A Love Letter to Grief, Death & The Dearly Departed

A Love Letter to Grief, Death & The Dearly Departed

It has been a week and a day since the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, their friends John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Ara Zobayan, and Sarah and Payton Chester. Every day since it happened, the only word I can use to describe my mood and this dark cloud hanging over me is melancholy. I think about the crash when I wake up in the morning, throughout the day, and when I go to bed at night. Their faces haunt my thoughts as I try to fall asleep at night. I think about the people they left behind. Who was left orphaned. I think about what it must have been like to get that call, to say that their dad/mom/sister/husband/wife/parents would never be coming home again.

Why do I care so much? It’s not like I knew Kobe or any of the people on board. And it’s not like I was even a basketball fan. I didn’t follow Kobe’s career. I didn’t even know he had 4 daughters until I heard the news of the crash. And to be frank, it’s not like tragedies like this – and so so much worse – don’t happen every day. Every hour. Heck, every minute of every day, all around the world.

But those tragedies – those lives lost in such horrifying ways here in the US and around the world – belong to people who are faceless to me, and nameless too. Not because they don’t matter. They do matter. But the atrocities happening here in the US and around the world are much too great, both in degree and in frequency. And were I to know all of the names and faces of all of those who perish every day, the sadness would be enough to swallow me whole. 

But Kobe, Gianna, John, Keri, Alyssa, Christina, Ara, Sarah and Payton? I know their names. I know their faces. I cannot escape them. I cannot look away. And as I think of them, I am struck by how lucky I am to get to look into the eyes of my children, my husband, my friends.

The news of this crash hit home. Perhaps it’s because the crash happened literally so close to my home, a few miles from here. Or perhaps it’s because I’m an over extended, sleep deprived mother of two young children (read: emotional AF).

Honestly, I can’t fully explain why Kobe, his daughter, and his friends’ deaths are having such a profound effect on me, but I can tell you that they have taken hold of me in a way I cannot shake. The more I think about it, the more I think that perhaps it’s also because in knowing Kobe died, it’s like witnessing the fall of a superhero, someone who is “supposed” to be immune to the perils of mortality. His death leveled the playing field, as if to say, sure, you can be among the elite, the 1% of the 1%, but you are still human, and therefore you cannot escape this one truth: that death will come for you. Nor can you escape the second: that you don’t know when it will come.

And so, Kobe’s death reminds me of my own mortality. Death doesn’t care if you’re a stay at home mom or a winning, infamous sports star. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you’re ready to go or not. It doesn’t care what you mean to those you leave behind. It doesn’t care if you’re the world to your children or spouse. It doesn’t care if you’re a mother or father to young children – children so young they will never know you, touch you, experience you in the flesh, or ever have a memory of you they can hold in their hearts. It doesn’t care if you’re a mother or father at all, and in the Altobelli’s case, tearing a family apart and instantly orphaning their two remaining children.

In that regard, perhaps it’s also affecting me because Kobe and so many on board were parents and children. Well, technically we are all children, but young children. Three girls lives snuffed out way too soon. Perhaps it’s because Kobe’s youngest children are so close in age to my own (mine are 5 ½ months and almost 4 years, his 7 months and 3 years). I think about my children not knowing Ted or myself and my heart aches for them. Will those children ever know how much their father loved them? They will know it in stories, but not in real life experience. It breaks me to think about that.

But perhaps most of all, this incident has reached inside of me. It has triggered and pulled out my own lifetime’s worth of my own sadness and trauma, big and small. It has brought it all to the surface and forced me to feel it, to experience it, to answer to it. It breaks whatever assumptions I might have had about fairness and life. People of Kobe’s stature are larger than life, seemingly untouchable. All the money and prestige and talent in the world, and yet dead so young. And he couldn’t take it with him, so what did it all mean? It makes me wonder: if I knew at 20 years old that I could have had a successful career and have made more money than I knew what to do with, but that I would be dead at 41, would I have still chosen that life? Or if I was told I were to live a modest life, with my basic needs met, and died of old age at 105, would I have chosen that life instead? Of course, we don’t get to choose, but if we did, we’d have to come face to face with what’s truly important to us. Money? Prestige? Passion? Family? It seems Kobe lived a life that was full of all of those things, so he may have – if given the choice – chose that life anyway. 

I’m reminded of a quote from Julia Roberts in one of my all time favorite movies, Steel Magnolias. She is pregnant, and her mother isn’t happy about it because her daughter has such severe diabetes. The pregnancy could kill her. Desperate to make her mother understand her decision to put her life on the line for the baby growing inside her, she says:

“I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”

Kobe certainly created and experienced more than thirty minutes of wonderful, both in his decorated basketball career, and in his family life (and I’m sure much more). And I believe had he known his life would have ended so young, he probably would have chosen this life anyway. Mamba mentality, right?

I don’t know what possessed me to write any of this. I was moved to the pen and paper and it all came spilling out of me.

I just want to say to the friends and family that were left behind, I’m deeply sorry for your loss. I won’t say that you’re going to be ok, because that’s not what you need to hear right now (especially from a stranger). Now is the time to grieve. The rest will come. You will be ok for no other reason than that you’re human, and our ability to adapt to new situations and circumstances – even the hard, tragic, gut wrenching ones – is one of the qualities that defines our species. It’s how mothers in war torn countries are able to wake up and face another day after their spouses and children have been taken from them, how a girl like Malala Yousafzai can get shot in the face and then turn around and start a movement, putting herself in danger to move history forward. We suffer, we move on, we suffer, we move on. Whether we turn that suffering into something constructive or let it swallow us whole is a choice, and neither one is right or wrong. It just is.

So as you stare into the eyes of your children and want to collapse in grief knowing they will never know their father/mother, as you try to memorialize your lost ones, to freeze time by leaving their toothbrush and other toiletries by the sink, as you refuse to wash the scent of them off their pillow cases and their clothes, as you preserve the dirty coffee cups that they left in the sink just before leaving for what would be their final flight, take comfort in knowing that one day, somehow, some way, this horrific time of “after,” this, “he was alive at this time last Sunday, last month, last valentine’s Day, last whatever – know that time will work to soften the wound. It won’t take it away. Time cannot erase memories, nor can it erase the traces or essence of those people we lost. Those people live on in our children’s gestures, their smiles, their habits, all the ones they inherited from the now dearly departed. Time can indeed provide a cushion for our aching hearts. Eventually. But It could not ever erase the pain.

Time will do what it does, in time. But not now. Now is the time for grieving. My hope for all of you is that you are surrounded by people you love, and who loved your perished loved ones too. May they rub your back when you cry, stroke your hair, wipe your tears, tell you it’s ok to cry, cook for you, be there with you. For however long you need them to be, without ever expecting anything else in return.

Kobe, Gianna, John, Keri, Alyssa, Christina, Ara, Sarah and Payton: may you all rest in peace, and live on in the vast beauty of the mountains that claimed you for themselves. You came from the earth. And now, you’ve returned to it. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

We all fall down. We honor you. We honor your legacies. And we bid thee farewell.



Photo credit: https://fox61.com/2020/01/31/lakers-honoring-kobe-bryant-with-court-logo-jersey-patch-and-t-shirt-draped-seats/