Kobe Bryant Death Leads to Dilemma of Telling Kids about Heroes Dying

children especially struggle to make sense of untimely death

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Since Kobe Bryant’s death, experts are suggesting how to break the news to kids, according to The Huffington Post. A helicopter crash that killed Bryant January 26 has been hard on youths who looked up to the NBA star. Mourning for idols and finding meaning in death can be difficult.

Close up a lit candle being held at a night time vigil. Paying respect to the diseased.
The sudden and unexpected death of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant has hit fans hard worldwide. The loss is even greater since his daughter Gianna and seven others also died in the helicopter crash. Photo by EvGavrilov / Shutterstock

Kobe Bryant was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers directly from high school in 1996. During his 20-year career, he became a role model for kids due to his success on the court and vibrant personality. On January 26, Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Southern California.

When we experience grief as an adult, making sense of loss is difficult. Children have an even harder time with it. The deaths of loved ones impact us the most directly, but mourning for a public figure—whether it be a respected world leader who changed nations and affected history or a celebrity with whom we felt a kinship or a pride in their successes—adds complexity to grief. We never personally knew the public figure, but we looked up to them as examples, and now those examples are gone. For children, losing a hero is a confusing time.

Approaching Grief from the Right Angle

“One of the most common emotions that accompanies loss is sadness, but grief can include a great variety of other powerful emotions and responses, including disbelief, lack of motivation, and sometimes intense anger,” Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, said. “The loss of a loved one can also bring about fear, numbness, guilt, loneliness, despair, and regret.”

Grief is often described as the reaction to loss. Much like the emotions mentioned, the resultant behaviors during grief are also varied and dynamic.

“Although the most common behavior among bereaved people is crying, many people also experience loss of appetite, sleep disruptions, and disturbing dreams,” Dr. Berkson said. “Others suffer confusion; inability to concentrate; loss of interest in things they previously loved; a decrease in sociability; and even hallucinations such as seeing, hearing, or feeling the presence of the deceased.”

Dr. Berkson said that when a death is sudden and unexpected, grief tends to be more intense. When a younger relative dies in an accident, we may suffer more shock than when we lose an elderly relative who has lived a long and fruitful life and suffered from a long-term illness. We expect our loved ones to live well into old age because so many people do; a young death robs someone of that experience and of our hopes for them.

Complications of Grief

“Sigmund Freud found that there are powerful, ambivalent attitudes and emotions that arise when a loved one dies,” Dr. Berkson said. “It’s been said that the mourner has two conflicting desires to combat at a funeral, both of which essentially deny the reality of the mourner’s loss: the desire to jump into the grave with the deceased, which is the inability to let go, and the desire to run away, the revulsion at the corpse.”

Freud said that if we fail to let go of the person we’ve lost, we risk suffering several pathologies.

“One is known as delayed grief or morbid grief reaction syndrome, where the mourner might, in Professor Dale Hardt’s words, delay or postpone mourning for weeks, months, or even years after the death of a loved one,” Dr. Berkson said. “He may show very little concern or reaction to the death when it occurs. Such a response often leads to disabling or antisocial manifestations of grief in disguised forms, at later times or in unexpected ways.”

Another unhealthy manner of grief is called pathological mourning or prolonged grief disorder. Dr. Berkson described it as when the bereaved cannot let go of the deceased, “attempting to preserve as exactly as possible the objects or residence of the deceased and continue, without alteration, the behavior and activities that the mourner carried out before the death.”

In order to help children navigate these choppy seas, the experts consulted in The Huffington Post article advise such things as letting children come to you with the news, validating their feelings, speaking in age-appropriate terms with them, being patient with their process, encouraging the child to pay tribute to their hero somehow, and keeping a close eye on them.

Dr. Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Dr. Mark Berkson contributed to this article. Dr. Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an M.A. from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities.