May 9, 2017

After wife's death, SVSU faculty member discovers therapy for despair

By Jill Allardyce

It was just after midnight on a warm fall Saturday morning. The light rainfall had suddenly switched to a downpour during the 100-mile Hallucination trail race on Sept. 9, 2016. As the morning hours ticked on, the dusty dirt paths transformed to deep pockets of mashed mud. Visibility was becoming a problem for runners on that dark and challenging trail race in Pinckney, Michigan.

The soaking wet conditions took a toll on the 203 race entrants. Of them, 132 runners would eventually quit before finishing in the 30-hour time limit. Yet one runner, Brian Thomas, made a promise to himself that no foul weather would dampen his determination to finish this race. For him, this race was more significant than any other in his lifetime.

Brian had five 100-mile race entries under his belt. He discovered over a decade earlier that distance running helped him cope with stress, like when he and his college sweetheart-turned-wife, Holli Wallace, dealt with tuition debt while completing graduate and law school, respectively.

The couple grew together, from their 20s to their 30s, seeking out careers that fit their passions. He became a faculty member with SVSU’s sociology department as well as acting director of strategic partnerships and Study Abroad. She worked as an attorney helping underprivileged groups. They started a family with two sons, Elliott and Oliver. 

Then tragedy struck the family Oct. 16, 2013, when Holli unexpectedly died. She was 37.  

Three years later, the difficult conditions of this 100-mile race were no match to the despair Brian endured following his wife’s death. Still, both challenges collided along this dark trail. After all, it was his grief that propelled him forward into the night — and toward the hope that his example might help others dealing with the loss of a loved one.

*

‌Oct. 16, 2013, started out a regular day for Brian Thomas and his family. After finishing teaching his statistics course at SVSU, he hurried to pick up his son, Elliott, to take the then-7-year-old boy to karate lessons.

“I remember wondering if Holli would have Elliott in his karate uniform,” Brian said. “The last couple of months had been a little different in our hurried lives of young professionals.  Holli had left her 9-to-5 job as an attorney to focus her energy on politics, pro-bono legal work for the community, and, of course, our boys.”

When Brian arrived home, Elliott called up from the basement. He couldn’t wake up his mother.

“I quickly went over to her, remember shaking her right knee to wake her and knowing that something was seriously wrong,” Brian said. “I realized she wasn’t breathing.” 

He called 911 and began CPR. The paramedics arrived quickly and could not resuscitate Holli. Later, doctors discovered she died from mitral valve prolapse, an undiagnosed heart condition.  

Brian and his boys were lost in the weeks following her death. During that period, he often thought to himself, “Others have been through this — so shouldn’t we make it through OK?” 

He hoped at first, with a little patience and perseverance, the ache of losing his wife of 11 years would get easier. The words of others, support from friends, and sympathy cards filled him with hope he would be OK with “moving on” or “letting go” and would eventually find “acceptance” of living without her.

What he discovered was that grief wasn’t a race to finish, and he would need a different sort of stamina to endure
its challenges.  

*

Brian was at the 84-mile mark, with only 16 more miles to go. The course included six 16.6-mile loops. There was an inevitability to the sixth and final circuit. Yet the closer he came to the finish line, the farther away it seemed.

As the sun began to set once again and runners neared the end of the race, the darkness took over for a second time during this 30-hour challenge. The physical toll of the effort began to weigh on Brian mentally. Trees along the side of the pathway seemed like lurking bears, waiting to pounce in the darkness. The trail beneath his feet appeared to wind and move like a threatening snake. He felt a little unsure, but he knew there was nothing to fear. He would finish this. He had to finish this.

Thoughts of seeing Oliver and Elliot at the finish line — thoughts of Holli — helped him move forward.

*

About a year and a half after Holli died, the challenges of loss and grief remained with the family of three. At the request of eldest son Elliott, Brian sought out a support group. He found the recently formed Children’s Grief Center of the Great Lakes Bay Region. While the Midland-based institution specialized in helping children deal with loss, the therapy extended to Brian, too. 

