The outpouring of grief at Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s memorial service was palpable and heart-wrenching, even from the distance of YouTube livestream. The Staples Center, the house that Kobe built, was packed with mourners.
Although the service was not broadcast on the screens outside the center, mourners gathered at city halls and communal spaces to watch together, because grief will crush us if we go through it alone. Grief is a thing that human animals must inhabit together, or it’s nearly impossible to come out the other side.
When a public figure dies, it is an opportunity to grieve for him, but also a way for us to grieve the compound losses we experience so frequently. When someone we love dies, it is world-shattering. Yet the world continues to spin. We are still expected to show up at work, to get things done, to interact seamlessly with the grocery store cashier or neighbor.
We go on, we show up, knowing the world is broken, wanting everyone to feel it, to know that something essential to existence has been snuffed out. One of the hardest parts of grief is the sudden and jarring awareness that it is not felt by everyone.
The deaths of Kobe and Gianna give us a chance to live out that loss with strangers. We all grieve them. We all mourn. While there is much private grief, eternities of pain left for those who were truly close to those who crashed out of the sky that day, the rest of us together can stop the world, ever so briefly, and acknowledge that heaven and earth are changed forever in light of this loss. We can let loose our tears for people we only knew from a distance, and we can feel together this weight and matter of bereavement.
The power of music, the transcendent art form, that we feel pulsing in our chests, that relieves us of thought in favor of pure feeling, is so essential in times like these. Beyoncé provided that release at the Bryants’ service. When we raise our voices, we raise our hearts and let sound draw out our tears.
There is a need to weep. No matter how much we rephrase the memorial service as a celebration of life, we can not jump from grief to joy without an evocation of the agony that comes with deep, unimaginable loss.
Putting words to the cavernous crater she must be trying daily not to fall into was Vanessa Bryant, eloquently eulogizing both daughter and husband. Witnessing the horror of a mother losing her child before her time gives voice to so many mothers who go through this daily. In many ways, a mother’s role is to give her child to the world, knowing that child will not be saved by the world, but hoping she can save it even in some small way.
Jimmy Kimmel brought that need to weep to the fore, emphasizing the community need to share the heartbreak that comes when beloved are gone. He eschewed platitudes and instead let his voice falter as he read the names of those who died alongside the Bryants. The families most intimately affected will never heal from this tragedy. We all know what that’s like, and it’s a brutality that barely diminishes despite the ravages of time.
The balling heroes of the NBA sat and watched the life of a legend unfold at center court. Dwayne Wade and A-Rod wore sunglasses to mask their grief. Michael Jordan, with tears silently streaming down his cheeks, told the story of his friendship with the man who he came to think of as a younger brother.
When Shaquille O’Neal recounted his complicated relationship with his former teammate, he brought the assembled mourners to laughter. These are men our culture looks up to, despite their flaws. In this moment of collective vulnerability, we saw them have trouble holding in their emotions. When the strongest among us break, it can be a chance to embrace our own strength, and offer the powerful a shoulder to lean on.
The laughter is as much a part of our grief as the tears. It’s the way we know that life will go on, that we will pick ourselves up and keep going, no matter how much sorrow lives in our hearts. Michael Jordan brought that laughter, joking through tears that he would never escape the oncoming meme of him crying before the crowd. Each of us has a story of our own loss, the depths of despair that grief can take us to, and if you don’t yet, you will. Life is knowing that it ends, and embracing light and love anyway, with no awareness of when it will leave us or those we love.
The first time I saw my father cry was at his bestemor’s funeral. Bestemor is Norwegian for grandmother, and she was the matriarch of our Norse-American brood. His tears were jarring, but in that moment I knew my father was a real man, who ached and hurt.
I recently watched another mother eulogize her daughter, gone too soon. A friend from grad school passed way ahead of her time. Her friends and family gathered to witness the glory of her short life, musicians who were part of her circle of light invited us to celebrate her contributions to our lives. In the past few years, I’ve lost more than a few friends and loved ones, and at each and every memorial or funeral the most essential piece is seeing the shared sadness, knowing that I’m not alone.
In our collective mourning of the lives of people we don’t know, who we admired from afar as they lived their lives so much in the public eye, we can for an afternoon stop the world and acknowledge this most unbearable loss. The memorial at the Staples Center was for these two, father and daughter, as close in death as in life, but the tears we spill are for all those we never knew whose time on earth was cut short with no public outcry of grief.