Kobe’s death has been hard to process.
There is no shortage of coverage of Kobe’s accolades and importance on the game, his family and the world. As we’ve watched the coverage of not only Kobe’s death, but also the death of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others, we cannot begin to fathom the immense grief that will strike the families of those deceased.
As mental health providers, this is a time that we think about the effect of grief on the surviving loved ones, such as Vanessa Lane Bryant and Kobe’s living children. We write this article to provide some clarity as to why we feel shock hearing this news and connect to the empathy of Bryant’s surviving, and surely grief-stricken, family.
Grief is the emotional experience that accompanies loss; more specifically, bereavement is a type of grief in response to the death of someone for whom we care. Grief is an emotional response that honors the love and connection that we feel for another person.
And grief can hit HARD—emotional, physically, and functionally.
While theories exist to make sense of grief, bereavement truly does not have a defined course or expiration date. These theories were created to help us put language into the intense psychological response to loss.
Common themes in various theories that attempt to explain the processes of grief are that we experience: separation distress, denial, anger, traumatic distress, guilt, remorse, bargaining, depression, social withdrawal and acceptance (i.e., Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Sidney Zisook).
Research of grief supports that it is a stress reaction with physiological changes, such as changes in cortisol, sleep and appetite disturbances, physical restlessness, neurocognitive function change, weakened immune system, and even hallucinations. Those who are grieving may experience any number of these reactions in any progression—grief looks different for everyone.
Many terms attempt to explain the processes that occur when a person becomes emotionally paralyzed by grief, such as: “prolonged grief,” “complex grief,” or “traumatic grief.”
Let’s break these down.
What is Traumatic Grief?
Traumatic grief can be experienced when there is an unexpected, or violent death to someone or mass casualty. A grief that is sudden, in-explicable and shocking can create symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Symptoms can include but are not limited to fear of loss of control, feelings of shock, helplessness, shame, guilt, despair, disbelief, shame guilt, anger, preoccupation with the deceased among other symptoms, and avoidance of emotional experiences.
Each person will experience grief differently. But depending on how we experience the event, it can become traumatic.
We don’t even have to be directly involved to experience some of the symptoms of traumatic grief.
Grief often becomes traumatic when we get stuck in it. Meaning, our brain naturally processes every experience that we have, taking in useful information and forgetting information that is not useful. However, when we experience something that does not make sense to us logically and emotionally, it can essentially prevent our brain from performing the routine task of information processing.
The combination of the intense emotion, conflicting feelings, and uncertainty can create something called an unprocessed memory. When we are unable to take useful information from a situation, we often carry the whole experience with us. Therefore, not only do we still experience similar thinking, but we also experience similar emotions and physiological reactions.
It can change the way we respond to people and even how think about ourselves. This can be a large part of the traumatic grief experience.
The nature of the death/tragedy is so confusing, yet, and the emotions are so strong we become stuck.
These unprocessed memories become stored in ways that can drastically effect us until we are able to make some sense of the experience allowing our brain to store the memory in a way that is useful and beneficial to us.
Research on grief suggests that there are processes in which we can engage for healthier, transient (yet still powerfully painful) grief. a) positive emotions like warmth and joy in remembering or a sense of relief; b) acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, and compassion; and c) meaning-making about the loss and circumstances.
As therapists, we aim to promote “integrated grief,” which is when we have a backdrop of bittersweet memories that can occasionally emerge for many years into the future but do not overwhelm us when they do. Once reaching this place, many people say they have a better outlook on life, live more intentionally, and rearrange their priorities.
There are a couple of different ways that we can begin to make sense of inexplicable experiences…
Practice emotional acceptance.
Especially during times of grief, we want the difficult emotions to pass. We no longer want to feel stuck, in emotional pain or heartbroken. These emotions are intense and complicated—but, they are a natural part of our experience.
If we can accept the emotions that we have, we are more likely to be able to move past them.
But acknowledging them, we validate the experience we are having. It may allow us to be able to make more sense of the experience if we are able to experience our emotions as they are.
Lean into your community.
Public tragedies can connect us in ways that other tragedies can’t.
We can seek solace, support, and acceptance in a community. We may be able to look past differences in order to grieve over a shared loss. The more support that we have, the safer and more connected we feel can reduce the likelihood that we get stuck in our grief.
It gives us the opportunity to not only share our thoughts but also hear from others. This can give us new insight and perspectives.
Embrace gratitude, no matter how big or small.
In times of grief, it can be nearly impossible to look at good/ positive things. However, finding things that we are grateful for, thankful for or put a smile on our face can change the areas of the brain that we are using.
While we cannot change the events or bring back people that are lost, we can focus on what we do or things that we have taken for granted. We can look at tragedy as an opportunity to cherish, things people or opportunities that we might take for granted on a day to day basis.
Over time, this can change the wiring in our brains.
Sometimes this can be done independently, but other times, it requires the assistance of a professional if the symptoms and perceptions are significantly disruptive.
There are many factors that can contribute to our ability or struggle with making sense of grief. One of the large factors is the stage of grief that we are experiencing. While it’s true, grief is not a linear experience and no two people experience it the same, there are common stages or experiences we might have.
Grief is a unique process for every human and no person will grieve in the same way.
Our hearts go out to the Bryant family, as well as all those who have experienced grief and we hope that this article helps to guide healing journeys.
Dr. Leia Charnin