The scenario was unimaginable, until it wasn’t. Along with his wife, Bryan Welch (BA ’81) felt, for the first time, what it meant to have a broken heart. His son, Noah, was dead.
In an article for mindful.org, Welch shared his story of picking up the pieces of his shattered heart, coping with the accompanying “animal pain” and finding solace in the teachings of grief. Through loss, he realized, he had learned about compassion.
Welch wrote for The Clarion as a University of Denver student and used his English degree to pursue a career in media, specifically for businesses that seek to improve the world. Now, as CEO of Mindful Communications, Welch publishes content and offers training designed to improve mental health, self-awareness and self-compassion. He is also author of “Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want” (B&A Books, 2010).
His conversation with University of Denver Magazine chronicles the loss of his son, Noah, who attended DU before his death, and offers insight into what he learned in the aftermath—how to move forward with the weight of grief and how to show up compassionately for others who may be struggling.
|Lorne Fultonberg: Unimaginable is a word that gets tossed around a lot, like unimaginable damage from a storm, or I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now, or I can’t imagine how it must feel to lose your son. For years, Bryan Welch tried his best to visualize what would happen if his son, Noah, lost his life to the crippling disease of addiction, and then it happened. The unimaginable was reality. And Bryan Welch was not prepared.|
Bryan graduated from the University of Denver in 1981 and is now an author and the CEO of Mindful.com, which publishes content and offers training designed to improve mental health, self-awareness and self-compassion. His son, Noah, went to DU too. And after Noah’s death, Bryan wrote a piece called “Healing in the Deep Ocean of Grief,” which we have linked to on our website.
The winter issue of the University of Denver Magazine devotes a lot of time to mental health, how we understand it, how we’re trying to improve it and how faculty are learning more about it. In a digital exclusive, we talked with Bryan about his experience with grief and asked him how we can show up compassionately for others who may be struggling. Bryan, welcome.
|Bryan Welch: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.|
|LF: The tagline at Mindful is healthy mind, healthy life. This spring, you wrote a really powerful piece called “Healing in the Deep Ocean of Grief,” which is about the concept of authentic compassion toward others and toward yourself. How does compassion fit into this mental health puzzle?|
|BW: Gosh, that’s a very interesting way to put it and a very good question. I think it’s very easy to ignore the fact that you can’t really be compassionate to others if you don’t feel compassion for yourself, and you can’t really feel compassion for yourself without feeling an impulse to extend that compassion to others. Really, I think a sense of friendliness toward yourself, compassion tolerance, is probably one of the most fundamental building blocks to mental health, especially to those aspects of mental health that can be addressed in a self-actuated way.|
|LF: Tell me a little bit about your personal story and experience, which we read about in that piece. But for those who haven’t had the chance to read it, I’d love it if you could just give an overview of what you went through.|
|BW: Sure. Well, in 2013, my son died. I had two children. I had an older daughter who’s doing great, but my son, from the age of 19 or so when he was in college, unbeknownst to us developed an addiction—initially to opioids, but eventually a broad-spectrum addiction. We didn’t really become aware of it. We suspected, but he always attributed what he was going through to various physical health issues. He persevered through college. He had a lovely girlfriend, moved to her home where she had grown up in Hawaii.|
We really thought he was on his way. But a year went by, and he didn’t really have a job and it was clear that his life wasn’t coming together. It gradually dawned on us that he had a really serious addiction to opiates. Parents who go through the experience of having a child who’s an addict experience a lot of forms of sadness, grief and loss. And for us, it was spread over years. It was all the usual things that addiction brings on, trouble with the law, forms of psychosis, living on the street for a time.
He’d been in and out of rehab several times. We were paying for his apartment. He’d been kicked out of a few. It was a long road, but we finally, finally reached the conclusion that by supporting him, we were allowing him to hurt himself. His whole lifestyle was so harmful. I gave him an ultimatum and said, “We’ve paid our last month of rent. We’ll pay for rehab again, but the only place we’ll support you is in treatment.” He said he understood and that he was going to go into treatment. And then within some few days, he was dead.
He had binged and died. You, as a parent, the thing you cared most about in your life, the most significant and important relationship you ever had, the most significant and important work you ever did has culminated in … I don’t think there’s a better word than failure. It’s culminated in colossal grief, terrible loss. I remember sitting on the couch in our living room after the police officer had come and told us that he was dead, then left.
