Life

What Do The Divided Reactions To Kobe Bryant's Death Teach Us About Grief?

A lot of what played out following his untimely death is actually common when it comes to mourning.
A moment of silence was held for Gianna and Kobe Bryant tribute during the Super Bowl LIV Pregame at Hard Rock Stadium on February 02, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
A moment of silence was held for Gianna and Kobe Bryant tribute during the Super Bowl LIV Pregame at Hard Rock Stadium on February 02, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

It’s been more than a week since legendary basketball player Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, along with eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.

Since then, the NBA star has been memorialized at the Grammys and the Super Bowl, and at a half-dozen basketball games, including an emotional tribute by the Lakers that included performances by Usher and Ben Hong of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. More tributes are expected at this weekend’s Oscars and next week’s NBA All-Stars game.

Still, it doesn’t feel like it’s fully set in. Forty-one is shockingly young. Bryant had a larger-than-life persona, a nearly legendary status that made him seem immortal. There’s a surreal quality to hearing about any death, but this one seemed especially impossible.

Fans and celebrities and reporters have expressed their utter disbelief, extolling him as “one of the greatest in the history of the game.”

But, as a few observers have pointed out since his death, this isn’t a complete picture of the beloved athlete, who was accused of rape in 2003.

The case never went to trial, because his accuser refused to testify after she was subjected to repeated, reported smear tactics by his legal team and many media outlets. Bryant eventually released a statement admitting partial culpability: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”

Kobe Bryant and his wife Vanessa hold a news conference on July 18, 2003, after he was accused of the rape of a 19-year-old woman in Colorado.
Kobe Bryant and his wife Vanessa hold a news conference on July 18, 2003, after he was accused of the rape of a 19-year-old woman in Colorado.

The way divisive figures can become idealized after their deaths is something we’ve seen many times before, with people as varied as Michael Jackson, Karl Lagerfeld, Fidel Castro and Hugh Hefner.

There’s a word for the kind of inflexible hagiography that often plays out when a celebrity dies, said Ashley Mielke, a psychologist at The Grief and Trauma Healing Centre in Edmonton. It’s called “enshrinement,” and it’s a really common reaction to death.

“When someone dies and we’re experiencing such deep sadness and pain, we don’t want to remember the bad things,” Mielke told HuffPost Canada.

It can feel almost disrespectful to focus on anything other than the person’s best attributes, or their accomplishments, when they’ve just died — especially when they’re young, and the death was so tragic.

The flip side of enshrinement, she said, is “bedevilment”: negating someone’s humanity after their death. It’s often easier to conceive of death through one clear, focused lens than to contend with the vastness and the complexity of mourning.

“We have a tendency to either enshrine the person, or bedevil the person,” Mielke said. “This is the conflict that we’re feeling with Kobe, because, how can we see the fullness of his life? We haven’t really been taught to honour someone in the accuracy of how they lived.”

Fans pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for Kobe Bryant in LA.
Fans pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for Kobe Bryant in LA.

The problem with enshrinement is that it doesn’t allow you to grieve the real person, because you’re too preoccupied with an idealized version that didn’t exist. “We cannot get healing from just 50 per cent of the relationship, just the good part,” Mielke said.

In dealing with any death, it’s important to acknowledge that the person we’re mourning had their faults — whether they said cruel things, or were intolerant, or, in Bryant’s case, were accused of sexual assault. But, people often feel guilty doing this, because they feel they can’t ever speak ill of the dead.

Contemplating bad behaviour is necessary

“It’s reinforced in our culture, and in religious institutions: you forgive, you forget, you let things go,” she said. But that’s simply not how most people function.

“It’s completely normal to have angry feelings, resentful feelings when you think about that person, even if they died,” Mielke said.

Refusing to acknowledge bad behaviour can lead to unresolved grief, because you haven’t dealt with the totality of the person who’s gone, especially if they’re someone close to us. “If we’re avoiding talking about the bad stuff, then we just become driven by fear and avoidance,” she said.

That’s the point where it becomes common for people to fall back on coping mechanisms, like drinking, or gambling, or throwing yourself so fully into work that you don’t have time or energy to really look at what’s happening to you.

Watch: Celebrities mourn Kobe Bryant’s death. Story continues after video.

