On Saturday September 19, 2015, 35-year-old conservative commentator Mary Katherine Ham, mother of two-year-old Georgia and eight months pregnant with her second child, received a life-changing phone call. Her 34-year-old husband, White House staffer Jake Brewer, had been killed while riding his bike for a charity event on the streets of Washington DC.
Most likely you don’t know Mary Katherine personally, and you may not have even heard of her before you began reading this blog post. Regardless, that type of news kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?
Imagine if this devastating situation struck someone in your family, or a close friend, or someone you work with. What would you do? What would you say to her? The sadness and grief would be overwhelming. The sense of despair would be suffocating.
Yet within days of Jake Brewer’s death, the family and friends of Jake and Mary Katherine were smiling and laughing much more than they were crying. Why? Because Mary Katherine Ham not only gave them permission to smile and laugh, she actually requested that they do so.
Within a couple days of Jake’s death, even before his funeral, Mary Katherine stood before their family and friends and immediately cut through the anguish with a quip about the wisdom of her deciding to wear mascara, quickly followed by a joke poking fun at hers and Jake’s well-known political ideology differences. But then she went even further: she made a direct and somewhat unusual request of everyone in the room of how she wanted others to respond to Jake’s death:
Mary Katherine Ham’s request that other’s not feel sadness for her and her children not only helped put everyone at ease in how to respond to her tragedy, but I believe truly helped speed her healing.
If you are faced with a major challenge or tragedy, many well-meaning friends and family can unintentionally exacerbate your pain by being somber, sad, etc. Well-meaning people often feel such a demeanor is appropriate, even required, during devastating situations unless you permit them to be otherwise. Granting that permission through your words and attitude is an act of love and affection toward those who care so deeply about you. And simultaneously that permission generates an outward focus within yourself, thereby opening the pathways through which God and others can provide peace and healing for you.
It’s a win-win. You give others permission to smile, laugh and recover, and low-and-behold, your healing is accelerated.
The incredible strength Mary Katherine Ham demonstrated following her husband’s sudden death doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It can and must be practiced on the small everyday challenges we all face so that this fortitude can be summoned when we face life’s greater difficulties.
Although I don’t know Mary Katherine Ham personally, I have no doubt her outward focus on others is part of her everyday life. Her response when asked how she felt about her recent stint as an ABC presidential debate moderator was evidence she employs this approach in other aspects of her life. Mary Katherine expressed that since she knew family and friends at home were incredibly nervous for her, she made a point of looking extremely relaxed to begin her segment in order to put her family and friends at ease. Think about that … she found herself on a high-stakes stage with millions of television viewers and her first thought was to try to minimize the fear and anxiety of friends and family watching her?!
Mary Katherine Ham gracefully demonstrated that thinking about others during our challenging times accomplishes two feats: It eases the pain and anxiety of those who care about us and it generates peace and strength within us. This is a habit worth emulating.