Grieving And Sports: The Truth About Tragedy

Editor's note: Some of material in this column was adapted from the book “This is Your Brain on Sports.”

The scene was almost unendurably touching. Cheers washed over Isaiah Thomas as he emerged from the TD Garden tunnel before the Celtics’ first game of this year’s NBA playoffs. This, of course, was a day after Thomas’s 22-year-old sister was killed in a one-car crash. Before the game, there was a moment of silence. “The fact that he’s here,” Gerald Green said before the game, blinking back tears, “shows what kind of man he is.” That this tableau played out on Easter Sunday made it all the more poignant.

When Thomas knocked down a three-pointer for his first field goal, he received a standing ovation. There were other moments when Thomas seemed, understandably, lost in his own thoughts. But mostly, he offered a convincing impersonation of well… Isaiah Thomas, the 2017 MVP candidate. He attacked the rim. He passed. He defended. The Bulls stole the game 106-102, but a fan oblivious to the circumstances would have glanced at Thomas’s line and likely thought that’s about right. He scored a team-high 33 points on 10-of-18 shooting. He logged 38 minutes, handed out six assists and collected five rebounds.

In the face of profound, searing tragedy, the notion of returning to work—never mind having a productive day at the office—strikes most of us as unfathomable. But an athlete returning to play—and play well—in the immediate aftermath of tragedy is a familiar sports trope. 

You might recall that Brett Favre turned in one of the more exceptional games of his career the same weekend in 2003 that his father died unexpectedly. (Ironically, in a single-car traffic fatality.) Less than 24 hours after his brother died in a 2012 motorcycle accident, Ravens receiver Torrey Smith caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns, as Baltimore beat the Patriots 31-30. During the 2014 NHL playoffs, the mother of Martin St. Louis, the right wing of the New York Rangers, died of a heart attack. A day later, St. Louis was in uniform, playing with no discernible drop-off as the Rangers staved off elimination and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. (“Grieving Star Inspires the Rangers,” was the New York Times headline.)

When athletes like Thomas return to work so soon after tragedy and hardship—and perform so well—it’s usually framed in terms of their exceptionalism. It's not simply that sports stars run faster and jump higher and shoot more accurately than the rest of us do. They are also mentally stronger, endowed with superhuman powers to compartmentalize. They are, in the sports taxonomy, “wired differently.”

Except … they're not.

We work on the assumption that grief is a process that needs to be negotiated. Lose a loved one and you're expected to take time to “work through” the ordeal. It was Freud who called grief “work.” It was Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who gave us the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In Judaism the relatives of the deceased spend a week-long shiva period, receiving visitors before even thinking of resuming something resembling a routine. Other religions have similar mourning periods. The message hardens: We must let “nature run its course,” let “time heal wounds.”

Here's the reality: Confronted with tragic or painful events (death, injury, other exigencies we dread) humans—not just athletes—cope well. Really well. Within days, even hours, of horrible events, we can regain our equilibrium and function.

When we encounter an emotionally turbulent event on the order of a death in the family, a primitive set of brain and hormonal responses is activated. We get a surge of cortisol, the stress hormone. This can be disorienting—after a rush of cortisol, people describe a feeling akin to an altered state of consciousness, as the brain/body system kicks into emergency mode. This feeling subsides after a few hours, though, allowing us to continue with life as we know it fairly quickly. “There’s that emergency response state, and then it's kind of done and we can think clearly again,” explains George Bonanno, a Columbia University professor who specializes in trauma and grief. “Durability is the norm,” he says, “not the exception.”

If so—and when so many studies report that returning to normal rhythms accelerates recovery—why don't the rest of us emulate Isaiah Thomas, rather than permit ourselves weeks, sometimes months, after unfortunate events? Socialization explains a lot. A pilot returning to the cockpit the day after her husband's death? The father who goes back on his sales route immediately after losing a child? They would likely be regarded as cold and soulless (That is, the very reaction Pete Rozelle triggered after he declined to cancel the Sunday slate of NFL games after Kennedy’s assassination).

Beyond that, few of us are in the same position as Isaiah Thomas. That is to say, most of us have jobs that assume you will take an absence from work soon after a trauma. We are encouraged to take bereavement leaves. Most of us can postpone or swap a shift for our equivalent of a playoff game.

None of this is meant to diminish the profound impact of death or trauma. And this is in no way meant to minimize Thomas’s courage—an overused term in sports that applies here. This is also not meant to imply that resilience is the same thing as recovery. Thomas can (and likely will) play and grieve.

Still, come Tuesday night, come the next time we encounter athletes performing—and performing well—so soon after experiencing a horrific event, we shouldn't be quite so awed. We can take comfort—the cold variety to be sure—in knowing this: If we had to, we could probably pull it off too.

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