We had a very short, very simple conversation basically asking ourselves and each other if we wanted to carry on living. And I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. We weren’t choosing between… We weren’t talking about suicide, but I think we realized at that moment to live with a sense of vitality and any possibility of joyfulness would be an act of will. In that conversation on that day, we said to each other: We’re going to try.
And then over the weeks and months that came, I think I would have to say that I was really stripped of all the sources I had for self-satisfaction, for self-regard, for any kind of security. And in that very vulnerable, devastated state, I realized that I felt a new sort of warm sense of compassion for basically everybody, everybody else that I had previously insulated myself from.
When I met somebody to whom something terrible had happened, I became conscious that my brain had always indulged in creating some little narrative about why that wasn’t going to happen to me. When I discovered that was gone, I was surprised. It was a feeling that was rather welcome, this recognition that I was vulnerable to just about anything any other person might be vulnerable to, and then the opportunity to open my heart to other people.
In my experience, a broken heart was a much more open heart. And somewhere along the line, I decided I wanted, to whatever extent I could, maintain that sense of open-heartedness.
|LF: You wrote in that piece, when you tell someone that you had a child who died, their common response is, “I can’t imagine how that must feel.” And you say that they’re right. They can’t. They couldn’t. But I feel like you did a really wonderful job of describing that animal pain, as you call it, and this deep ocean of grief that is hard to imagine unless you’ve experienced it.|
|BW: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think also though, that it’s true that human beings are sort of designed for grief.|
|LF: What do you mean by that?|
|BW: Well, I mean that we idealize. That we have an idea in our head of an ideal relationship, an ideal partner, an ideal job. On a more mundane level, an ideal car, an ideal home, the ideal vacation. And of course, the world is not an engine for creating replicas of these idealizations, right? What the world gives us is real stuff. And in that gap between what we idealize and the reality of living, we feel some degree of grief all the time, I think.|
The big grief mostly connects somehow with death, with the fundamental impermanence of our own bodies and identities and the bodies and identities of everybody we love. We really struggle as human beings with mortality, with death. We’re sentenced in a way to feel grief because of that discomfort, because of that fundamental human struggle.
I think for myself, I found that I actually have at this stage in my life a somewhat improved access to joy, to experiencing things in a joyful way if I maintain my awareness of my own grief, my own broken heartedness and the very obvious impermanence and vulnerability of everything that I care about and love.
|LF: I want to ask about your experience in getting to that point though. Something that really struck me from your piece is this difficulty of having a desire to heal the struggle, to feel like it’s OK to be OK after a big loss and to be able to find that joy again and allow yourself to feel that. How did you get to that point?|
|BW: Well, time helps a lot. An intention to live and to enjoy one’s life and the people around one. Well, in the case of experiencing the loss of a child, in particular, I assume every parent can do what I’m able to do, which is remember thousands of times that I wasn’t a very good parent, when I fell short of my own ideal for parenting, when I did or said things that were not the best thing for one of my children or the other.|
I feel like I had to start healing with the acceptance that I might have been responsible for my son’s illness and his death. It’s not out of any sense of self-punishment or anything like that. That’s not what I’m saying at all. It felt to me like if I didn’t accept that first, that I might be entirely culpable for the immense suffering of this person I love so much, if I didn’t start there, then at any future stage, I would still have that to deal with, the doubt, the fear, the suspicion that it might have been me.
But by accepting, one, we cannot know the cause of something like addiction, but two, it might have been me, and accepting that fact helped me understand that we are all culpable for what’s happening to those around us. We’re all culpable for what’s happening in the world. That our intentions, our behavior, our demeanor, the essence of us and what we do is having an impact in the world, brought me to what I guess is a stable place where I could accept the potential of my own culpability for the terrible thing that happened to my son.
I could accept the culpability everybody else carries as well, because all of us are equally culpable in a way. Today, I can have the pleasure of talking to you, and I can talk about the fact that I might have been … No one will ever know, but I might have been in part or in whole responsible for the terrible thing that happened to my son without really any sense of a tragedy or a guilt or a culpability beyond that, that really every human being carries because it’s the nature of living a life.
|LF: How long do you feel it took you to get to that point?|
|BW: I think I’m getting to that point. I haven’t in my whole life ever experienced anything I would call a fixed state of mental health or awareness, right? I’m not sure that’s realistic. I think I could pretend like there were percentages of time. I definitely have more joy and less devastation in my life now than I did a year ago. A year ago was better than a year before that. I think the first 24 hours after Noah died or after we heard about his death, it feels like the pivotal moment was that decision to want to live in a positive way.|
But if you just use the devastation, the animal grief, as an index, well, for the first year, I cried really hard every day, a couple of times probably. The second year it might have been once a day, and then once a week. And a year ago, I couldn’t have had this conversation without crying. Today, I could still feel the pain, the same pain, but I think one becomes acquainted with it.
