Complicated Grief for Kobe Bryant

Given the state of technology, many people find out about a tragic event online, which instantly triggers internet-wary disbelief and a hurried need to get confirmation (or desperately hoped for disproof) from credible sources.

After feverish Googling the story yesterday began to settle in that Kobe Bryant was on a helicopter that crashed and he has died. So began the universal yet completely individual experience of grieving.

The first thing you should know is that grief toward a public figure is valid.

If you know anything about a person, you have a relationship with them. And when someone you have a relationship with dies, it’s natural to experience some kind of grief. People like Princess Diana, Whitney Houston, Prince, and Kobe Bryant had a profound impact on the lives of people who had never met them, so when they very suddenly die people experience grief specific to their relationship with that person and what they meant to their lives.

The sudden death of Kobe Bryant will bring up different feelings based on your relationship with this very public person. How that grief presents depends on the nature of your feelings toward him. If you grew up in LA in the 2000s Kobe Bryant may be your hero, if you relate to his 2003 accuser you might see him as a villain, but grief is complicated, and many people are likely feeling conflicting emotions at his death which is completely natural. This isn’t an argument for or against Kobe Bryant, this is an invitation to accept the complexity of grief without judgment.

Grief is rarely black and white. You can both believe Bryant’s accuser and still be sad that he died.

You can imagine the other great things he’ll never get to accomplish. You can have thoughts that this was karma. You can cry for the helplessness he must have felt. You can blame his affluence. You can hope it ended quickly. You can be thankful that none of them were alone in their fear. He can still be your hero. All thoughts and feelings are okay.

The challenge we face as bereaved people is deciding which of these thoughts we’re going to listen and give weight to. In emotional situations our brains are really bad at recording facts but very good at remembering feelings. The feelings you focus on as you process this will become your memory of the event and can lay ground work for future, more personal grief experiences.

If you’re in a situation with Bryant or with anyone else, where you feel challenged by negative thoughts toward them, a way to reframe that might be to focus on the survivors. No matter what your opinion of Kobe Bryant you can imagine the suffering of his wife and children. Training your thoughts toward them might lighten the burden of negativity and instead spark feelings of compassion.

Another way to frame this is understanding that no matter how much money or privilege we work to acquire, we are all fleeting and fragile. You could use this thought to be more present for the moments you share with people you care about. It can leave you with feelings of gratitude. There are any number of ways to shift your emotional focus.

All of that said, anger is a legitimate part of grief and if anger is what you’re comfortable feeling, that too is okay. It’s just wise to use caution when sharing your anger, because, though venting feels good, it is very often unsupportive to the needs of survivors. It’s likely that survivors are dealing with their own complicated feelings of sadness, guilt, anger, confusion, and helplessness. So when you share anger, it’s good to ask yourself who and why. Who can I talk to about this without hurting someone who is already hurting? Why do I want to share this anger, what meaning will come of it? Then ask yourself if you’re comfortable with those answers.

Today the families of nine imperfect human beings are suffering, and countless others are grieving a lost part of their lives as well. Be gentle with yourself and the people around you.


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