Why?

Why?

Why?

As the reality of the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, along with seven others, begins the arduous journey of sinking into my psyche and seeming even slightly real, I do not ask “why?” as in, “Why did this happen?” No, not asking that question at all.

Bad, terrible and horrible things happen all the time, every day, to many people. Accidents happen. People make mistakes.  I know why bad things happen. It is called the randomness of the universe. Wrong place, wrong time.

Everything does NOT happen for a reason. And even if it did, we could never know why, so what’s the point?

I get it.

Rather, the “why” I ask today is, “Why is this tragedy affecting me so deeply and profoundly?” I have every reason in the world NOT to be affected. Consider that I have never met Kobe Bryant, nor have ever even seen him play in person. I am not at all a “star-struck” kind of guy. As a basketball fan, I appreciated the grit and toughness Kobe brought to the court though I never believed him to be the best. I do not even believe Kobe was even the best Los Angeles Laker in history, as I reserve that title for a Mr. Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Kobe never put a penny in my pocket. He never came up with a cure for some disease that kills children. He was a guy who threw a ball into a hole for god’s sake.  He just happened to be really, really good at it. In fact, Kobe could be the poster child of one who symbolizes everything wrong with our culture. Through no fault of his own, he epitomizes our collective cult of personality while we pay entertainers millions and millions of dollars and simultaneously pay public servants next to nothing in comparison.

I won’t even get into educators and health services.

I believe that many would rather be entertained than be cured of a disease or learn a new skill…if we judged at all by our pocketbooks.

He was, by all accounts, an entertainer.

So why am I so hurt and feel so profoundly sad? Why do I feel like I lost someone near and dear to me? It bothers me how bothered I am.

And why I am I not the only one? Many people are telling me the same thing- that they feel like they have lost a family member and have never felt this way before when someone died in whom they had never met, yet admired.

I don’t know why and it is driving me crazy. I have had celebrities I have really liked who passed at young ages, and never felt close to this type of loss. I loved comedian Sam Kinison for example…though never shed a tear when he died tragically in a car accident on his way to Laughlin, Nevada in 1992. Other comedians have passed, such as Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Robin Williams and baseball players Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente, the list goes on. I was very upset when these people passed, yet nothing even close to the loss I feel with Kobe Bean Bryant.

All I can do is theorize why I feel this way so I will attempt to give it a try. I write today as therapy, to figure out what is happening in this brain of mine. So, some theories:

  • I feel like I lost a family member because I have fallen into the cult of personality and have illusory relationships that could be identified as borderline schizophrenic.
  • Deep inside I have a profound respect for Kobe Bryant and truly believe, though many years younger than I, I lost a role model of hard work and dedication.
  • I have underestimated the role of professional sports plays in my life and am simply mourning someone who brought me years of great entertainment.
  • The tragedy included several children, including his own daughter. It is one thing for an adult to die, yet to have his 13 year-old daughter die tragically with him…that is just too much for words.
  • Perhaps there is an unparalleled respect for athletes who pass because they are successful in a pure meritocracy…meaning they are the best of the best with no questions asked. I can watch a great film performance and think in the back of my head that with a few classes and experience, I could MAYBE do that. I have never had this thought while watching LeBron James play basketball -I know with absolute certainty I could NEVER do what he does.

Some say he was a hero and the mascot for not just Los Angeles sports, rather for all of Los Angeles itself.

When I posed the question to my Mass Media class (after all, he was a Mass Media hero) as to my profound sadness, a student, Sean, suggested that perhaps I am misdirecting the grief I possess in my personal life, the passing of my mother a couple of years ago and my very ailing father who is currently in hospice care, and projecting this grief onto the Bryant tragedy. I must hold it together for the more personal stuff, yet I am free to fall apart for a person I have never met.

A good theory. Yet a correct theory? Who knows.

Recently my daughter pointed me in the direction of an article written by one of her college friends, Eric Stinton, who eloquently writes on the same issue. In this article, he states, “Feeling grief or loss over the death of an athlete is not endemic to any specific sport. Whether it’s basketball or MMA or cricket, fans dedicate so much of our diminishing time to the lives of these athletes—celebrating their triumphs, agonizing over their failures—that we feel like we know them, and we’re affected by things that happen to them. We may not actually know them the way we know people in our waking lives, but we still know them in personal ways. We see them at their most supernatural and their most vulnerable. We extract meaning from their existence and inject it into ours like a blood transfusion, absorbing it as our own. The same way songs which otherwise have nothing to do with us become the soundtracks of our memories, athletes’ careers enrich the context of our lives…”

So nicely put. I am so glad to know I am not at all alone in asking this question. Thank you Eric. But what, then, can we conclude?

He continues, “It would be disingenuous for me to arrive at a solid conclusion. I don’t know how to respond to the death of someone I never met, and I’m not sure if I ever will. It’s a process and a discursive, backtracking and contradictory one. The only thing I can say for sure is that there’s nothing wrong with being affected by these things. The beauty of fandom, as well as all its attendant pain, is in allowing ourselves to be affected.”