This may sound strange or even silly, but there’s an aspect of being friendly toward yourself that allows you to be friendly toward your own emotions and reactions, even the least welcome emotions and reactions. A wonderful book by a guy named Mingyur Rinpoche, where he talks about his terrible anxiety as a child and the process of working toward the place where he could address his own anxiety in a friendly way and how that made it manageable.
I think that’s my experience with my fatherly grief, the grief I feel as a father, the one that undid me. I never thought about this before, Lorne, but I think the fact that I recognized in the depths of that grief and opportunity to learn something about compassion and to derive something positive even in that darkness has helped me develop a more open, friendlier relationship with all my emotions, but particularly the most powerful and saddest and darkest of them.
Which I think if we hung out, it starts to sound a little bit like I might have this morbid, dark kind of presence. I don’t think most people would say that about me, and I certainly don’t. That’s certainly not how I see myself at all, but I do see myself as a much warmer, kinder, more vulnerable, less certain person than I was.
|LF: You’re right in that we all have this innate gift for compassion. But I was wondering, through your experience of sharpening your compassion and getting more in touch with what compassion really meant to you, if you felt like it’s possible to get good at compassion, for lack of a better expression, without experiencing the sort of immense heartbreak that you went through.|
|BW: Well, gosh, I hope so.|
|LF: How do we do it then?|
|BW: Well, I think we start cultivating our capacity for compassion by examining our own vulnerability, by acknowledging our own vulnerability, which in turn helps us feel more courageous about moving toward the suffering of others. I just don’t think you can really exercise compassion without your presence. And in order to give people that presence, you have to be willing to move toward their suffering, their place of suffering. I work on holding my vulnerability.|
I try to keep my heart open, and I accept that my own broken-heartedness is a gift and that it helps me be more open-hearted. But nobody would seek out devastating grief, but everybody experienced grief sometime in the last hour or so probably on some scale, or at least everyone is capable of visualizing grief that they are going to experience. Acknowledging that awareness seems to me to be a really fundamental move toward increasing our capacities as individuals for compassion.
|LF: I want to try to ask more specifically, I guess, how you approach people who are suffering, because I hear people say all the time, “I don’t know what to say to somebody who’s going through this grief. I don’t know how to be there for that person.” How do you approach these people with compassion? What does that look like?|
|BW: I think it’s about presence. If there doesn’t seem to be anything to say, you don’t have to say anything. I felt so keenly the benefit of having people just show up and be with me when I was most devastated, when I was a wreck. I think don’t underestimate the value of your just being there, of your presence, of your attentiveness. You don’t have to ask questions or give reassurances.|
In that presence, and I don’t know how this works, but in that presence, there’s an acknowledgement that we each have the capacity to feel this way. I’m not feeling what you were feeling, but I could and therefore I’m here.
|LF: Is there anything else, Bryan, that we haven’t talked about today that you would want people to know about your experience or about what you’ve discovered about building empathy and acknowledging vulnerability and getting better at being a compassionate human being?|
|BW: Well, there’s one other aspect of it that I find quite interesting, Lorne, and that’s just the simple reality that nothing lives except at the expense of other living things. No matter what you eat, no matter how much you eat, no matter what you drive, your existence here depends on the suffering and death of other living things. For me that provides another one of those building blocks for a life that is both joyful and accountable.|
It provides me with an “other” frame of reference to help me maintain my open-heartedness, my broken-heartedness, my vulnerability, my willingness to move toward the suffering of others. Because not only are none of us innocent, but I don’t trust my own calculations to tell me who might be more or less innocent than somebody else.
And for me anyway, that improves my ability to meet other people in an open mind and an open-hearted way no matter who they are. I’m thankful to be able to work on that and get a little better at it.
|LF: Bryan Welch is an alum of the University of Denver, the CEO of Mindful and the author of “Healing in the Deep Ocean of Grief.” Bryan, thank you so much for sharing your insight with us.|
|BW: Thank you, Lorne. It’s been very nice to be with you.|