the term ambiguous loss — both having and not having a person the way we once had them. I dove into the research and it has provided resources to increase my resilience and to ease the strain on my marriage. Now I enjoy helping others learn what ambiguous loss is, why it is called the most stressful type of loss, and how they can be resilient in it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Ever since I learned about ambiguous loss and resilience, I had hoped it would become a household phrase. I knew ambiguous loss was ubiquitous — that everyone would experience it at some point in their life, but I never dreamed that nearly everyone on the planet would be thrust into ambiguous loss — all at the same time — due to a pandemic.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Since Covid-19 appeared on the scene, my husband and I have trained thousands of people to increase their resilience in ambiguous loss through online webinars, radio interviews, podcasts, and blogs. One very simple yet profoundly effective exercise that has helped people learn to hold “having and not having” together involves “lost and found” jars (or boxes) — an idea that originated at L’Abri in Massachusetts.

In a recent large group Zoom meeting with Harvard students, I asked them to retrieve two jars. We each labeled one container Lost and one Found. In small groups, we took five minutes silently to write our losses on slips of paper and place them in our Lost jar. We did the same with our Found jar, and finally we shared with each other what we wrote. Students were relieved to name their losses in the company of friends and to find that the pain that they are experiencing has a name.

As I have repeated this simple exercise with many groups, I have been encouraged to see how powerful it can be at helping people better live with the paradox of both having and not having at the same time.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I think the best way to answer how someone was impacted or helped by our teaching about ambiguous loss is to quote someone who wrote to us:

“A couple years ago, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. What followed was a year of doctor’s appointments, care, and treatment before she passed away. That whole year, we experienced incredible loss and grief, but ‘loss’ felt like the wrong word. My mom was still with us and we still made great memories that year.

My friends, Pat and Tammy McLeod, gave me words to describe this experience. They call it ‘Ambiguous Loss.’ And they have lived it.

In the fall of 2008, their son Zach experienced a traumatic brain injury while playing high school football. In an instant, their world changed. Even after heroic surgeries in some of the best hospitals in the world, Zach never fully recovered. And in the month and years that followed, my friends Pat and Tammy celebrated that Zach still had his personality, love for Jesus, love for his family and friends, but also grieved all of the losses — no short- term memory, limited ability to speak, walk on his own, live on his own, etc.

And for them, learning about the concept of ‘Ambiguous Loss’ was a huge help. It let them celebrate the Zach they still had while acknowledging all the future hopes that they had lost.

For me, walking with my mom through Cancer, and now continuing to grieve even years after she has passed away, it has been hard. But watching Pat and Tammy walk through this ahead of me has given me language and categories to process ambiguous loss, and the grief that goes with it.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, I would love to see educators, medical professionals, therapists, social workers, and clergy equipped to share Pauline Boss’ definition of ambiguous loss:

PHYSICAL ABSENCE with Psychological Presence

Examples: Missing people due to war, terrorism, natural disasters, kidnapping, incarceration, divorce, adoption, immigration.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ABSENCE with Physical Presence

Examples: Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, traumatic brain injury, chronic mental illness, addictions- drugs, alcohol, gambling.

Second, I would love to them explain to others a few of Boss’ basics about ambiguous loss:

  1. Resilience comes from learning to live well with both having and not having the person the way they once had them.
  2. It is the most stressful type of loss.
  3. There is no linear process of letting go, rarely is there acceptance, and there is never closure.

Third, it would be powerful if they did the following:

  1. Validate peoples’ ambiguous losses
  2. Encourage them to create ceremonies or rituals
  3. Share Boss’ books that show how to be resilient in ambiguous loss:
  4. finding meaning
  5. adjusting mastery
  6. reconstructing identity
  7. normalizing ambivalence
  8. revising attachments
  9. discovering hope

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think Jesus of Nazareth showed through his life what great leadership looks like. He spoke truth, extended grace, served, and cared for the marginalized. He modeled what he wanted others to do, and loved people when they failed. He grieved loss, and provided for peoples’ needs — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He was humble yet strong, courageous yet kind, and brilliant yet patient. I hope to follow his example.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

When our son became severely disabled for life from a football accident:

  • I wish that someone in the hospitals would have explained to me the type of loss we were experiencing.

It took six years for me to hear about ambiguous loss. Just having a name for what I was dealing with helped a lot. When I read the literature on ambiguous loss, I finally felt understood.

  • I wish that someone would have warned me that grief can isolate because people grieve in different ways.

My husband focused on the things that remained the same about our son after his tragic football injury, and I focused on what we had lost. This put pressure on our marriage. Early on, we really would have benefitted from someone explaining that becoming isolated in grief is normal.

  • I wish that someone would have told me earlier about having ambiguous loss ceremonies or rituals.

Having a ceremony of ambiguous loss was healing for us, our children, and the adults and children in our son’s life. It took six years to find literature that explained the importance of having ceremonies in ambiguous loss. We could have received this healing earlier if we had only known.

  • I wish that someone would have encouraged me to not always grieve alone but with others.

I needed time to grieve alone and greatly appreciated the solitude and silence, but I wish I would have grieved more with others earlier and let them hold the pain with me.

  • I wish that more people would have just listened to my pain without trying to solve my problems, fix me, or read their autobiography into my life.

I found it difficult to listen to people when they shared ideas of new procedures to help Zach recover when I had already tried these ideas, or when they told me if I just had more faith Zach would be fully healed, or when they said they could relate to me and then launched into their story of pain. What helped most was people just listening.

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. 🙂

I wish millions of people around the world would be able to learn about ambiguous loss, so that they could help others be resilient in it. Those suffering would find meaning in tragedy. Marriages would stay strong and grow instead of breaking up. Family relationships would remain close through pain, and as people grieve they would find hope in God.

Another movement I would like to see is people who:

  1. know the dangers of head injuries in football
  2. grieve their losses together in community
  3. help Americans see that the sport of tackle football is not worth the damage to players’ brains and lives, nor the damage to the lives of the spouses, children, friends, and extended family of the players.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The quote that has had the greatest impact on my life since my son’s brain injury is by Jerry Sittser:

“The experience of loss does not have to leave us with the memory of a painful event that stands alone, like a towering monument that dominates the landscape of our lives. Loss can also leave us with the memory of a wonderful story. It can function as a catalyst that pushes us in a new direction, like a closed road that forces us to turn around and find another way to our destination. Who knows what we will discover and see along the way? The suffering my children, family, friends, and I have experienced is part of an ongoing story that is still being written. . . . The loss was not simply the ending of something good; it was also the beginning of something else. And that has turned out to be good, too.”

In the midst of tremendous pain and loss, I needed to see that just because our family had endured tragedy, it didn’t mean that our life was ruined. Instead, the suffering we had endured could lead to a beautiful story that also turned out to be good.

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. 🙂

It would be a pleasure to have a private breakfast with Kathie Lee Gifford since she shares our faith and went through the same type of loss with her husband who played football in the NFL.

It would be a privilege to hear her ideas of how we could get the word out about ambiguous loss and resilience in it. Also, it would be an honor to hear about the suffering she endured because of football. She may have ideas of how to create a movement of football players and families that could help alleviate suffering in the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Website: https://patandtammymcleod.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/patandtammymcleod

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/patandtammymcleod/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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