Finding unexpected blessings through tragedy

By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

Mary Heffron de Brueys said prayer and humility prompted her to ask “Why not me?” after her son, James, was lost at sea in the Pacific Ocean in the Marshall Islands on Thanksgiving Day 2010.  

Pictured in a 2010 family photo are, front row, from left, James deBrueys, Simone deBrueys Bajon, holding nephew, Blake McCrary, Michelle deBrueys McCrary, holding daughter Madison; back row, Steven deBrueys, Mary deBrueys, Patrick McCrary, John and Andre’ deBrueys Cardinale and Jim deBrueys. Photo provided by Mary Heffron deBrueys 


De Brueys talked about how her son’s death helped her gain a deeper understanding of love and eternal life at the meeting of Women in Spirit on March 28 at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge.  

James, who graduated from LSU with a degree in anthropology, had decided to teach English at the Arno Atoll. He volunteered with World Tech, a non-governmental agency that places volunteer teachers in developing countries.  

The Arno AtoIl is a remote part of the sprawling chain of more than 1,200 volcanic and coral atolls that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands.  

James was on a boat with four other adults, including a pregnant woman, heading to the capital Atoll of Majuro for a Thanksgiving Day feast provided by World Teach for its volunteers when the boat capsized. Their boat was found, but only two bodies were recovered. The other three people, including James, were lost at sea.  

DeBrueys told the attendees that healing from loss begins with prayer.  

“I had heard (the saying) ‘Pray first and your heart will follow,’ ” said deBrueys. 

She offered attendees a mathematical equation of love: Love=God (who created us) who is eternal; therefore each of us is eternal. 

Through prayer, she also learned the importance of humility in accepting one’s circumstances. Praying the Litany of Humility was part of her faith journey.  

“We can look at the horrible things happening around the world, yet we don’t really understand (intense suffering and pain) until it hits close to home,” deBrueys said.  

Mary Heffron deBruey


In James’ circumstances, deBruey noted that among the other people who perished were the captain, who had been a successful navigator for many years, and the pregnant woman.  

Through prayer she recognized she and her family experienced suffering and grief the same way as people in Puerto Rico did when the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 or the families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks on America in 2001.  

The natural response when hit with a loss is to ask, “Did I do something to deserve this?” or “Did my loved one do something to deserve this?” according to deBrueys.  

She said this is where humility comes in. 

Comparing people’s time on earth as a “sliver” in the overall perspective of eternity, deBrueys said people should use their brief earthly life to appreciate the gift of each day, the gift of each person in their life and to pray for each other. Since “now” is part of eternal life, the question then came to her mind, “Why not me?”  

De Brueys, who received support in recovering from her loss through participating in The Cracked Pot grieving support ministry at St. Aloysius Church in Baton Rouge, said prayer helps people turn their loss into blessings. Part of the blessings for deBrueys is knowing James lives on through the people’s lives he impacted.  

James was an “interesting person” deBrueys said. He won awards for chess, was a national honor society member, an altar boy and Boy Scout. He was also a “cracker jack” and “creative spirit” who was captain of a rugby team and was considered “the alpha dog” among his friends, played with a band at parties as well as for charitable events. He also won fourth place in the International Beard and Moustache Competition in Alaska in 2009. 

He made many friends on the island. He relished his time at that place of “beaches and coconuts” which had no cars or streets, which allowed him to take walks with his friends and the children and share stories.  

James had started an effort to construct a basketball court on the island and after his death many came together to see it was completed. The deBrueys went to the Marshall Islands for its dedication.  

“In all my dreams I never thought I would go there,” said deBrueys. 

She had an opportunity to see the boat where James spent the last moments of his life. But as she tearfully looked at it, there was also a large rainbow that appeared in the sky around it, which gave her a sense of reassurance and peace.  

DeBrueys encouraged the women to trust God and surrender their grief to him.  

She quoted Marabai Starr, whom she said has become intimate with darkness through studying and translating the work of St. John of the Cross, as well as her own journey of losing of her daughter: “Drowning, I surrendered … and discovered I could breathe under water.”