Community + Culture: Profile
Tragedy and Transcendence
How Brittany Morrison found her way through grief by giving back
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Leah Muse
IF YOU HAPPENED TO SIT BESIDE BRITTANY MORRISON ON AN AIRplane and exchanged midflight pleasantries — work, kids, hometown, etc. — you’d be forgiven, as she stepped off the jet bridge and waved goodbye, for thinking she was one of those charmed women with a perfect life. Her easy, reassuring smile, striking good looks, and kind demeanor suggest an untroubled biography.
But let’s say you took your aisle seat beside Morrison sniffling: You’re on the way to your brother’s funeral, you tell her; his death came out of nowhere. You’re sorry for crying but you just can’t seem to get a grip since you heard the news.
At this, Morrison’s warm brown gaze might deepen, and, as the plane tilted skyward, you might hear the story that she’s shared with countless others in her tireless volunteer work with Hospice Austin. You might learn, then, that the warmth of her smile isn’t the untested joy of an easy life but a grace that comes in the afterglow of walking through fire. And suddenly Morrison, a 29-year-old mom and AVP of Commercial Business Development at Austin Title, might also strike you as a very wise and very old soul.
Here she shares her story of loss and how she moved from deep personal tragedy to the passionate volunteer work for Hospice Austin that recently earned her I Live Here I Give Here’s 2017 Patsy Woods Martin BIG Giver Award.
What circumstances originally led you to seek out Hospice Austin?
My situation is somewhat unique. My parents married when my mother became pregnant. They were divorced within a year of my birth. Throughout my childhood, my mother struggled with her own demons. My father passed away my senior year of high school from health issues that were much more severe than he’d let on. A few months later, my grandmother died. And then, right before my senior year in college, my aunt passed away.
Meanwhile, my mother was struggling with alcoholism. It was so painful to watch, because I knew the kind of person she could be. But she had spent a lot of time in a physically and verbally abusive relationship. She was sober for one and a half years in high school, my freshman and sophomore years. She met someone named Jim when I was 15 — the most wonderful man.
When I was in college, they reconnected, and he tried to help her. He was a great support system for me. At the end of college, I saw how sick she was getting. The day after my graduation, I moved in with Jim as my mother began a very rapid decline. I was working part-time at a doctor’s office, and after work one day, Jim sat me down. He had taken her to a doctor, who told her that complications from liver failure meant she had two weeks to live.
She stayed at the house with me. She could be stubborn, ornery, and mean sometimes, or purely in denial. It was the most emotional, scary thing I’ve ever endured. Knowing what I know now about the dying process, I would have let go more. But [back] then, coping with Mom was the hardest. I began attending Al-Anon meetings, but it was a little too late. I was so different from everyone else in the room: I had become the caregiver of an alcoholic, not just someone trying to cope with their loved one’s disease.
That’s where Hospice Austin came in. They offered an amazing sense of caring and support. On the day of my mother’s death, the nurse somehow intuited that my mother was dying and had the initiative to come back after visiting other patients. So my mother was able to pass without pain or struggling to endure. There’s a real lack of education around palliative care in our culture. We need to learn how to offer a loved one comfort as they die, instead of trying to fix them.
You’ve endured so much loss in your life. How did you find the strength to give back after the pain of your own grief?
Ever since the experience of my mother’s death, I wanted to help Hospice Austin. They never cherry-pick clients based on their ability to pay. They operate from the principle that everyone deserves the opportunity to die peacefully, without pain. They also work to reach a younger audience, with initiatives like Camp Brave Heart, a camp for grieving kids and teens. Everything they do runs on volunteer time and donor dollars.
“I had to literally lose everything to feel how wonderful life can be. I feel like I was born again into the world and given grace when I most needed it.
Directly after my mom’s death, I went into superwoman mode. Dealing with her house was a huge financial burden. The grief counseling Hospice Austin offered was a huge relief. My entire life I’d had very little control, and fear and stress predominated. One year after the anniversary of her death, I had an emotional breakdown. My then-boyfriend (now husband), Britt, had a grandfather who had lost his wife and gone to grief counseling. You need to talk to someone, he said. I did it for eight months, and it helped so much.
One day, I was sitting at home and I realized I was ready to help. I knew I didn’t want to be involved with patients; that was still too traumatic. So I tried to think of how I could be of service. I called Hospice Austin up and told them what I was good at. We decided I could share my story with others in the community. It’s rare for someone my age to share their grief story so publicly. It taught me how to talk to those who are grieving. Even if you’ve been through the gamut yourself, it is challenging to speak to those in the midst of it — because you care so much. But it’s so important.
I had to literally lose everything to feel how wonderful life can be. I feel like I was born again into the world and given grace when I most needed it. In those moments, we are carried by something much greater than ourselves. Still, there can be times that still feel really hard. Stuff you wouldn’t expect, like looking for a senior [year] photo for an activity at work. For most people, that would simply mean digging through old photos, but for me, that meant going up to the attic and returning to a really traumatic time. And now that I have a baby girl, I wish my mom was here to witness her big moments, like her first birthday. Those joyful moments are tinged with sadness too — full of celebrating and mourning. But now I’m able to enjoy them and feel everything, the good and the bad. I’m no longer consumed by my grief.