Sitting Shiva for Kobe: On the Complicated Nature of Grief, and Humans

Public Grief is a Messy Thing, and We Don’t Do It Well — I Include Myself in This Claim

Stephanie Phillips / 2.13.20

If there’s anything the movie This Is Where I Leave You taught me — besides that Tina Fey should not do accents — it’s about shiva, the Jewish tradition in response to the death of an immediate family member. I’d heard of shiva before but for the first time saw it dramatized in the film, and the images have stayed with me. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of opportunities lately to reflect on the practice of grief.

To wit: the spate of celebrity deaths, encompassing everyone from Robin Williams to Kate Spade and, most recently, Kobe Bryant. While Williams’ and Spade’s deaths were fraught with discussions of mental illness, Bryant’s has been a beast of a different nature: an accident, a young life ended too soon, the included loss of his daughter and seven others on the plane. There are countless angles from which to examine the situation.

And, because I’ve been online, I feel like I’ve seen each of those angles: the prayers that mom bloggers posted for Vanessa. The anger over the helicopter taking off in the first place. The lauding of Bryant as a hero for our time, and the questions over his “complicated” history (a sexual assault accusation in 2003). Most common, and understandable, was the grief over the loss of a husband and father of four. 

I felt the urge to express my own grief. When I woke up that morning and saw the news on my phone, I woke up my husband — a college basketball player and lifelong Lakers fan — to tell him so we could sit in shock together. I circled social media, ingesting others’ takes while contemplating my own. I wanted to say something meaningful and true. What I landed on was anger: over people skipping over the stages of grief to get to the “lesson” of it all, along with the erasure of Kobe’s nuanced identity in favor of a singular, heroic one. People are allowed to be complicated, are they not? And isn’t grief allowed to last a while?

Public grief is a messy thing, and we don’t do it well — I include myself in this claim. I think what we’re actually looking for when we grieve is companionship and assurance, but rather than honestly saying “I’m afraid of being alone in my pain,” we post memes and deep thoughts and hope those will get some people to sit at our table so we’re not alone in the lunchroom. OF LIFE

But if public grief is messy, that’s a sign not just of our deficiencies in communication, but of the fact that grief, itself, is messier than we’re comfortable with it being. Much of what we do in life is a veiled effort to shorten grief or avoid it altogether. So what I’m saying is that I think shiva should be mandatory.

In Judaism, shiva is the third stage of mourning, and it follows despair and lamentation. Yeah — you have to do those first. During the seven days of shiva, multiple rituals are observed, with the main point being that it’s an opportunity for the grieving to express their loss, be comforted, and slowly — SLOWLY! — emerge from mourning and into society. 

One of the rituals I find particularly interesting is the covering of mirrors, which has to do with both the Jewish (and Christian!) belief that humans are made in the image of God but has the added benefit of cutting down on self-regard. 

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to grieve (just kidding, I’m about to), but modern culture seems to have entered an express lane when it comes to grief. Can you even imagine what it would look like to take the time to communicate despair, then lament, and then enter a seven-day period of mourning? I bet we’d see less meme generation, fewer Instagram posts, and a reduction in “at least he died doing what he loved.” 

I think, actually, more about what it would sound like, which is to say…nothing. I’m convinced (and yes, I’m an introvert, so easy for me to say) that many of the words we pump out into the world after a seismic event are directly correlated to our discomfort with silence. It contains too much uncertainty. We need to know what others are thinking so we can calibrate our own responses accordingly. We forget, in this virtual age, that comfort doesn’t have to be public, or noisy, or deep. It can be as simple as “I am here.” As weeping alongside those who weep. That’s what Jesus did. Do we really think we can improve upon that?

Along with our discomfort with silence, grief reveals our need to lionize the departed. Maybe it’s what we desperately want people to do for us once we’re gone — or even now? But the fact is that all of us are more than one thing. Before Bryant was #24, the mature, even-keeled veteran Laker and family man, he was #8, and #8 isn’t remembered as often in the obituaries. #8 settled a sexual assault case that was never fully resolved but did see him admitting to cheating on his wife, who had a baby at home at the time. #8 was a bit erratic on and off the court. He hadn’t yet started a kids’ podcast or won an Oscar. He was regarded as a hothead. He was young, and immature. 

But without #8, there is no redemption arc. And grace, as part of the story, could go largely unrecognized. 

I need for there to be a #8, a pre-redemptive Kobe, that is not washed away in grief because I need to acknowledge that version of myself. And while it’s not as linear as number sequences — I doubt all the hotheadedness just vanished overnight; I know it hasn’t in my life — I need the freedom of knowing that I’ve been an asshole and I’ve been forgiven of it, by the people who love me and by God himself. I need that forgiveness to be unshakeable. I need for my kids to be free to acknowledge that Mom isn’t perfect because I need them to believe in redemption arcs, and in a God whose love surpasses even mine and their dad’s.


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