Brian Griese played quarterback in the National Football League for 11 years, earning a Super Bowl ring and being selected an All-Pro while with the Denver Broncos. Prior to his NFL career, Brian helped lead the University of Michigan to a share of the NCAA national championship in an undefeated season, while earning his degree in political science. He is currently a college football and NFL analyst with ESPN.
Brian lost his mother Judi to breast cancer when he was 12 years old. He and his wife Brook founded Judi’s House, a comprehensive bereavement center in Denver whose mission is to “help children and families grieving a death find connection and healing.” The nonprofit has provided care, free of charge, to over 10,000 individuals, reaching many thousands more through the research, education, and advocacy initiatives of JAG Institute.
Brian spoke with us about the ordeal of losing his mother.
Q. What are some of the best memories you have of your mom?
A. My mother was the most compassionate and thoughtful person I have ever known. She always put the needs of others ahead of her own and was constantly finding ways to help those who needed help. I remember her smile most of all – warm, engaging, proud and knowing.
Q. Who was helpful to you when your mom died? How were they helpful?
A. The truth is that outside of my Dad I did not have any other adult figures who were particularly helpful to me during this time in my life. Looking back, it’s clear that I could have used some additional adult support and guidance.
My mother died when I was 12 years old and I had two older brothers who were on their way to college at the time, so we went from a family of five to a family of two very quickly. My father and I were the only ones left in the house. I depended on him and he depended on me. But he was grieving the loss of his soul mate and had stressors and needs I could not help with. On top of that, I was an adolescent who at that time was naturally trying to become more independent from his father. It was a pressure-cooker. We both needed to vent and be heard and guided, but it was hard to put the individual grief aside and be there for each other.
Q. What are the positive lessons you learned about yourself from losing your mom?
A. It is very difficult to have any kind of perspective on the situation as you go through it. It is only after many years of reflection that I can answer this question. I realize today that I am the man I am in a large part because of the ordeal of losing my mother at such a young age. My personality, way of handling stressful situations, giving back, and mentoring young people all stem directly from my grief experience as a child. Judi’s House is the culmination of my life long grief process and has allowed me to find new meaning in my life, sharing my mother’s compassion with so many grieving children and families.
Q. Looking back, what are some of the things that friends and the adults in your life could have done to be more helpful to you?
A. I have thought about writing a book on this subject and titling it “When the Casseroles Run Out.” There was a period of about three months where everyone came by the house and checked in on us. Everyone knew that my Dad and I were not going to do much cooking, so they often would bring food. After a while, though, everyone goes back to their own lives – understandably – leaving us to fend for ourselves.
Looking back, it would have been nice to have that adult who took an interest in me and checked in occasionally and allowed me to be me. Not someone to judge me about how I was dealing with the situation, but someone who would be supportive no matter how I was feeling on a particular day. Someone who wouldn’t try to fix me, had “all the answers,” but someone to ask me questions and be a good listener.
Q. How did sports help you cope with the death of your mother?
A. I think it is safe to say that sports became my therapy during the most difficult time in my life. Sports gave me structure when I was lost. It gave me teammates when I was lonely. It gave me a constructive outlet for the anger which was building inside me. It gave me purpose when life seemed to lack direction. Sports taught me that you get out only as much as you put into something, which was an important equation for a kid like me who didn’t think life was all that fair after his mother died.
Q. What would be your advice to kids who have lost a parent?
A. It is alright for you to be angry, sad, relieved, confused, happy, and all the emotions in between.
There are people who care about you. There are other kids who are going through similar situations to yours. You do not have to be alone in grief.
You will have questions to which you will be unable to find the answer-and that is okay.
Do something that honors your loved one who died. Make them proud. It will give you a sense of accomplishment and help transform your relationship with the person from a physical one to a spiritual or emotional one. Judi’s House is the culmination of my grief process and has allowed me to share my mother’s compassion with so many grieving children and families.