Some people don’t find their life’s calling until adulthood, if ever. Michigan native and clinical psychologist Dr. Brook Griese, on the other hand, decided she wanted to be a child psychologist when she was just 11 years old. Her dad was the director of social services for the rural county where they lived; her mom was a psychiatric nurse. “I was very aware of the behavioral and emotional needs of community youth who didn’t have the support they needed,” she says. Griese graduated from Albion College in Michigan in 1997, then moved to Colorado to attend CU Boulder to pursue her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, which she earned in 2003. En route, her devotion to children was already plainly evident in the difficult work she did with survivors of child abuse and family violence.
Then her path crossed that of then-Denver Broncos quarterback Brian Griese (the couple married in 2004). Brian lost his mother to breast cancer when he was just 12. For years, that traumatic loss and the grief that followed it left lasting emotional scars. And so Brian and Brook launched Judi’s House in 2001, named for his mother and officially opening its doors in 2002, as a place where children and families experiencing tragic loss could get the support they needed “to not only survive this loss, but to thrive and move forward,” says Griese. “It’s about being able to honor and respect a death and a life, but also about being able to connect with others and move forward into the future in a healthy way.”
Fuel for the Fire
Since opening its doors[BG1] , the house off the southwest corner of Denver’s City Park has helped more than 6,000 children and caregivers. During that time, Griese has led the development and dissemination of its nationally recognized programs and research, and currently serves as executive director[BG2] . It is emotionally taxing work at times, especially since Griese is now also the mother of two kids of her own, who turned five and eight this spring. “Having children has made the work I do at Judi’s House even more salient for me—in terms of understanding the impact of the loss of a parent or the loss of a child on a family. It’s harder to think about the pain,” she says. “I can very easily put myself in those shoes, and the struggle it would be to grapple with that loss, move forward with life, and continue to care for your family and yourself. It has made it much more meaningful.” Griese continues: “Because I’m a mom now, I can also put myself in Judi’s shoes—she knew for some time that she was dying—and imagine what it would be like to say goodbye to my children, and also to think about what I would want in place for them if I died. It fuels my fire to ensure that any child in this situation would not be alone with their grief, that they have a place to go, and that parents and caregivers can trust that the support received at Judi’s House is effective.”
To decompress from such important yet difficult work, Griese paints. “I also studied visual arts in college,” she explains, “but I wanted painting to be my hobby and my love and what I did to relax and enjoy life.” She dreams of one day filling her family’s Denver home with more and bigger canvases, when the balance of work, family, and philanthropy isn’t so challenging. For now, though, she paints as much as her schedule allows. Griese’s favorite thing is to paint people, using oil on canvas to create layers of depth. “I’m fascinated by understanding what makes people tick; what makes them live happy, fulfilling lives,” she says. In particular, Griese focuses on eyes. “I can spend hours just painting the eyes in a portrait,” she says. “They’re truly the window to the soul. Whether the twinkle in their eye, or a serious and intense gaze … it’s fascinating to try to capture the essence of a human being on canvas.”
A Sense of Hopefulness
She notices the eyes of those coping with grief, too, including her own husband. “When I met Brian, he was very guarded; he had a sadness in his eyes that was palpable to me,” Griese explains. “I remember the very first time we went around and visited other support groups for grieving kids when we were starting Judi’s House together. Brian sat among other kids—and he was a big strong Broncos quarterback at the time—as they went around the circle and said who they were and who died in their lives. When he heard their stories, and then shared his story out loud and how he’d felt like the only 12-year-old boy who’d lost his mom, I saw a light come on in his eyes that has never gone away since.”
Griese sees that same kind of light come on in the eyes of the children that come to Judi’s House. “It’s amazing, even in their first visit to the house and their first connection with our programs,” she says. “I see a light come back into their eyes, and a sense of hopefulness that they’re not alone with this heavy grief they’re experiencing.” Griese brings the same compassion, drive and passion to her work at Judi’s House and to her other philanthropic endeavors. “A good portion of our date nights are fundraisers for Judi’s House and other nonprofits,” she says. “And sometimes, I’ll come home from work and my son marches me upstairs to put on pajamas and read him a book. And that’s the most important invitation I can accept.”
“One of my favorite parts of running a nonprofit is that it has connected me with the most generous and giving individuals in our community, and it has exposed me to other nonprofits and the important work they’re doing,” she continues. For example, Griese is on the board of the nonprofit Institute for Depression Studies and Treatment, which supports the work of the University of Colorado’s Depression Center. “It’s so meaningful to me because of my drive to improve access to mental health care for youth and families,” she explains. Griese also supports several other Denver-based[BG3] nonprofits, including Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, Denver Public Schools, the Center on Domestic Violence, the University of Colorado Cancer Center, and the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. And the list goes on.
Not surprisingly, balancing her work, family, and philanthropic life can be a challenge. “I wear a lot of hats in the community, and I’m constantly changing them throughout the day,” Griese explains. “I often go from work, to soccer practice, to a black tie event in the evening.”
“I just read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and how as women we juggle these roles—in the office, in the community, caring for our family—and put pressure on ourselves to be perfect,” she says. “We can’t be that. We have to be real. We have to live with kindness and integrity and let that guide us in our lives.” Whether at Judi’s House, or events with Denver’s philanthropic community, or bedtime stories with her own kids, that kindness and integrity are evident in Griese’s life. To some degree, the doctor is always in, and her eyes are squarely focused on the community’s—and her own—children.
BIO: Peter Bronski is an award-winning writer and frequent contributor to Colorado Expression.
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