On the sandy brown beaches of Kawela Bay in O’ahu, Hawaii, hundreds gather to remember a little boy who loved the water. With an infectious smile and limitless joy, little 8-year-old Grif Pierce had radiated light as though he were the sunshine itself, and all who knew him basked in his warmth.
Adults and children circle around to bid Grif farewell, swaying to the steady strumming of guitar played by singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, who performs “Home” as a parting song for Grif. The ocean waves break behind their backs. Flower leis are draped around the necks of Grif’s mother, Taylor Pierce, and his father, Chris Pierce, as well as his three siblings.
The Pierce family gathers with friends and family the day of the paddle out for Grif in O'ahu, Hawaii.
The attendees are dressed in swimsuits in preparation for a memorial paddle out—a ritual practiced by surfers and island communities—and a few memories of Grif are shared before a shout in the crowd rings out.
“Grif the Great!”
Family and friends whoop and cheer. Soon, they paddle into the ocean one at a time—a Hawaiian tradition that represents the grief these individuals bear alone. Once they reach a designated spot, they then join hands in a circle among the salty waves, symbolizing that they aren’t actually alone but are in this grief together. Splashing the water, they shout and throw flowers, singing “Aloha Oe,” a farewell song symbolizing the connection with their ancestors—and with Grif.
The moment is magic.
Just like Grif.
An estimated 350 people showed up for the paddle out for 8-year-old Grif Pierce.
Grif the Great
Taylor and Chris Pierce are no strangers to loss. The couple has been through many miscarriages over the course of their marriage in addition to their son Walt being born prematurely at six months and dying the same day he was born. Eleven months after Walt’s passing, the couple, who had two biological children at the time, decided to adopt Grif.
“I remember when he was wheeled into our room . . . it was this immediate, my spirit knew his spirit,” says Taylor. “And it was like, ‘Yes, absolutely. This is our child.’ And so that feeling of eternal family was like, ‘Oh, this is bigger than us. This isn’t us choosing a child. This is exactly how it was supposed to happen.”
Grif was born healthy but at a few months old was diagnosed with sickle beta thalassemia—a disease which affects hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells carrying oxygen to different areas of the body. For years Grif was unaffected by the disease, but then at age 4, he unexpectedly suffered a massive five-day long stroke. It affected the entire left side of his brain and he lost his hearing, sight, speech, and motor control.
While he regained most of his vision and hearing, over the next two years Grif would have to learn how to walk again and relied on the left side of his body. He also suffered from epilepsy and was able to verbally communicate very little. In spite of that, he had an uncanny ability to touch the hearts of others with simple actions such as cradling their face in his hands, curling up on their lap, or putting his arm on their back when he could tell they weren’t having a good day.
“It was like he just experienced a person, and he experienced the essence of them from the moment that he met them, and you felt that when you were with him,” says close family friend Natalie Norton. “I think that maybe that’s true, Christlike love, and that’s why so many people were so touched by Grif and felt such a sense of companionship with him.”
Grif experienced a second stroke nine months after the first. Based on CT scans every six months, doctors said it appeared as though Grif’s brain was constantly in a state of a stroking—they didn’t anticipate him living longer than six more months. The diagnosis was frightening, but Grif was a fighter, and his parents relied on their sense of peace that everything would be okay.
“There’s . . . this element of when you’re told that your child is going to die, that they don’t know when, that forces you to go somewhere,” says Chris. “I think some people live in denial. Some people live in fear. Some people live in anger. And I think for us, it really made us . . . search [ourselves] and dive into prayer.”
For the Pierces, living in faith meant making the most of their time together. They traveled to 15 countries often accompanied by their friends the Nortons, calling hospitals at every location they visited in case Grif needed transfusions or extra medication. Grif also learned how to ski—at first in a chair, but eventually standing up—and he loved to surf and play in the water. One of the most remarkable things about Grif’s story, says Richie Norton, is that Grif wasn’t held back in anything.
“[The Pierces] allowed Grif to be Grif. . . . And they let him intentionally—safely of course—be himself, express himself, and live without fear,” he says. “That kid lived, like, 20 lives in a short amount of time. He did more, went to more countries and saw more things and experienced and shared more goodness I think than most of us do in multiple lifetimes.”
After he turned 8, Grif was baptized by his father. The number of people in attendance was so large that the proceedings were moved from the Primary room to the chapel. A social butterfly, Grif cruised up and down the aisles, smiling at and hugging everyone that he could.
“When he came out of the water, he did a fist pump in the air and said, ‘Yes!’ He totally cheered for himself getting baptized,” says Taylor. “It was a really special baptism.”
It was this energy and positivity that made Grif special. Love for others seemed to flow through him—and it did so effortlessly.
“He just brought the joy with him,” says Richie, who calls Grif his best friend. “It wasn’t like he had joy or he was happy. He was joy. He is happiness. He is love. It wasn’t like a feeling—it was like he embodied it.”
The Pierces chose to see the miracles that surrounded them. Sometimes, those miracles were obvious. On one occasion, Grif went to the hospital with up to 86 percent of his blood clotting, and the numbers wouldn’t lower for three days. But the day that their branch fasted, his numbers quickly improved.