An important part of learning to cope with grief — and one that Mielke said often goes against a lot of our instincts — is learning how to think of the person we’re grieving as a complex person, as someone who did cause both joy and pain. It can be hard to develop what she calls an accurate memory picture, one that doesn’t judge or blame, but also doesn’t downplay their faults.

“Acknowledging all of it — the good, the bad, the ugly — is really honouring the person’s life, and honouring our relationship to that person.”

In Bryant’s case, it’s about acknowledging that all those parts of his life co-existed, and that one does not negate the other. “He was loved by so many, and he was such a powerful figure in the community, and he was a role model,” she said. “And — it’s not but, it’s and — he also was a human being who made a lot of mistakes, and who caused harm.”

“Acknowledging all of it — the good, the bad, the ugly — is really honouring the person’s life.”

- Psychologist Ashley Mielke

It’s a long process to get to a place where we stop compartmentalizing the good qualities and the bad behaviour of a person who died, and start seeing them as a complete person. Some of the people who really loved Kobe Bryant may not have been able to do that yet, which is why they directed death threats at women’s rights advocates who mentioned the rape accusation in the aftermath of the helicopter crash.

And it wasn’t just internet trolls who objected to stories about Bryant behaving in a way that was less than saintly. Felicia Sonmez, a reporter at the Washington Post who had been open about her own experience of sexual assault, tweeted a link to a Daily Beast article about the rape case and was suspended by her own newspaper for “display[ing] poor judgment.” She was reinstated last Tuesday.

Gayle King also faced fierce pushback after she asked retired WNBA player Lisa Leslie in an interview if she thought Bryant’s legacy was complicated by the rape allegation. Leslie said she didn’t, but many people thought even asking the question was a sign of disrespect.

In a video posted to Instagram and directed to King, Snoop Dogg told her to “respect the family and back off, bitch, before we come get you.” He later said he didn’t intend it as a threat. According to Oprah Winfrey, King has received death threats.

There are no ‘rules’ on timing

Some people said it was too soon after his death to discuss the potential harm he caused, a position that rankled the people who argued there’s rarely a “good” time where people are willing to listen to information about a beloved celebrity’s assault charges.

There aren’t any real “rules” on when it’s appropriate to talk about these things, Mielke said. But we do need to be aware of how that can affect others.

“Are we sharing from a place of love, concern, and compassion for Kobe, his family and others who are grieving? Or are we sharing out of fear and pain? The intention of our sharing is the most important consideration to make.”

“Some people will be grieving over the fond memories and his contributions and impact, and some will be grieving over his negative actions and impact. Neither is right or wrong, good or bad, they just are.”

In the days following the immediate reaction, a number of outlets wrote about Bryant’s complicated legacy, with a degree of nuance that wasn’t found in the swift denunciations of the people who sought to silence critics online. This is perhaps a good sign in a time that’s extremely divided, socially and politically: maybe we’re learning to grasp complexity.

Distraught fan Naima Smith (wearing glasses) crying at a vigil for Kobe Bryant in LA on Sunday.
Distraught fan Naima Smith (wearing glasses) crying at a vigil for Kobe Bryant in LA on Sunday.

Holding space: what does it mean?

The goal of grief counselling, Mielke said, is reaching the stage of “emotional completion,” which involves “discovering and completing all of the unfinished emotional business in a relationship.” That includes everything that went unsaid or that was left incomplete, including things that we wish were better, or different.

Most of us carry unfinished emotional business with us all the time. Both the person who feels alienated by the fawning coverage of a man accused of sexual assault and the person who attacks their hero’s detractors are acting out of pain, Mielke said. Everyone sees these events through the lens of their own perspective, their own life experience.

What we can do, Mielke said, instead of clashing with one another over our differing viewpoints, is to hold space for each other.

Holding space lets people open up about their feelings and experience of the loss, without judgement, analysis, criticism, or interruption, she said.

“Grieving people just want to feel heard and seen and not alone, not fixed or judged or given advice ... Holding space just means being there, being emotionally present and available, and offering a hug to the person who is suffering.”

And, we can try to hold space for the complicated person we’re mourning.

“We don’t have to bedevil him or enshrine him. We can just tell the full truth.”

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