Collective Grief

Chaplain Resident Kelsey Lewis

One Sunday afternoon I was doing my best to get through a yoga session when my sister barged into the room saying, “I just got a tweet: TMZ is reporting Kobe Bryant’s dead.” My response was, “TMZ must be desperate for attention.” Within minutes, every news station, ESPN, and social media erupted reporting that a helicopter carrying nine passengers crashed in the hills of Calabasas, California. Two of the passengers on that helicopter were Kobe Bryant and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna. The father daughter duo were headed to Gianna’s basketball game with teammates, family members, and coaches John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; and Christina Mauser, an assistant coach. I was watching the live news coverage and reading the ticker tape scroll across the bottom of the screen but could still not process it. It was unbelievable.

My sister fell to the floor in tears, my brother-in-law searched incessantly for validity in the
reports, and I was unable to move feeling the shock circulate through my entire body. As I stood there, I found my mind going back to elementary school when I would wear my #8 Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey to school any time we didn’t have to wear our white, collared shirts and blue bottoms uniform. I thought about shooting free throws for hours in the driveway trying to lock in my ‘Mamba Mentality’. At the same time, my sister was talking about how they went to the Lakers verses Cavaliers during Kobe’s final season. Within hours of the crash, there was a mural painted on the windows of my street of Kobe with his iconic outstretched arms palming a basketball. We, as individuals, a family, a city, a nation, and a world, were all finding meaningful ways to relate to this news… to this loss.

Collective shock occurs when people share stories, unload feelings, and connect with others within a difficult situation so they do not feel like they are bearing the weight of the event alone. Nobody in my family ever met any of the Bryant’s, Altobelli’s, Chester’s, or Mauser’s. But our need to verbalize what this accident meant to us was important because we were all unconsciously feeling the magnitude of the reality. The world lost a legend who formed his legacy on the court. Family members lost parents, daughters, siblings, husbands, and wives. Professional and amateur athletes alike lost friends, teammates, and role models. Media outlets tried to attack the integrity of the pilot, Ara George Zobayan, who also died. Many lost in ways that cannot be labeled or described.

I flipped on ESPN this morning and saw footage of the crash site, montages of Gigi growing up playing ball, and highlights of Kobe on and off the court. Throughout the day, athletes and many notable figures paid tribute to Kobe and honored the Bryant family’s loss. One year has gone by since the crash. After watching ESPN, I carried myself through the day feeling sad. I was thinking that my sadness was irrational because so many days had gone by in the last year where I didn’t think about Kobe, Gigi, John, Keri, Alyssa, Sarah, Payton, Christina, Ari, or their grieving families. I felt bad about feeling sad.

Rationality does not influence how and what I feel. There is no systematic approach to the onset of grief. Feelings do not come from the same place for the same reasons in the same way. My sadness was feeling empathy for the passengers and pilot on the helicopter and their families. Three young women’s lives were cut far too short. I recognize the magnitude of what athletes sports, and competition lost. As a fan since Kobe wore #8, I felt like he was unfairly taken away from me, and from all of those who loved him.

One of the primary modalities of healing is the concept of acceptance. I’ve struggled with this for my entire life because, as a former competitive athlete, my feelings got in the way of success. They got in the way of winning. Accepting the reality of a loss, I thought, meant that I was okay with it. Allowing my feelings to over take me in a game changing situation would disrupt my plans, skills, and techniques causing me to lose control and confidence. Losing a game is not the same as grieving a loss.

Accepting reality is about acknowledging what is real and what is being felt in the moment. It does not mean you have to be okay with the reality. Acceptance is noticing what you feel to avoid emotional suppression. It is about being mindful in the moment without trying to evaluate or change anything. While I sat on the edge of my bed staring at Sports Center, I thought about the last time that the world felt okay, that I felt what I knew to be my normal, was last January, on a Sunday afternoon, right before TMZ reported on the helicopter crash. Right now, I don’t have to be okay with it. I don’t even have to think about it. I just have to feel it.

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