There were also countless times that people followed promptings and stepped in when the Pierces most needed it. Between Grif’s three brain surgeries and half a dozen general surgeries, Chris and Taylor spent countless hours in the hospital, often while concerned for their other children at home. But whether it was play dates for the kids, phone calls, or dinners brought to their house, the Pierces felt that it was the little things that showed God was watching over them.
“I think a lot of people go throughout their lives asking for miracles, but then they put a blindfold on,” says Chris. “And I think that through all of this, we’ve had this sense of ‘Open your eyes. Look around. Because you’ll only see the miracles if you do.’”
Taylor adds that their experiences have taught their family of God’s love for all of them.
Grif, Rhette, J, and Hugh Pierce in Naples, Italy.
“I look over the last four years and I see that my kids actually got an advance lesson on how much Heavenly Father loves them,” she says. “They got a front row seat to be shown every single day how much Heavenly Father loves them and thinks about them and cares about them because people were listening to their own promptings on how to serve our family.”
In March of this year, the Pierce family had spent a perfect day at the beach when the unexpected happened.
“He was running around and happy and had the best time ever and driving home, he kept on saying, ‘I love you, Momma. I love you, Dadda. I love you Rhe Rhe. I love you J. I love you Hugh,’ going through all of our family names the whole drive home, and we were like ‘Okay, okay, we know. We know.’ And then within 15 minutes of us getting home, he went unconscious. And he didn’t ever wake up from that,” says Taylor.
Over the two years leading up to that point, Grif had been doing well medically despite his chronic blood transfusions. While friends and family knew he was sick, they hoped he would outlive all of them. So when he suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke after that day on the beach, no one was sure how serious it would be.
“They knew their son was dying. It wasn’t some big surprise,” says Natalie. “Even though we all knew it was coming, it still knocked the wind out of us, because even if someone looks at you in the eye every single day and says, ‘This is coming. Hey, this train, it’s coming at you. It’s barreling at you full speed ahead and there’s nothing you can do to stop it’—when that train actually collides with you, it still surprises you. And you still have to fight the urge to say, ‘Why didn’t anybody tell me? Why didn’t anybody warn me?’”
The Pierce family says goodbye to Grif in the hospital after he suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke.
In the hospital, there was a feeling of collective grief, as everyone reflected on their unique love for and attachment to Grif.
“There was this density to the grief. Literally it was palpable, you could cut it with a knife,” says Richie. “No one knows what to do, but almost naturally even the Pierce family, ironically, would turn to others and let them know how much Grif loved them, as if the Pierces were consoling us.”
When Grif did pass away, there were miracles in that, too.
“It happened so quickly and dramatically and with such flair, almost to the point where that in and of itself was evidence of God’s hand, because I think it was a very real gift for every one of us,” says Natalie. “It was a tender mercy in many ways because when he went, he went. . . . It was like he was done. He was gone and there was nothing anybody could do. So, there was never a question of, ‘Oh my gosh, could we have, or should we have.’ It was 100 percent his work here on this earth was done.”
The Greatest Miracle
Multiple events, including a life celebration, a funeral, and the paddle out, were held to celebrate Grif’s life.
“We knew that he kind of was this little celebrity at school, like, everybody loves Grif and he was always smiley and couldn’t talk much, but everybody was like his older sibling. Everybody looked out for him. And it wasn’t until the paddle out that I recognized how much [of an] influence he had,” says Chris.
Perhaps one of the greatest miracles, Taylor says, is how they are able to find joy in their sorrow.
“It is through the Atonement that I can say that . . . nothing is final. No feeling is final. Life is not final. Losing [Grif] is not final. He isn’t lost. He isn’t gone. He didn’t just disappear,” says Taylor. “Through the Atonement we know that he is still alive, and not only is he going to be a part of our lives now but we will also get to live with him after we die,” says Taylor. “I can have the sadness and I can also have the joy in knowing that we’ll be together. Jesus Christ died not just for my sins but also for my heartbreak.”
The Pierce family gathers at Grif's grave the day of his funeral.
An Eternal Family
When Grif was 18 months old, the Pierce family had been sealed in the Newport Beach California Temple. During that sealing ceremony, they felt their son Walt cheering them on. And even though the kids went sliding down the outside fountain in their white clothes while their parents weren’t looking and ended up soaking wet for pictures, their family was together and would be for eternity—and that was what mattered.
Chris, Grif, and Taylor on the day they were sealed to Grif in the Newport Beach California Temple.
At the Laie cemetery, the Pierce family has written the letters of Grif’s name across the sandy surface of his grave in big capital letters. Next to his name are hand-drawn hearts—an outward sign that, as the lyrics in “Aloha Oe” state, “true love shall never depart.”
Grif will always live on—in the sweet memories of the past, in the simple touch of a hand upon a shoulder, in sorrow and joy and everything in between—because Grif is love.
As the sun rises and sets over the Hawaiian waters Grif loved so well, it serves as a reminder for all who knew this boy of light to live and love as he did—to let his love wash over them in a wave and be soaked in its goodness. It shines with the simple truth that they will love others for him, until they meet again.