I watched a video clip of Shaquille O’Neal sitting with his sports show co-hosts, talking about the sudden, tragic loss of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash on Sunday, January 26. At several points in Shaq’s monologue, he was forced to pause, overcome with emotion.
Shaq’s grief is understandable: Kobe was a teammate, friend, and, in times past, an opponent in a very public feud. Shaq’s complicated friendship with Kobe would undoubtedly bring a deep and profound grief. But millions of people who never met Kobe, even people who never saw Kobe play, were deeply affected by the superstar’s death.
What accounts for this outpouring of grief? How is it that so many people experienced shock and disbelief when they learned that Kobe died? Most of us who have reached adulthood, certainly those who are middle-aged or older, are well acquainted with grief. We’ve all lost someone – perhaps many someones – we have loved. So why should the death of a celebrity we never met touch us so deeply?
Kobe’s passing brings the reality of death home to us. If a handsome, healthy young man like Kobe Bryant – a competitor, a victorious warrior – could be vanquished, then none of us is safe. Unlike other celebrities who died young, Kobe was not courting death. He wasn’t living a devil-may-care kind of life. If this could happen to him…
Kobe was not only relatively young; he was enormously valued. He was not a throw-away commodity. His ability amazed us and we couldn’t help but respect his indomitable spirit. Watching him, even if one was (like me) rooting against his Lakers, was just plain fun. His death, as John Donne put it, diminishes us all. We understand, with Donne, that when the bell tolled for Kobe, it tolled for us too.
Word of Kobe’s death left many people in despair. Thousands brought flowers and pinned notes to makeshift memorials all over Southern California. Some took off work to process their grief. Others could not get out of bed. The pain of loss was real.
Grief is like crossing a deep river on a swinging bridge. Anyone who has done it knows that when someone steps onto the bridge or advances toward you, everything shakes. Grief is like that. When we are in the midst of it, everything we encounter, even common things like meeting old friends or paying bills or going to church, can shake us. But a swinging bridge has two cables, one on each side, stretched across its entire length. If we grip one with each hand, we can maintain our balance as we cross. There’s something similar in grief, where the two supports are memory and hope.
Too many people make the mistake of holding on to memory but not to hope, lose their emotional balance, and fall into despair. But hold on to memory and hope, to the past and the future, and one can maintain balance in the present. We must grab the future with one hand – setting our hope, as St. Peter says, “firmly on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed” – and with the other hold the memories of the past.
If you are grieving Kobe’s death, take time to remember him. Review his highlights. (Bring popcorn and make it a big bowl – the highlight reel goes on and on.) Celebrate the love he had for his family. Don’t hide his sins – not even the devastating rape accusation or the vulgar abuse he showered on a referee, which earned him a $100,000 fine from the NBA. Remember also his confession of wrongdoing in both cases and the apologies he made.
Be encouraged by Kobe’s faith in Jesus Christ. He had returned to the church. In fact, it’s been reported that on the morning of the tragic accident, Kobe was at church to pray before early mass. While holding onto to those memories, reach out and take hold of hope: the hope that Kobe and his family will be reunited one day; that God’s love will triumph over his sins (and ours); and that the victorious warrior, “Jesus Christ, has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.”