I remember the year Kurt Cobain died. Teenaged friends of mine, accustomed to wearing grungy flannels, donned black in mourning. A girl I knew cried whenever she talked about his death. I thought it was so strange. How could you grieve someone you’d never met? How would their absence actually touch your life? I assumed mourning a celebrity’s death was mostly just crowd hysteria, a result of being swept up in the drama of someone else’s tragic moment. Not surprisingly my thoughts have changed through the years, especially as our family has traveled through grief.
For many teenagers, the tragic crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the other dear ones on that helicopter is their first brush with death. The event is their first reckoning with the reality that we do not live forever. Few of them realize it, but most teenagers wear an invincibility cloak. Their frontal lobes, still undeveloped, struggle to navigate risk and consequence. To see a hero die is to have that cloak ripped away for just a moment. It is a reminder that even fame, money, success, and accolade amassed cannot protect us from humanity’s eventual fate. And when another teen dies (and there were three on that helicopter), students come face to face with their own finiteness in a startling and frightening way.
As adults, this is all true for us too. Though we’ve lived longer and seen death before, we are reminded of these same things when we read of Bryant’s death. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to innocent people. Bad things happen to young people. Teenagers — and we — grieve with these families the stark reality that life is dreadfully fragile and short. Tomorrow is not guaranteed to us.
In a world where school districts must now teach empathy along with mathematics, where we must champion slogans like “Choose Kind”, Kobe Bryant’s death also prompts something else in us that we desperately need — compassion. If our cultural mourning recognizes our common fate, it also expresses our common grace. We possess the capacity for compassion, and we need to express it more. Mourning allows us to do this. The deep sadness about Kobe Bryant’s death reminds us that we can carry each other gently. We are capable of binding up one another’s wounds. And not just that we can, but that we must. We must weep together for what we have lost; we must comfort each other.
As we watch the Bryant, Altobelli, Chester, Mauser and Zobayan families grieve, I am reminded of those early days in our family’s grief journey. After Rob died, an incredible band of caretakers protected my children and me from media inquiry. They ran interference, gave official statements, and allowed us to grieve privately as we needed. They protected and loved us in all of the very best ways. If you’ve wondered if media inquiry around a loved one’s death feels invasive, I will tell you it does. It is hard to grieve in the public eye.
However, alongside of the need for privacy, comes the comfort of public mourning. As the public continues to pour out their love for Kobe Bryant and the other passengers, I hope the families will feel that too. Public grief reveals our capacity for compassion.
After Rob died and I began to reconnect with the outside world, I was overwhelmed by the expressions of love, sympathy and compassion — many from those who had never known Rob personally. As our family began its new life without our beloved husband and father, I took comfort knowing that folks around the world were mourning along with us. We all felt the weight of Rob’s death, even if some had known him less intimately than others. Death reminded us all of our shared fragility and called us to a shared compassion.
As I reflect years later, I think my teenaged friends were ahead of the curve when they wore black for mourning. They recognized something I didn’t want to, and they expressed their grief in the ways they knew how. We all will encounter death, whether close to home or on the news. May we look death in the face, acknowledging its deep pain, and respond to one another with compassion and grace, carrying each other’s burdens in times of grief.