Together, they faithfully attended meetings, even to this day. They healed together as they grieved through expression, using art, dance, theatre, storytelling and writing to share their feelings.

The experience helped Brian discover how to cope and move forward — doing what needs to be done in everyday life while still honoring the legacy of Holli.

“That’s the challenge that I woke up to the day after Holli died,” Brian said. “Memories are sometimes a double-edge sword for me. Part of me wants nothing more than to freeze everything in place and linger in the past. It took me several months to take her clothes from our closet. I wish Elliott and Oliver could forever wear the pants she sewed for them.”

Oliver was reaching a toddler’s developmental milestones that would require Brian to help him wean from his pacifier … learn to use the bathroom … transitioning from a crib to a “big-boy bed” and, eventually, start school.  Both children needed Brian to remain strong and lead the family through everything to come.

“It can be dangerous lingering too much in the past as the world moves forward,” he said. “Holli is so much a part of who I am in my heart and soul. I think about her every day to draw my strength. At the same time, I know that I have to keep moving forward without her by my side.”

Work provided one coping mechanism. Brian earned accolades over the years for his approach to teaching sociology as well as his efforts in assisting SVSU’s Study Abroad program. His accomplishments included founding the Green Cardinal Initiative, which featured SVSU students, faculty and staff promoting environmental friendliness. His exceptional work continued after Holli’s death. Later that same year, he was one of 11 recipients of the Ruby Award, given annually to the Great Lakes Bay Region’s most remarkable professionals under the age of 40. 

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Brian in retrospect realized his running strategies also helped him approach each new day after his wife’s death. He moved forward in small increments, with what he calls “The 10 Percent Rule.” In running, this applies to increasing week-by-week mileage in increments of 10 percent. It’s applied to prevent injuries that would result from over use of a muscle.   

“Early on, I began envisioning being without her at small moments, like dinner in the evening or for the upcoming weekend, before trying to think about major events like holidays,” he said. “I practiced retelling the events of the day that she died in my mind, and then to people close to me so that I could move myself closer to a stage where I could talk openly about her to strangers.”

Having a good support system of friends and family to make decisions and carry the load is important, he realized. Life can offer heavy burdens. 

“In truth, I have a very independent personality,” he said. “That’s a problem sometimes and I have had to learn to reach out for help. With the help of grandparents, friends, neighbors and teachers, the boys and I made our way.”   

Brian made a point to never ignore his pain. He recognized it and tried to learn when to talk about it or ask for help.

“I look for pain that may be leading me to make bad decisions or unable to function well for extended periods,” he said. “I’d like to say that the distinction is easy to make, but it isn’t. Through trial and sometimes error, I like to think that I am better at it than when I started this journey.”

Brian raised more than $7,700 in pledges for the Children’s Grief Center as part of his participation in the Hallucination race in September. Even though Holli was not there in body, he was determined to run with her in spirit. He wore her name on his chest — “RUN FOR HOLLI,” his shirt read — as a celebration of all that she represented. 

“She was one of those people who seemed like she was everywhere at once,” Brian said. 

“She could not be summed up in single words or even short phrases. She was, at best, a long list.  She was a mother, a daughter, a wife, a friend, an attorney, an activist, a caretaker, a community volunteer, a political leader, an idealist, a seamstress, a cook, and a lifelong fan of The Bold and The Beautiful. The list goes on.”  

That list is a legacy that remains strong for her family.

*

It was near the end of the Hallucination race when Brian first spotted the faint green glow near the finish line. As he approached, he recognized the source of the light as a sight he spent much of the last 100 miles thinking about: Elliott and Oliver, both wearing glow bracelets.

Brian’s sons shrieked in excitement when they recognized their dad. The boys ran toward him. A few steps from the end of the race, they embraced as a family — minus one. 

In struggling with the loss of Holli these last few years, Brian realized there was no finish line for grief. There was no medal to collect and no accomplishment to celebrate. The road for that race remained unendingly ahead for him and his sons. 

Still, they moved forward — stepping over the Hallucination’s finish line together — in this run for Holli; in this tribute to the life she left for them all.