After son’s brain injury, Harvard chaplains Pat and Tammy McLeod trace the evolution of grief, gratitude and belief
Tammy McLeod still goes to football games, but she doesn’t watch them. Instead, she paces up and down the sidelines. To distract herself, she’ll socialize with friends or students.
If the crashes of football helmets get too loud, she’ll step back so she can’t hear the sounds.
“I can’t watch the game. But I want to be with my community,” she says.
When she sees the players out on the field, she thinks of her son, Zach. In 2008, during a preseason scrimmage for Buckingham Browne & Nichols, his high school football team, then 16-year-old Zach McLeod suffered a blow to the head that caused an acute internal brain bleed. He collapsed on the field, was airlifted to the Boston Medical Center, and underwent multiple brain surgeries while fending off bouts of pneumonia.
“He survived, but part of his brain did not,” says Zach’s father, Pat McLeod. Over the following years, Zach learned how to walk again and to speak in short sentences. But he has never fully recovered.
Eleven years later, the McLeod family continues to grapple with both having Zach, and not having him as he once was. In their new book, “Hit Hard,” out Tuesday, Tammy and Pat McLeod chronicle the trials and joys of Zach’s journey and their perspectives on the growing national conversation about sports-related head injuries.
Christian chaplains at Harvard University, Pat and Tammy McLeod will join Zach at the Harvard Coop bookstore for a book launch and Q&A session Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Now 27, Zach lives in a group home in Brookline, where he receives round-the-clock care. He attends specialized classes at Boston University, hangs out with friends, sends e-mails, goes to church with his family, and rows on the Charles River in an adaptive program for people with disabilities.
Sometimes, traumatic brain injuries lead to serious mental illnesses like depression or anger. Zach was lucky. “He’s the happiest person we know,” Pat says.
Zach’s community and family rallied around his improbable, inspiring recovery. Yet privately, as the years passed, Tammy also found herself plagued by sadness. She cherished the life she shared with Zach; she grieved for the long conversations she’d once had with her son. Grief books — which discussed things like acceptance and closure — didn’t help.
It took Tammy five years to find the right words to describe her experience: “ambiguous loss,” a term coined by psychotherapist Dr. Pauline Boss to explain the unresolved grief that accompanies tragedies like a kidnapped child or losing a parent to Alzheimer’s disease.
With this kind of traumatic brain injury, healing for the whole family isn’t just about “getting over it,” Tammy says. Celebration and mourning play a role. “It’s about holding those two things at the same time,” she says.
Pat and Tammy both dedicated themselves to Christianity in college. They now oversee multiple Christian organizations at Harvard, where they provide spiritual counsel to students and faculty. Their book, which includes recommendations for Bible verses to cope with suffering and is interspersed with prayers, draws on Boss’s scientific writing, Zach’s story, and their own faith backgrounds.
“Pauline’s stuff is amazing, but it’s clinical research,” Pat says. “We need stories. That’s what stories do — they name things for you. They give you characters. They can surface and soften these hard emotions.”
A third writer, Cynthia Ruchti, helped Pat and Tammy weave their narratives together. The goal, Ruchti says, was not to discuss ambiguous loss in the abstract, but to “show a family that’s actually living it, day in and day out.”
She worked with the couple for two years. “I could see almost instantly that these were two people that deeply loved each other,” Ruchti says. “But they were also coming at what happened to their family from completely different perspectives.”
Editors encouraged the couple to include dialogue and points of tension, like their fights about football, which one chapter explores in depth.
Tammy supports a recently proposed bill that would ban organized tackle football until after seventh grade. She also thinks college football programs should end, starting with Harvard. “If it could stop anywhere, it would be the Ivy League,” she says. “Because people value brains. And they value research.”
She points to the growing body of research that link concussions and traumatic head injuries incurred in sports to conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, depression, crime, and suicide.
“I might even do a theological argument” in favor of quitting football, Tammy says. “That God made our bodies, and doesn’t want us to hurt them.”
But Pat, who played football at Montana State University, isn’t quite ready to give up on the sport, although he feels himself shifting on the subject with each new study or lawsuit he reads. He still praises the values that he believes football encourages, like community and strength in teamwork. He comes from a football family: his brother played for the Green Bay Packers, and his father coached.
“But it’s kind of just like, you know —” he says, slowly. “It’s just bad for the brain.”
The McLeods’ feelings are made all the more complicated by the fact that Zach still loves football. He attends practices and games at BB&N, where players recognize his lively, energetic presence on the sidelines as a source of inspiration.
“[Zach] would be mad at us for giving up on football. But he’s kind of like me,” Pat says. “It helped make him who he was. I think that some of the qualities that contributed to him making such an amazing comeback, they’re qualities that are part of the game. It’s all about comebacks —”
Tammy cuts in. “And I feel like I lost my son to the game,” she says.
“So, we keep going back and forth,” Tammy says. She laughs. “We’re still processing.”