Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing. Emma Donoghue

Opportunities to speak up are everywhere these days. Police brutality. The destructive effects of climate change. The pandemic’s devastating impact on schoolchildren. The loss of a woman’s right to choose and the potential revocation of everyone’s right to marry who they love. The denial of science. The glorification of guns.

Rage and violence are rampant, and our country is on fire in ways that cannot be ignored. Yet these calls to actions, when taken together, feel overwhelming. How and where to help first? What to speak up for and for whom?

I am not a capital “B” brave person. I listen to an old Fresh Air interview with Congressman John Lewis and marvel at both his courage and what it cost him to fight for what he believed in. I watch a video of the police in Arizona fire tear gas at pro choice protesters and shame myself for not showing up to our local rallies. I am in awe of how many citizens are running into the blaze, doing all they can to defend the rest of us, and I am cowed, not just by my fear, but by the size of the war and the sheer number of battles that need to be fought, many of which I thought we’d won long ago.

I wonder what Jimmy would make of this chaos. Where would he would focus his attention? How would he take his stand? I think back to his quiet courage,  standing pale and thin before a crowd of thousands, advocating for information and support for other cancer survivors, even as he was enduring his own horrific medical treatments. And I remember there are so many ways to be brave.

Jimmy speaking at 2006 LIVESTRONG bike ride. He's wearing a black baseball hat with LIVESTRONG in yellow written on it and a Stanford bike jerseyWhat can get lost in the cacophony of coverage on Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle is the bravery that doesn’t involve laying down your life for a cause. The everyday courage of going to school bald when none of your eighth-grade classmates are. The determination to keep doing what you love – concerts, ballgames and movies – despite the people who stare openly at your face, puffy from steroids or snigger because you can’t keep your balance. The willingness to find joy in what you still can do, instead of focusing on what you can’t.

Jimmy taught me that courage is in the small things. Defending someone who is different from a mob scared of everything but conformity. Waiting for the slowest mover in the group when all you want to do is run. Speaking out when those around you wish you’d stay silent. Sharing your story when others won’t, in the hope that one person might feel less alone. Getting out of bed in the days and weeks after your son or daughter, husband or mother has died. Making breakfast for the surviving family members. Continuing to do whatever is necessary until the pain eases, and you can find a way forward.

Life is hard, even without a lingering pandemic, a looming recession and personal attacks instead of dialogue. The world can feel cruel and threatening, but the beauty is still there if you look for it. The friend who will remember and say the name of your stillborn daughter, even though there are no memories of her outside the womb. The family member grieving her own loss who will make space to hold yours, too. The sister-in-law who sends a spectacular flower arrangement from Farm Girl Flowers every year on your son’s birthday to celebrate the beloved big brother he will forever be to her three daughters.

Showing up for someone who’s lost one of her essential people is like riding into battle unarmed. Words and actions are powerless to fix or repair the devastation. The chance of stepping on a landmine is high, and retreat is often the most tempting option. Only the brave will venture into the community of My Child is Dead and stand their ground, even when they don’t know what to do or say in the face of a tsunami-size loss. The willingness to acknowledge our invisible wounds and refuse to look away provides a solace that comes from presence and a love so fierce and strong you can feel it from across the ocean. Like Jimmy, these grief warriors remind me that courage lives not just in the stage-worthy, but also in small acts of defiance and the willingness to do hard things. Each one matters, and when taken together, can heal a broken heart or, like the tide, pull a broken soul back onto solid ground.

For eight years, Jimmy relied on his inner compass to figure out when and where to raise his voice, trusting that he would know how to do the next right thing. Without his gentle presence to guide me, it is hard to know where to start. But I know if I sit quietly and pull him close, he will keep showing me the way.

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  • Angie Kelly says:

    I am still inspired by his bravery, and needed this reminder today.

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