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How Brian Griese channeled childhood grief into a lifelong mission

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Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesBy: ERIC MOLLO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) – Former quarterback and current ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Brian Griese had plenty of on-field success across his collegiate and professional career. A national champion in 1997, he entered the NFL Draft and went on to play 11 seasons and win a Super Bowl. For many of those years, however, he was trying to process a tragedy that occurred in his childhood: the loss of his mother.

“I was angry… at God for taking my mom from me because she was such a wonderful person. She was a nurse and she cared for other people long before she cared about herself and was just a wonderful person.”

Brian was 12-years-old when his mother passed away from breast cancer, and says it took him years to actually process the grief because he was reluctant to share his feelings for a long time.

“You’re really at a very formative stage in your development. And I remember feeling like I was the only 12 year old boy in the world that had just lost his mom.”

It even brought on a range of emotions that, while not drawing much public attention, manifested in negative ways across his life:

“My ability to form relationships, my work in school, the way that I interacted with people… I had a hard time dealing with the media. I had built these walls around myself so that I can only depend on me to get through tough times. And so when I started losing games in the NFL and the media started to talk negatively about me, I put those walls up even higher and it was a self-destructive way of approaching it… It impacted me in a negative way throughout my life from 12-years-old all the way until 2002.”

That was the year Brian channeled his grief into action. Along with his wife Brook, a licensed clinical psychologist, Brian founded the non-profit Judi’s House, named after his mother. Its mission is to help connect and heal children and families who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

Griese reflected on the achievements of Judi’s House in a conversation with ABC News on Thursday, Children’s Grief Awareness Day.

“I had this great opportunity as a professional athlete and a great platform to give back, and I knew that I wanted to help a population that was experiencing the tragedy of losing a loved one, whether that’s a mother or father, brother or sister. And I wanted to support them through that that dark time. I knew that we could prevent some of the negative outcomes that I felt, whether it’s stress, anxiety, depression, teen suicide. We could help to prevent some of those things by building positive coping skills in kids and bringing them together with other children that were experiencing the same thing…. That was the genesis of Judi’s House. And for the past 18 years, we’ve done that work. We’ve served over eleven thousand children and caregivers in that time.”

One of his foundation’s proudest achievements is the way they are able serve people from different walks of life:

“All socioeconomic statuses, all race, religion, creed, and we do so free of charge. When we first started out… we had a lot of folks that came that were from challenging backgrounds because the free service for them was a big deal. And folks that came from more advantaged backgrounds, you would think would go to see individual counselors because they could afford that. What we found now is we have both, from all socioeconomic statuses, that come into this house.”

This year, as Judi’s House acknowledges Children’s Grief Awareness Day, they do so amid a pandemic that has caused grief and heightened anxiety for many families. Griese says the foundation has had to adjust, and feels now is as important a time as ever to help connect people to one another and process grief together:

“The in-person part of what we do is critical… so we pivoted pretty early on in March to providing telehealth services, counseling services… and we added in video portions of that in June… But it’s important that we continue to provide that connection to our families because their grief does not stop because of COVID and the pandemic. I think more people are going to be aware of grief and loss because of what we’re all experiencing. It’s a time where I would encourage people to create the space to talk about loss and to talk about death. We are a grief-avoidance society, and I think we need to do a better job of having these conversations among adults and then extrapolating that to conversations with our kids, which is probably most important.”

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