Take Note: Elizabeth and Christian Brady on Sharing Their Grief Through Writing

Aug 7, 2020

Mack Brady was two weeks shy of his ninth birthday when he died unexpectedly from a blood infection on New Year’s Eve in 2012. In the time since, his parents, Elizabeth and Christian Brady, have both used writing as an outlet for their own grief and as a way to help others who are grieving. 

Click here to read some of Elizabeth’s essays. 

Read an excerpt from Christian’s new book, Beautiful and Terrible Things: A Christian Struggle with Suffering, Grief, and Hope:

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note. For WPSU, from my home studio. I'm Lindsey Whissel. Fenton. Mack Brady was two weeks shy of his ninth birthday when he died unexpectedly from a blood infection on New Year's Eve in 2012. In the time since, his parents, Elizabeth and Christian Brady, have both used writing as an outlet for their own grief and a means of helping others who are grieving. Elizabeth is an associate teaching professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State, and a public relations consultant for Penn State's Global Programs. She also serves as a content advisor for WPSU’s Speaking Griefinitiative. Christian is the T.W. Lewis dean of the Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky and previously served as the dean for the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. He's a scholar of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and a priest and the Episcopal Church. Elizabeth and Christian. Thanks for being with us today. 

Christian Brady: You're welcome. It's a pleasure. 

Elizabeth Brady: Thank you, Lindsey

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Writing has been such a big part of your lives and your grief. I mentioned to you that I wanted to start our conversation by asking what word you would use to describe your grief and that sort of acute period after Mack died, and what word you would use to describe it now, almost eight years later. 

Elizabeth Brady:This was an interesting exercise. I actually went through several different words. But I think I the two words, I would think acutely for me would be an amputation. And now we're coming up on eight years that Mack died on New Year's Eve, I would say tender.

Christian Brady: For me, the first months and still there moments of it is disbelief. Just you wake up and it doesn't, you expect things to be the same. And particularly, for us the nature of Mack's death, that it was an illness, but it yet it was abrupt it it wasn't prolonged. We weren't expecting this to happen. We weren't preparing for it. So, disbelief, certainly. And I don't know what word I mean, to be honest grief is probably the word. And part of why maybe I would use the word grief is because of sort of rehabilitating it helping people understand that you don't get over grief. That's what we carry with us forever. 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: In different conversations, I've heard you both say how you each found your own way of doing your grief. What kinds of things were comforting for you or did you turn to? Elizabeth, we'll start with you. 

Elizabeth Brady:I am a morning person. Mack and I were always up in the morning. And so, it was very disorienting in those first few weeks. It's very, you know, the rug is just pulled out from under you and, as you try to find yourself again, I came back to my routine, which I had been in that routine for years. You know, coming to get my coffee and coming to my spot to write in the morning. And, so, I came back to it again. I think that's part of it is like finding that finding myself again within it. And, so, after a few months, I was able to come back but differently to the same space. So, I think the writing and certainly reading from other people who came before me, that has been so important, 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Christian, how about you?

Christian Brady: Immediately following, I mean, part of it was a week later, just going back to work. Not that I was the same way I was going to be, but I knew that I couldn't just sit around but that night, so we Mack was life-flighted from State College to Hershey. And so, we got there a little after midnight Mack had passed away on the helicopter. We were with him for a few hours and then driving back in the middle of the night. We talked about already, how do we help remember, Mack. We wanted to remember him. We wanted to do something that would allow others in particular, we were thinking about all his buddies who played soccer with he was a goalkeeper. And it was on that drive immediately following and I don't know where it came from. But I'm thankful for the graciousness of it. That we would ask Bob Warming the men's soccer coach at Penn State if we could do a fund. We wanted to try and remember Mack and a positive and loving way. And in fact, in the two weeks that followed, which was the two weeks before Mack's birthday, he would have been known just two weeks after his death. We heard from professional soccer coaches and keepers from around the world. And one of them, Todd Halford said, “How about we do a clinic for his buddies?” I said, because they don't want to play soccer anymore. And so, literally, within three weeks of Max death the Sunday before classes began, the men in the women's team of Penn State came back they put on this clinic. They've done it every year since we now get over 150 little kids who come to it. And it's this positive remembering expression, and it was helpful in his remains helpful for me to channel that energy in something positive. 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: You have a daughter; Mack has a sister, Isabel. And, I don't want to ask you to speak on her behalf, but what, if anything, can you share about what you've observed watching her do her grief? 

