Dr. Pat McLeod and Tammy McLeod publish Hit Hard

Dr. Pat McLeod (STH Practical Theology ’09) and Tammy McLeod recently published Hit Hard: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was—and Learning to Live Well with What Is. When their Zach collapsed on a high school football field, he sustained a traumatic brain injury that transformed his life. Hit Hard is the story of “both having and not having their son” and of navigating family and faith in the midst of unexpected heartbreak. We are grateful to Tammy and Pat for taking the time to talk with the Center of Practical Theology about ambiguous loss, the importance of stories, and Christians learning to grieve. 

Hit Hard is available wherever books are sold.

What inspired you to write about your experience? What were you hoping to share?

Tammy: I’ve experienced through deep suffering that God is present, and it is God’s nature to be near people when they are suffering. Then, the second thing for me is ambiguous loss. I didn’t know what that was before we lost our son to it. I hope for the world that this will eventually become a household term. I would love to see this book in every hospital, every counseling center, every addiction center, and every memory care unit. Basically, I hope those that are floundering in the midst of ambiguous loss, know what it is and be able to be resilient in it.

Pat: So, I’m trying to put back on my practical theology hat. This is a popular book that is not intellectually challenging or even scholarly. It is just a story, and it is becoming hugely popular. Yet, this is where the practical theology comes in; it is a story and we need stories. Our lives unfold like a story. Our moral learning occurs because of good stories. And ultimately, stories are what make sense and meaning out of our lives. The Bible itself is filled with stories. I believe that this story will validate some of the challenging experiences, emotions, and relationship dynamics that people face when they grieve any kind of loss, especially ambiguous loss. People who are in that will see themselves in this story and it will surface and soften some of those hard emotions, hopefully, so that there can be healing and health.Ultimately, we wrote this story because I don’t think any story makes sense of the tragedy in our lives like the Gospel does. The Gospel is the one story that can absorb these and give some kind of hope in the midst of the small stories of despair and tragedy that we otherwise live in. That is why I think the Church needs good stories. And I don’t know if we are good storytellers, but it is a true story and it is filled with some really good moments of redemption. Zach is an amazing person. His recovery, the person he is, and the way he blends the world of ability and disability is itself inspirational and it is worth telling that story.

Ambiguous loss is a relatively new term. Can you tell us a little bit more about ambiguous loss?

Pat: Ambiguous loss is the major theme of the book, and the person who named that term is Pauline Boss. And she said that the challenge of living with an ambiguous loss is that you have to learn to live well with both having and not having at the same time. That is a personally challenging task. You will typically do one or the other or neither.

When I became a Christian, I was initiated into evangelical Christian faith and I think we could have grieved if we just let ourselves do what comes naturally, but certain things in our theology told us we shouldn’t do that. For example, people like turning a funeral into a celebration. It sounds so right and so good, but Jesus actually wept at a funeral and he was angry. The description of him at Lazarus’s tomb was that he snorted at death. There are emotions of grief and lament that are important for us as humans.

This next question is related, but in what way, do you think the term ambiguous loss contributes to contemporary questions in practical theology or theology in general?

Tammy: We touched on the not having side of ambiguous loss, but let’s talk about the having side! Some people just write off a person, like the person is just gone. Zach is still here and he is the most happy and joyful person I know. He loves God more than anyone I know and prays more than anyone I know! For some people, when a person can’t talk, has no short-term memory, or needs one-on-one care, they just write him off. We need to remember that the person is still a person, and God made them and loves them.

Pat: There are a lot of themes around our story that are worthy of further theological reflection as a practical theologian. One of those is a theology of disability. We have seen certain attitudes we had about disability changed by Zach. Zach may be the most human person I know because although he can’t speak and has no short-term memory, he connects and gets people before they get themselves. And the world of disability has plenty of eschatological implications. Also, there are a lot of ecclesial questions that come up in terms of how the Church incorporates those among us with disabilities, how does it do it well, and when it does things that are actually harmful.

Tammy: Also, just the idea of ambiguity itself. There are a lot of things in the world that are ambiguous. Not until we were in the midst of ambiguous loss did I really realize this. But it can actually be a frame for a lot of things that are happening in the world.

Do you have a particular audience in mind that you would like to reach or connect with?

Tammy: Pastors don’t understand ambiguous loss. For five years, I kept reading books on grief and I couldn’t find an answer. There is no acceptance and no closure in ambiguous loss. So, the normal grief literature doesn’t work for people in our situation. So, I really hope that every single pastor has at least a 20-30-minute training on ambiguous loss. If that’s all they get, 20 minutes. Because pastors just don’t know how to help people in our situation. So I hope pastors in training learn about ambiguous loss so they can help people better.

Pat and Tammy McLeod serve as Harvard Chaplains for Cru, an interdenominational Christian ministry. Tammy is also the Director of College Ministry at Park Street Church in Boston. She received her MA in Spiritual Formation from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Pat holds an MA in Theological Studies from the International School of Theology, and an MA in Science and Religion and a PhD in Practical Theology from Boston University. Pat and Tammy have been married for more than three decades and are parents to four grown children.

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