Carrying the cross of grief on a journey of hope


katiemjatuofpagraduation-webAuthor Mary Jane Hurley Brant is pictured with her daughter Katie, who died at the age of 28 from a brain tumor.

Camden Catholic High School Alum Mary Jane Hurley Brant is an expert on grief counseling. Her vocation, Brant has realized, is in helping others find hope after loss.

Brant’s perspectives were formed by her professional career as a certified group psychotherapist and her two decades of work with hospice patients. She holds a master’s degree in counseling and human relations, and is author of the book “When Every Day Matters.”

Brant has expanded her forum with a growing presence on the internet, the radio and at seminars and retreats, as she reaches out to those who are experiencing the feelings of loss associated with divorce, career or the death of loved ones.

Brant has her own story of personal loss. For 10 years, she waited, watched and prayed as her beloved daughter battled a brain tumor.

At age 28, her beautiful Katie, “with her long strawberry-blonde hair, big turquoise eyes, and larger-than-life presence” finally succumbed to the cancer.

On her website, Brant gives the reality that she lived with: “Brain tumors now have the dubious distinction of being the leading cause of cancer death in children under the age of 20, surpassing acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Brain tumors are also the third leading cause of cancer death in young adults ages 20-39.”

Brant watched her daughter as her daughter made significant accomplishments in her short life, including the founding of Katie’s Kids for the Cure, a national research foundation with the “singular goal of finding a cure for pediatric brain tumors.”

Katie graduated from University of Pennsylvania and began a career in New York City. (Brant occasionally wears Katie’s sorority pin, one of the ways she tries to keep Katie close to her.)

Brant often talks about what she learned from her daughter: the courage to move forward, the gratitude for every day, and faith.

“Katie would ask me what I was grateful for,” Brant tells others. “Believe me,” she confides,  “there were some days when I wasn’t sure.”

Brant said that even when a death is imminent, the emotional turmoil rages. “At first, I felt so stunned,” Brant relates. “The world felt very different. I felt like I wasn’t even in the world, even though I knew I was.

“The sadness was monumental,” Brant said. “I longed for Katie. I had to do something.”

Brant started journaling. “I wrote almost daily for an entire year, keeping my communion with Katie alive, sustaining her presence.…”

Brant confides that she finally came face-to-face with the reality of life after Katie. In her journal, Brant considered the choices that lay before her: “I can be absent from my present life and the lives of others who need and love me and whom I need and love. I can give up the future and live in my past memories. Or I can accept the beauty and the bounty that I learned from being your mother and trust that I will survive without you.”

At that moment, Brant wrote, she didn’t know which choice she would make. Later Brant explained that the letters “were my journey back to life.”

Ten years later, Brant’s letters were published in her book, “When Every Day Matters: A Mother’s Memoir on Love, Loss and Life”  (Simple Abundance Press 2008).

In the book, Brant weaves her personal experiences with a rainbow of inspirational perspectives and quotations from others who have loved and lost. Brant reflects on her own family dynamics, looking back to her own father’s death, the influences of her family, friends and circumstances, and the tides of faith that sustain her.

Brant often talks about her faith. Was there anger with God? Anything to do with Katie and anger was “incongruent,” Brant said. “I was disappointed with God. Why couldn’t he make her well?”

To her, asking where Katie is now was the same as asking where Katie came from. “That’s the mystery. We have to accept it on faith….”

“As Catholics,” Brant said, “we have to believe that all will be well. We have to accept that on faith. Don’t keep trying to figure it out,” she adds, “because you’re not going to. And that takes the burden away.

“But,” she added, “all won’t be well for a long time. We’ll find a way to transcend our pain.”

Brant emphasizes that in grieving there must be hope — and that will help manage the time and the sorrow. “Hope…because you are a believer,” she says.

After Katie’s death, Brant said that she did not turn to the church. She found it painful to be in the same church where Katie’s funeral was held. “ I couldn’t take my eyes off of the spot where Katie’s coffin was.”

The family relocated but eventually returned to the Philadelphia area. Brant began to miss the connections that she had formed in her previous parish. “I returned,” she said, “and suddenly my soul was aligned with my everyday life.”

Brant’s writings mull over faith issues and cultural expectations. “In today’s culture, there is a ‘get over it’ mentality, Brant said. People begin to prod the grieving, she said. They’ll ask, “When are you going to start doing this? It’s been months. When are you going to start living?”

Brant counsels, “The heart and soul are very slow to heal.”

“Don’t put time pressure on yourself,” advises Brant. “Don’t accept the world’s projection ‘to get on with it.’ You need time.”

Brant says that there is a way to “manage the grieving.”

In her blog, Brant wrote, “I understand completely that none of us can get over our losses until we go through them. I would like to be your guide to the other side of life, to the other side of your loss. I hope that you will let me. Until then, Make Your Every Day Matter.”

Today Brant is conveying her message in wider realms, across a chasm of hurts and losses that often crush the spirit. As a certified leader of Simple Abundance seminars and workshops, she promotes the work of her friend and author Sarah Ban Breathnach, whose Principles of Simple Abundance (Gratitude, Simplicity, Order, Harmony, Beauty and Joy) have become a roadmap for spiritual reflection and renewal.

In October, Brant will be the keynote speaker for the Caretakers’ Retreat at the Malvern Retreat House, Malvern, Pa. She will explore the “enormous and universal purpose” of doing a service for someone else. “Givers” are those who take care of a sick family member, or lead a congregation, or attend to someone’s spiritual or medical needs, or protect and keep others safe, explains Brant.

In her blog, Brant writes that there is great meaning in that. “Where would any of us be without the givers in our lives? Besides doing a really good thing, you’ve lessened someone else’s load today. And that made today meaningful. That made today matter.”