Elizabeth Brady: Yeah, it's an interesting question, Lindsay because she she's an adult now you know, she's she's 22 and coming on 23. And she now we do hesitate to speak for her. But to say that she is so empowered to be in herself. I think it's actually an important point, which is, you know, somewhat respecting learning how each of us deal differently. And that I think that has been a lesson for all of us that we're all different people. We really do manage things very differently. We do in all right. And so, I don't think it should surprise us in the sense that we would handle grief differently as well. And I think one thing that shouldn't surprise us is that when you're first married, you know or when you're first a parent, and when you enter into these big things in life, everyone around you has all of this advice for you. They throw books at you; they tell you there's horror stories. They tell you their success stories, right? It's the same when someone dies. Suddenly you just get an avalanche of stories and things like that, which is how we operate. But I think part of the coming into your own and an ownership of your own experience, just like with parenting and just like with marriage is figuring out, OKy, I see this, I see this, I see this, but what is this going to be for me? Right. And so, I think part of that is allowing space for that. And we certainly tried to do that for Izzy. 

Christian Brady: I won't speak for Izzy either. I will say she knew we were grieving too. We didn't hide from Izzy, our daughter that we were grieving. But we tried to be careful not to make her feel that she had to carry the weight of that, nor that we were now. I mean, we were forever altered but not we were not gone ourselves. We were still her mom and dad; and would always be her mom and dad. And she's still Mack sister, and always would be. And so, we were very intentional about giving her that space and letting her come through it. And the reality is, you know, I just used that phrase come through it, but the reality is, we will always be returning to it. 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Elizabeth, you mentioned marriage earlier on and something I remember talking with you about in one of our conversations around Speaking Grief, was this, this idea about the negative impact the death of a child can have on the parents relationship. And I, I looked back at my notes from when we spoke and you called this idea statistically speaking, “rubbish.”

Elizabeth Brady: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it I think it's a little bit like being at your wedding shower when people are reminding you of divorced statistics, right. Oh, this is really fun. But you know what, right? And so, it happens. And this is why I'm saying all of these like John O'Donohue calls “thresholds of life,” right? The great changes where you pass through into something else are the people at the threshold, reminding you of all of the pitfalls ahead of you. It doesn't change even after the death of a child, when you know, of course, most people are wonderful, but others are concerned and then their concern is a fear and worry. “You know, they say, after the death of a child, 90% of marriages will end.” Well, I heard this a few times. And I went back and started poking around to follow up on it. And it turns out it actually did come from one article sometime in the 70s. That was actually quite roundly dismissed, taken out with lots of other research pretty soon and Sandy Fox actually wrote an entire book on it. And she said thatsome research—and I think Compassionate Friends looked at it too—it's more like 16% of marriages end in divorce. And oftentimes, it's because they said there were problems in the marriage ahead of time, or that one or the other of the partners was responsible for the death of the child. But I would say as well, I think that coming up on 27 years of marriage,and, and almost eight years since Mack died, Christian and I were talking about this a few weeks ago, I think we're probably on our third or fourth iteration of marriage at this point, right?You know, because—

Christian Brady: Unfortunately, there aren't presents for every one.

Elizabeth Brady:—and I think, like in all things, I think if you're willing to change and adapt and allow each other this space to do it, it can't be done. And I think there's no formula. And what works for us doesn't necessarily work for other people. But I think we likely are on our fourth chapter of our marriage at this point, you know, before children with the children, now bereaved parents, but also the parent of a beautiful young adult, and in a different phase again. So, I think that if there's any statistic, the one that should absolutely be banished is that 90% of marriages end up to the death of a child. It's actually more like 16%. And Sandy fox said as well that in some ways, some are strengthened. And I understand that because in some ways, it's very clarifying. And, so I think, if you're willing to a lot of space for each of you to grow and take it on newly, I think that's what we’re trying to do I think.

Christian Brady: Elizabeth has a nice essay on on that topic, I would just add that my concern and talking with bereaved parents, when that comes up is that it's it's viewed as kind of a fait accompli. And it you have to, like a marriage, you have to go into it with with the intention of making it work. If you go in with the intention of 50% end in divorce 50/50 we'll see where we are in four years, you know? Well, no, you're going to be looking for an exit as soon as you get on the highway, you know, so to go in saying, “it's not going to be easy.” In fact, it's going to be the hardest thing you're going to do in your life, but the only people who will really know fully what you're going through is your partner or your children that are surviving. And so, I think that's why I push back against that is because of the importance of, of the entity functionality that that you've got, it's going to be hard. But if you go in and say, I know it's hard, but we can do this, then that changes it. And you know, there are plenty of times that Elizabeth and I, you know, have different attitudes and views about how we were going to remember Mack how we were going to do things. And we talked through them and most of the time and ended up always being additive. It wasn't either or it was both and, and so, there's a richer experience and we've been bringing Izzy into it and letting her voice be a part of that as well. Because it's not just it's not just a couple, it's the whole family. 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Noteon WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guests are Elizabeth and Christian Brady. Both have written extensively about grief after the death of their son Mack in 2012. Christia, you have a new book coming out in September titled Beautiful and Terrible Things: A Christian Struggle with Suffering, Grief, and Hope. I've gotten to read some of it. And it's it's raw and real and stirring. And it's something I connected with on a personal level because it gave voice to a frustration. I know I've had with the idea that if you have a belief and some kind of higher being or afterlife, that somehow that should inoculate you from feeling the pain of death, and grief, and that if you grieve, it means your faith isn't strong enough. And I think that can add a lot of shame or guilt into this already overwhelming swirl of emotions, that is grief. 