I also have no solid conclusions. And, unlike many blogs I write, the process of putting my unaccountable thoughts into comprehensible, digestible and accountable words, is not leading me to any satisfactory answers.

Why? I guess it just is. And everything is what it is.

RIP all.

 

 

 

Communication And Death: What To Say, What Not To Say And How To Say It

Death. Such an uncomfortable subject. I have previously made the observation that if the issue of pornography is the leader in the, “There is nothing else we engage in more that we talk about less,” category; in that same vein I would observe that the issue of death is the absolute leader in the, “There is nothing else that every single one of us without exception is  going to do that we prefer to deny and not talk about,” category.

Most of my life I have been most definitely part of this denial crowd.

I have always had a very remote relationship with death as I’ve never lost anyone terribly close to me. When my mother passed away last October, I experienced first-hand just how deeply uncomfortable and awkward most people are with the subject. When friends, colleagues and acquaintances would come in contact with me -or deliberately not come in contact with me- after her passing, I noticed an array of reactions in how to approach this morbid subject.

As a speech geek in both life and death, it was interesting to examine words and communication patterns in the context of bereavement. And less you think my observations are the invent of some rogue Comms guy and his personal opinions, not really. There is a lot of existing literature on the subject.

I noticed the reactions basically fit into three categories.

  1. The “Just Say Nothing About It Ever” group.
  2. The “Say Way Too Much” group.
  3. The appropriate, “Just Say Enough” group.

I realize everyone is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating condolences to a grieving person.  That said, I do believe in some overarching principles that will certainly assist me in dealing with the subject for the grieving others who cross my path in the future. I thank you for allowing me to share these with you as I hope you may find them useful at some point as well.

The first group is just weird, but I totally get it. When you know someone has lost a loved one and choose NEVER to broach the subject demonstrates deep communication incompetence. The several friends and colleagues I have who, to this day, have never uttered a word about it is, well, highly inappropriate…but, again, I get it. I believe it speaks far more about the person’s level of discomfort and awkwardness than it does any lack of sympathy, empathy or concern. Perhaps it is not surprising that all of these people, in my experience, were male. Yet let’s not bag on the men and champion the women just yet, as, in fact, women were almost exclusively at fault in the second category, the “Say Way Too Much” crowd.

This second group felt the need to go beyond the necessary, “Sorry for your loss,” and offer some form of philosophy, certainly with good and loving intentions, to counsel you as you grieve. Some of these philosophies included:

  • Everything happens for a reason.” I wrote an entire blog about this one!
  • She is in a better place.” Unless all parties share identical eschatological positions, like above, this can be highly offensive.
  • It is now time to really embrace life and love ones.” I could not have figured that one out on my own?
  • I know how you are feeling.” Such hubris. None of us can ever get inside someone’s else’s head to know feelings. Presumptuous.
  • At least the death was quick.” Let the bereaved person discover any potential silver-linings for them self.

The point? One’s grieving is not about you or your philosophies -keep those little gems to yourself. It is all about them…don’t let yourself get in the way of a good condolencing (my word….you’re welcome).

The final category of “Just Say Enough,” certainly constituted the great majority of people. The key: Nothing fancy, flowery or eloquent is necessary. Perhaps saying, “I am sorry for your loss,” is trite, it is trite for a reason. It works. If one were to follow up the sentence with anything else at all, it should focus solely on the other person, as in, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do.” If there is going to be an extended conversation it needs to be motivated and instigated by the grieving person, not you. Pending my relationship with the individual, the time, place and even, to a large degree, my mood, I may or may not have conversed further.

As I conclude this short blog concerning appropriate ways to converse with grieving persons, I am reminded about a conversation I had with one of our Crafton math professors, Sherri Wilson, shortly after my mom’s passing.

Sherri and I have shared the same office hallway for the better part of my 12 years at Crafton. We are cordial and friendly with each other though not at all close -I mean she does teach math after all, yeech. The first time Sherri saw me after my mother’s death she came, knocked on my door and, quite appropriately and confidently, shared her condolences. What struck me about the conversation with Sherri was two-fold: First her personal self-confidence and security to boldly share her condolences was, as I have come to find out, rare and unusual; and, second, the look of genuine concern in her eye. This look could not be fake or construed…it was the real deal.

Sherri did not say anything magical or fancy, just the basics. Yet after I had my very brief conversation with her, I felt a little better. Why? Another human being, whom I do not know all that well, cared. I expect my family and closed loved ones to care, yet to feel this loving kindness from one outside of my “tribe” was so encouraging.

Death is undoubtedly awkward. Yet since we live in a world in which EVERYONE dies, perhaps it is high time we learn how to become effectively conversant within this context.

Thanks Sherri.

The Practical and Political Implications of Death: The Podcast with Kevin Collins

Jimmy sits down with a funeral director who deals with death on a daily basis. With over 55 million deaths each year (2 people die every 1 second) listen in as Jimmy and Kevin discuss the psychology, cultural practices and politics of one of the biggest businesses on the planet. They discuss grieving, death/humor, religion and the political ramifications of all things death. A pretty eye opening podcast on a subject most rarely think about…until faced with it.