I woke up last Monday morning to heaps of tweets sharing news of and expressing condolences over Kobe Bryant’s passing, after a helicopter accident in California that also claimed the lives of eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant.
I’ve never been much of a basketball fan myself and so I can’t speak at length about his achievements or what his career meant to a lot of people out there. Yet I know of him enough to understand the gravity of this devastating news and even I can’t help but feel a huge sense of loss; for him, for his daughter, and for all the other passengers: Alyssa Altobelli, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester and Ara Zobayan.
Grief is unfortunately too familiar, as somber as that may sound, for it has barely (if ever) left my side since my sister passed away four years ago. There are all these different ideas out there about what grief is like, and in my experience I’ve discovered that they are only half true at best. For the most part, this experience still feels much like uncharted territory, for which the human vocabulary feels insufficient. The quickest example I can think of at this moment is how people rarely, if at all, mention the anxiety that comes with grieving, the trauma that seems to only multiply — or does that go without saying? Perhaps the fact that it is unsaid is what makes so many of us so clueless.
Last week happens to be the fourth year anniversary of my sister’s departure — who passed away on Jan. 28, 2016. I was on my last semester as an undergraduate at the Ohio State University, on my way to an afternoon class on the other side of campus, when I got a message on WhatsApp from my mother. It was terrible for many different reasons aside from the obvious — news delivery, it being a cold winter day, the fact that I was thousands of miles too far from home and my extreme yearning, even from those first few seconds of learning of what had happened, for it to all be some kind of a stupid joke. It truly crossed my mind then, that my family is probably pulling the world’s most distasteful prank of all time by telling me that my sister has passed away, in order to get me on a plane back home to celebrate the Lunar New Year with them (the timeline “made sense”). I knew I was fooling myself, but what other choice did I have but to take refuge in denial? I was ready to forgive anyone who thought it was a good prank.
Mr. Bryant’s sudden and tragic death created this ripple effect that has also unexpectedly manifested a new layer in my own process of understanding and experiencing grief itself, and I suppose this is why I’ve sat down to write this piece.
The story of Kobe Bryant
It’s been a week at this point and many people have taken the time to remind themselves and others of the many reasons why Mr. Bryant was a legend: American TV hosts took the time on air to pay him tribute, dedicated pieces have been published, videos of him, be it as a speaker or while playing on the court, inevitably made its rounds all over social media.
Mr. Bryant had a long list of tremendous accomplishments, from having won five NBA championships with the Lakers, winning an Oscar for his involvement in turning the poem he wrote, “Dear Basketball,” into a short animated film, and more touchingly, for being an adoring father to his daughters. I learned all these within hours and they became such a constant presence on my timeline in the days that followed that it’s hard not to acknowledge the impact he’s had, even when one doesn’t consider themselves to be a fan; for it is far-ranging and undoubtedly significant. It’s hard not to get emotional.
It is here where the picture gets a little less than perfect, for he — much like everybody else — is not a perfect being. He was brilliant in a lot of ways and no one is taking that away from him, but he too made grave mistakes in his lifetime.
He was accused of rape in a civil lawsuit filed in 2004 and the case was settled out of court the following year. During this time, Mr. Bryant had admitted that he never explicitly asked for consent, and ultimately said that he understood how the accuser “feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” To put it simply, Mr. Bryant committed sexual assault.
Some people had not forgotten this, and several took to social media to point out Mr. Bryant’s history of sexual assault; only to receive terrible backlash. This includes The Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez, who tweeted out an old article shortly after the helicopter accident and was subsequently suspended by her company, which deemed that she had “poor judgment” (The paper later said she didn’t violate their social media policy).
Ms. Sonmez said she received thousands of death threats from furious fans of the player, many of whom are of the opinion that bringing up Mr. Bryant’s dark past then was insensitive and a little too soon after his untimely death.
Is it, though?
I’m certainly the kind of person who grew up to believe that there is time and place for everything, that being courteous also means holding your tongue. There is a part of me who still believes this remains true for certain occasions, and I’m inclined to apply the same when the situation is as delicate as someone’s tragic passing.
However, as I’ve gotten older and the world grows bolder with the truth, it seems only right to question why we seem so incapable of processing things as they truly are, in all their complexities, and for this particular incident: somehow failing to have space to 1) grieve for this man who accomplished so much and inspired so many and 2) acknowledge that he committed sexual assault against a woman 3) sympathize with his rape victim who have to watch this man who assaulted her be remembered adoringly across the world.
Tragedy befalls men, yet we forget that men create tragedies, too.
Life is short and we are flawed beings
It’s all very human to remember someone who has departed in all their glory, for wanting to remember them only as such. It’s a coping mechanism, one that helps us get through the pain. Grief is an excruciatingly slow process, and though most of Mr. Bryant’s admirers won’t go through it the same way his closest would, it doesn’t make that sense of loss any less real.
In the first few months after my sister passed away, all I did was remind myself of the good times. The way we would argue and then make up on the same day, the way she would tease me and make it difficult for me to stay angry, the way she gets excited when we have plans to try a new place in town… But my sister wasn’t perfect, either, and our relationship was not without its strains. Now that there’s been more time to think about her life, our relationship and the fact that she’s gone; I can’t help but wonder what life would be like if she were still alive.
Of course I would like to believe that we’d be close, that I’d get to share so much of my experiences with her, and to simply have my sister who would listen to all my stupid ramblings. But the truth is that I have no way of knowing what will become of us in an alternate reality; we may be busied with our own lives, driven apart by God-knows-what: there’s no guarantee that how I imagine life would be if she were still around would actually be that way.
What I know for sure is this: life is short and everything happens much too quickly. We’re here to love and be better versions of ourselves, and we need one another to do both. It never once crossed my mind that it was even possible to lose my sister, who was only 32 years old when she died. It’s also strange to notice that I never imagined us growing older, our hair turning white as we go past middle age — making me realize just how I took so much for granted.
You see, it’s not one straight connection between Kobe Bryant’s passing, my sister’s and my grief. It really isn’t. I’m simply speaking from the place of someone who has experienced grief and someone who makes an observation about the pitiful ways we interact with one another on the world wide web, often with such unnecessary cruelty.
I was compelled to write, but I’m not sure that it will serve any purpose. Perhaps I am simply hoping that we will take this moment of collective grief to not only honor Mr. Bryant and mourn the tremendous loss, but to also acknowledge that all of us are flawed and that shouldn’t be such a bad thing.
It’s only bad when we consciously choose to gloss over the mistakes that we make, pretend like it did not happen for the sake of convenience, depriving ourselves of some kind of resolution that prod us to become better human beings. I cannot speak for or of Mr. Bryant, I have no idea whether or not he grew to become a better person after assaulting his victim, and if you would like to find out — I’m sure there are plenty of information that could further your understanding in this matter.
I can, however, implore us to take this moment and reflect on ourselves. To remember that we are still alive and therefore capable of change, and if we are to condemn those who speak out the truth — no matter how bitter — could we really consider ourselves better?
One of my favorite episodes on Grace & Frankie presented this lovely idea of what afterlife might be, that if there is indeed one; then it must be the ways we are remembered by the people we leave behind, how we made people feel. It’s such a marvelous way to look at the unknown, and it’s really quite fitting as the would mourns the loss of a fascinating basketball player and learns from the mistake of a man who committed sexual assault. Must the two be mutually exclusive? I’d like to think not.