Christian Brady: Well, this was my academic is my academic background. I'm a scholar of biblical and rabbinic literature. And in fact, I did my doctorate on the interpretation of the book of Lamentations. There are five poems lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. And they're incredibly raw because it was an event that was as traumatic as any other conquest of a city and destruction of a community that could happen. So, I like to say I was as theologically prepared as anybody could be for the loss of a child, which is to say, not at all prepared. But it is true. You're right, Lindsey, there's so often, especially within the Christian world, an American evangelicalism I found which is the community that I grew up in that you should be happy for them. And and I do believe we believe that that Mac is, is resurrected and whole and so much more and so forth and so on. But that doesn't mean we don't have grief here. So this book was an exploration of that bringing together both my academic discipline, my own experience, and then also my experience as, as a minister. I took a sabbatical and I was rector of a parish and one of the stories that came forward because, once people know that you've lost a child, it's amazing to hear how many other folks come forward to share that with you. And one couple, they were a part of a very evangelical, very Calvinist sort of Baptist community. And they had lost a child at birth. And three months later, the pastor came to them and said, we're concerned about you, because you're still grieving. You're not accepting that God ordained this God designed to God took their child. And my view, theologically is, even if one accepts that God has ordaining and guiding that and if that helps people through this great I'm not going to argue theology with them about that. But even if you accept it doesn't mean you still don't grieve. It doesn't mean you're still not sad about what's going on that you didn't go through a whole period of preparing for this child to come and be with you and to be a part of your family. And then they're not and you're going to grieve that. And that's going to take time. So, it's it's been an interesting journey because like I said it was an academic part and a theological part of my life. So I was able to respond to some of the more, shall we say, simplistic statements that God needed Mack or he's got another angel, all of which are not true from a Christian perspective, I'll say, theologically, but you still have to live with it. It's not just about answering the FAQs about Christianity and loss. It's about living with the fact that max not here anymore.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Elizabeth, you're also working on a book. What can you tell us about it? 

Elizabeth Brady: Well, mine um, I have collected many of the essays that I've read and and I have some extra ones as well that I kind of continue to evolve and put in there and mine's a little bit different. It's not so much theologically based as—It is more so kind of, I guess experiential, right? Like, how do you approach holidays? One of the first times I went to a bereaved parent group, we actually spent two hours talking about, what do you do on Thanksgiving? Right? Do you set a place? Do you write these sorts of things that are so important to begin to think about because if you don't plan and you feel too afraid to come up to it, or you're not saying what you need, and I think that's part of it, too. You can arrive as many people do on that holiday with and then be stunned by the all of the feelings and then frustrations of not actually planning for that. Right? And so, birthdays and holidays and all of these things are really, you know, they take time and they also evolve each year, right. I think each year has been a little bit different as well. And I think it's kind of strangely Another thing is sort of allowing yourself to evolve in it, right? Because sometimes it can be like, “Oh, wait, I didn't buy this as I did last year.” And you know, you set yourself up. And so, I've been collecting those essays and kind of reflecting on our experience, but also the experience of other people. And, you know, I think it I think that it is part of our lives, right, participating as we can with other bereaved parents and learning all the time. And so, I think, hopefully, it will be helpful. There are many, many books out there. And I think ultimately, it's, you know, the participation with other parents and in the end, helping people move along their own journeys is gives me a great sense of purpose, I guess, or meaning. 

Christian Brady: What's interesting to me is Elizabeth’s essays are incredibly powerful, and they've spoken to so many people through Open to Hope and the other sites where they've been published, in minds very different. And I think it's a good example of the way in which we all grieve in different ways. And the things that would speak to Elizabeth that she in turn can translate and articulate for others are not necessarily the same that would speak for me or that others need to hear. And I think it's just it's, it's a nice reminder within our own relationship, and then as our outward writings show, that Yeah, those differences are there and yet, we're, we're these people who are very fulsome with great diversity of thought and ideas and concerns and, and each of us need to have, we have our own wounds and our own needs and they each need to be addressed in a way that that ours are, are needing their particular attention. And I really wish I could write as well as Elizabeth.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: It's amazing to hear you talk about each other's work with such admiration and respect. And I'm curious, what's it like for each of you to read the other's writing? What do you learn through having that access to each other's thoughts or feelings that that might be different than what gets shared in conversation?

