Nine people from five families perished in a helicopter crash this week. Six adults, three children. Six women, three men. One of those people was internationally famous professional basketball player Kobe Bryant. Another was Bryant’s teen daughter. The world was dumbfounded, but only for a few minutes. Then grief began.
The news articles announcing Bryant’s death were shared thousands, millions of times. People cried — not just sports fans, but people who had never even set foot on a basketball court. They held vigils and left flowers. They dug jerseys and hats out of closets and drawers and put them on. They painted and drew cartoons of Kobe and his daughter ascending to heaven.
But not everyone mourned.
“Don’t forget, he was a rapist,” people reminded, referencing a 2003 incident in which the player was accused of sexual assault and settled privately in civil court.
Other people angrily pointed out breaking news that 30 Marines had also died in a helicopter crash: “How dare you grieve for a sports figure when those who serve our country are suffering?” (This story was later revealed to be re-circulating outdated news; the crash killing the Marines happened in 2005.)
“What about the other families?” still others asked. “Don’t cry for the famous people unless you’re going to cry for the ordinary people too.”
Waves of grief and anger, gossip and backbiting, swept the media again and again. People accused each other of grieving too much, too openly, too loudly, too unfairly.
The bodies of the dead hadn’t even been recovered yet from the site on which they lay.
We must stop telling people how to grieve. Or who to grieve. Or when to grieve.
Grief is not for the dead. It says nothing about the character of a man that he is mourned, reveals no deep truths about him. Our tears neither hurt nor benefit him, wherever he is. A man does not deserve grief, nor does he need to earn it. Grief is for us. It is part of us. It is the way we process shock and loss and dismay. It is inborn and ancient and natural. We cannot shut down our sadness in the face of death, nor should we.
“God did not make death,” says the Book of Wisdom, “and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the creatures of the world are wholesome.”
Grief is not for the dead. Who among has not mourned someone with an awful past? An abuser, a murderer, an addict, a thief — all of these have parents who remember sweet children, friends who remember the good times, children who sat on their knees, fans who remember shining heroes.
Grief is not for the dead. It is not a zero-sum game, in which tears for one diminish the deaths of others. It is endless, like love is endless, because grief is a kind of love. Grief is when we reach out to love and find that the object of our love is out of reach. It is love severed.
Grief is for us, and so it is as unique as each individual in depth and breadth and length. The only unacceptable grief is that which includes sin. And what is sin? “Sin, young man,” said atheist author Terry Pratchett, “is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
Today our sin lies less in how we grieve, and more in how we treat others who are grieving. We need not hold strictly to the famous aphorism “do not speak ill of the dead.” There will be time, so much time, to debate the legacy of those who are in the grave. But before the sod is laid, and the stone placed, turn your attention to those who mourn. Comfort them without treating them as objects. They are not mirrors that reflect the life of a dead man or awards to be given out for a life well lived. Grief is not for the dead. Grief is for us.