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Why the death of Kobe Bryant hits us so hard — and how to cope

We may not have known Kobe Bryant personally, but the grief some of us feel over his death is still very real.
Image: A woman looks at a mural by artists Muck Rock and Mr79lts of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, after they were killed in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2020.
A woman looks at a mural by artists Muck Rock and Mr79lts of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, after they were killed in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2020.Apu Gomes / AFP - Getty Images

It's November, 1996, and I'm 13 years old. My father and I are sitting court-side at the Los Angeles Forum as the Lakers take position.

"Keep an eye on this kid," my dad says, nudging me to glance up from my hot dog and peanuts. "He's gonna be a star."

Dad is talking about Kobe Bryant, the 18-year old wunderkind who, standing only about five feet from where I sit, looks to be about three times my size.

"Just out of high school," Dad continues. "Can you believe it?"

No, I can't believe it. Bryant's magnificent height and build make him look older to me, but his face is boyish and sweet, bearing a puckish grin. The crowd is going crazy and suddenly, so is my heart: it dawns on me that Kobe is the most beautiful boy (for I cannot yet see him as a "man") I've ever seen.

I actually don't remember much of Bryant's first game, performance-wise; but I do remember how his sweat laced around his temples, and glistened on his cheekbones and that, at one moment, he was so close to me, I felt the hot wind surge off his body. I also remember (though admittedly, this may have happened later that season) that another player soared over me after the ball and, with his enormous foot, conked me right on the head. As people in nearby seat huddled around me asking if I was OK, my sole concern was whether Kobe had seen the embarrassing incident.

I never met Kobe Bryant, but I felt like I knew him, in fact, felt like I loved him, and when I learned that he died (along with 8 others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna), my stomach lurched with the bad kind of butterflies and my eyes welled. I spent much of the day in bed, reading story after horrific story on the helicopter crash that snatched those beautiful lives away but an hour from where I was lounging around like it was any old Sunday morning in Los Angeles.

I was surely not alone in my despair as people around the globe took to social media to share their shock and dismay. Gay L. Polk-Payton, an attorney and judge in Mississippi who named her 21-year old son Gaybriel Jekobe (French for “I Kobe”) Payton, after Kobe Bryant had hardly gotten out of bed since she heard the news.

“I lost it when I found out he died,” Polk-Payton tells me, choking up. “And then when I found out Gianna was with him, his baby girl he nurtured so much and who idolized him, I just lost it all over again. I had to take [Monday] off of work. I’ve been in the same clothes for two days. I’m just a mess.”

This grief is valid and the worst thing you can do is deny it

Polk-Payton is giving herself the time she needs to mourn and accepting that this is a real loss. Her way is the healthy and healing way to go about it, according to therapists.

A loss must be grieved whether it is a personal relationship or whether it is a relationship from a distance.

“This loss is very real because Kobe Bryant was a real person whom we all feel like we knew at some level,” says Tami Frye, a licensed master social worker and faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Social Work program. “He met a need for most of us by providing entertainment and by giving us joy. We pulled for him when we watched him play and we were saddened when we saw him lose. We felt in some way we were part of his life and he was part of ours. Now that part is over. An ending like this must be grieved. A loss must be grieved whether it is a personal relationship or whether it is a relationship from a distance.”

A mortality wake-up call that challenges our sense of normalcy

Much like fellow NBC News BETTER contributor Vivian Manning-Schaffel did upon the death of The Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek, I found myself wondering if I was really mourning Bryant, or if I was mourning those bonding times with my dad watching a legacy unfold on the Lakers’ home court. Such nostalgic melancholy certainly may play a role, but what’s perhaps more devastating, are the tragic circumstances around this particular kind of death — and the beaming potential of those who perished.

“There’s a huge sense of loss when people who are young and really excelling in life are stripped away from us out of the blue,” says Lauren Cook, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University. “It’s really triggering as it’s a stark reminder of life's unpredictability. We tend to go through our days with a sense of normalcy that we can take it for granted. A loss like this is something that humans, who crave homeostasis, find tragically alarming.”

Additionally, while we may have intellectually known that Kobe, like all humans, was not immortal, we may have never really considered his mortality before given his towering celebrity.

“Celebrities’ lives are always on display, and they always seem ‘larger than life’,” says Natalie Mica, a licensed professional counselor. “Their presence almost seems immortal, and their death destroys that illusion and puts us face to face with our own mortality as well as the loss of the illusion that life is safe and predictable.”

Mica adds that when a beloved celebrity dies, this loss of illusion happens on a collective level, which adds to the complexity and intensity of grief. “It is no longer an individual's personal grief over loss, but ‘our’ grief,” Mica says. “Adding to this is the fact that each new loss can bring up the memory of prior losses. So, as we collectively mourn the loss of a celebrity such as Kobe, the pain of other losses can seep in as well. As we feel these losses together, a thread emerges that recognizes how precious and fragile life is. For a time, this grief gives us full contact with our shared humanity despite our differences.”

[A celebrity death] puts us face to face with our own mortality as well as the loss of the illusion that life is safe and predictable.

Natalie Mica, LPC

The grief you feel is valid — don’t push it away

It might be tempting to try and push yourself back into your routine and simply get on with the week, but if this loss is hurting you, it’s important for your mental health to take the time to experience your feelings.

“Grief responses to a celebrity death are very real responses,” says Rachel Del Dosso, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “If you feel sadness, shock, anger, disbelief, fear, etc., those are all normal responses. People might think they are not allowed to grieve someone they did not personally know, but just because you didn't personally know Kobe doesn't mean he didn't occupy an important space in your life. For many people he was a hero, someone to look up to, an inspiration, a symbol of strength and perseverance. Many people all across the country are mourning the loss of a very special person, and seeing someone larger than life pass so young (especially with all of the other children and parents on the helicopter) can bring up fears around our own mortality (and the mortality of our loved ones). it can bring up feelings of not feeling safe as well. For some children, it may be their first encounter with death. For their parents: let your children share about how much Kobe meant to them, make room for them to share their feelings, allow them to tell stories of special memories of him.”

Mica adds that grief is not only a measure of loss, “but of love, respect and hope. Honoring grief honors these things as well. Pushing past it, minimizing it or explaining it away invalidates our grief and our tie to this inevitable part of the human experience.”

Be kind to yourself (and be patient)

If this loss has shaken you, it may be a while before you feel OK again. Be patient with yourself.

“To cope with this loss, it is critical to be gentle with yourself over the next couple of weeks,” says Nekeshia Hammond, a psychologist and author. She stresses that it's important to surround yourself with family and friends to help you through this loss.

If no one in your family or friend group is terribly fazed by the tragedy, consider seeking community online.

“Social media — and the internet broadly — is a great way to find other people who are experiencing similar feelings so you can talk through what it means,” says Natalie Pennington, assistant professor of Communication Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, specializing in online relationships, grief and social support. “Close friends and family may come together at a wake or funeral to commemorate the deceased, but when it is a celebrity, this can be hard for a broader group of people who weren't close to the deceased, but still care."

The next best thing you can do to cope with this loss (once you have fully processed it), is to use it to make you a better person.

“Helping others is the best way to prevent getting stuck or to get unstuck,” says Frye. “It changes the focus from your own pain and moves that focus onto others and their pain. Finally, remember the fact that Kobe Bryant did so much to help others; he took his fame and did good out of it. The best way to cope with this loss is to find a way to take the good you have from being a fan and incorporate that into your life. Let it make you a better person. Let it help you reach out to others.”

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