Elizabeth Brady: It's funny because I think, oftentimes, for me, when I write or think about something, it's a very funny line, but I have to keep it inside me. It's like a little bit of I almost think of it almost like growing like a little teeny plant, right? And so sometimes I have to, you have to germinate and ruminate over it, right? It takes it seems to take me—we're very different people.

Christian Brady: I will say it's not a plant. It's like giving birth to a child. Elizabeth very much—there's a lot of privacy. Me, I'm like, I'm gonna put this on the blog. I'm going to go Tweet. And because I want to hear it back, I want to hear somebody come back to me go, “No, you're full of it. That's not—No, no, no, no, that's not the issue. This is what the concern is. This is where it is.” And Elizabeth journals very privately, and I've had to learn to do that. And it's been very valuable for me to learn from her. But yeah, it's, and you asked a very different though, right? So it's, it's wonderful for me to read Elizabeth things because like I said, before, the perspectives are different. And, and it it just enriches me. Mine are somewhat, you know, this book in particular is answering some particular questions, and partly because of our upbringings, partly because our personalities, you know, I asked the theological questions. Elizabeth is a very theological person But doesn't approach them in the same sorts of ways. Right? So, I personally feel that Elizabeth writing is much more universal than mine. I think mine is for a very niche audience of folks who are coming out of particular backgrounds. They're hitting this wall and they're wrestling but as Elizabeth said, she's really addressing this, how do we live with this? Where do we go and, and I do want to say so I, I was resistant, that first Thanksgiving. And Elizabeth strongly encouraged us we did the balloons the first Thanksgiving. And Mack has all these little cousins. He's one of the oldest and they all wrote messages on it. We now use biodegradable balloons, everybody, just there on that. And, you know, and so, Elizabeth is really, in a very healthy way pushed me pushed us and and that's been I think, I think that's been one of the things about our being open. And maybe that's something that I offer is sort of this greater openness is, you know, we're not the only people who are grieving. Mack’s buddies, his cousin's, our parents. And I think because we were a little more open, that allowed them to also be able to grieve. They knew that they could talk with us about Mack, as opposed to thinking that they had to walk on eggshells and be silent about it. And I and I'd like to think that that gave them some space, some grace within which they too could grieve more fully. This fellow that we all love so much.

Elizabeth Brady: And it's funny to, Lindsey, just to piggyback on that, coming up now on eight years, right on New Year's Eve, which is amazing. I mean, it's, you know, we've had so many people who have lost since the right I mean, we're just surrounded by grief. And I think it's, in some ways it gives you like a little bit of a pass to participate because it's like, well, you've you, you understand because you've lost a child, right? And so that is something that it feels very sacred, almost right to be invited into spaces. But it's also humbling to because each person truly does grieve differently. And each person needs such different things. And so I think I think that's probably the lesson than it is to allow space for people to come into their own and that and I think that's, I think about that a lot actually, because this is where I think we can get into spaces where people say, Wow, they aren't doing this or they aren't doing that and it happens like I said in every big area of our lives, right? And grief is no different from that. And I think that the interesting thing is that once you have this trauma in your life, right, you kind of step into this new place, and you truly we don't. We don't have, we need help, I should say we need help to learn how to live again, newly we learn from other people, we learn from people who have come before us and the writings those those I find amazing. Other people prefer to just have their friends with them or their loved ones just sit and listen to them and to speak with them. And so, everyone is a little bit different than that, right? I'm sure many people watch the documentary that you produced, and it is so nourishing for them. And for other people. It's probably incredibly difficult to sit and watch the whole documentary, right? And so, I think that's kind of the the space where we allow grief, like Christian was talking about the terrain that we allow it to be a part of life, that not just some event that has to be tackled, that we allow that space for, for us to find our way in and take ownership in it. And that that is, you know, eight years on now. I think that's something that I I see more clearly now. 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Elizabeth and Christian, thanks for talking with us. 

Christian Brady: Thank you. You're very welcome. 

Elizabeth Brady: Thank you, Lindsey. For all of your work and attention as well. 

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Elizabeth and Christian Brady lost their son Mack in 2012, and have shared some of their grief experience through their writing. To read some of Elizabeth's essays as well as an excerpt from Christian's new book, Beautiful and Terrible Things, visit w-p-s-u-dot-org-slah-take-note.. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.

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