I was in the grocery store when the news landed in a text message from a friend. “Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas this morning. So terribly tragic.”
His sudden death was more than tragic; it was triggering for me.
Kobe’s girls would be growing up without a father — just as my three daughters had. It’s a loss that transcends whatever healing the grieving process ultimately brings.
I hurried through the checkout line and made it to my car, tears blurring my vision. I knew I should be the one to break the news to my daughters, but I just sat there staring at my phone.
Would this feel as personal to them as it did to me? Would it penetrate layers of buried grief, resurrecting painful memories? Or would it simply be another heartbreaking loss of a beloved celebrity?
A phone call from my youngest daughter answered that. She’d been crying all morning, holed up alone in her San Francisco apartment. “It’s so not fair! What are they going to do?” she said.
I knew exactly who “they” were: Kobe’s family. His wife. His three surviving girls. He was a star whose basketball prowess was legendary, but his legacy, to us at least, rests on his devotion to daughters.
My daughter’s pain was for those now-fatherless girls. Her outrage reflected the anger that her 3-year-old self could not express when her father died 26 years ago.
My husband’s death, like Kobe’s, was utterly unexpected. I got the news from a police officer, who knocked on our door as the girls and I were making Christmas cookies and counting down the minutes until he would be home.
I gathered them around me and explained, as gently as I could, that Daddy had died, that he wouldn’t be coming home, but that he’d be an angel watching us from above. That didn’t comfort anyone.
My middle daughter, just weeks from her fifth birthday, was unable to wrap her mind around what I’d said. “But I just made him a gingerbread man,” she told me, nonchalantly dusting the flour from her shirt. Who was going to eat that if daddy didn’t come home?
My 8-year-old refused to believe the news. She covered her ears with her hands and tried to hold back her tears. “I’ll be the only girl in the third grade that doesn’t have a father,” she shouted.
She seemed to understand in that moment that she had been marked in a way that set her apart and might never fade. It would take years for me to acknowledge that.
I flashed back to that dreadful night, as I made the rounds of my daughters to talk about the death of Kobe and his 13-year-old Gianna, a budding superstar on the basketball court.
My middle daughter is now 31 and married to a sports fanatic who’s just like her dad in ways that only I can see. They have a 1-year-old daughter, who wears tiny sports jerseys and sits on her father’s lap, shrieking and clapping through hours of basketball on TV.
Now my daughter is seeing them through the lens of Kobe and Gianna: daddy and his mini-me. She’s put aside her list of chores and focused on being grateful for her family.
For my youngest, now 29, the tragedy has taken her back in time, not just to the loss she suffered at 3, but to all the ways she loved Kobe. “He was my first crush,” she told me on Sunday. In middle school, when she played basketball, he was the image she conjured up every time she set foot on the court.
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My oldest is trying to hold on to the only bit of solace we can find: At least in those last terrifying moments, father and daughter had each other. But that only makes it harder for the rest of the family.
I can’t bear to think about what Vanessa Bryant must be going through in this nightmarish time. I remember how scary and bewildering it felt.
Years after their father died, one of my daughters admitted that she understood when I said he was dead, “but I didn’t know that meant he would always be dead.”
None of us really understood what always dead would mean. We couldn’t have imagined that our lives would be shaped in perpetuity by his absence.
My husband, like Kobe, was delighted to be the father of girls. He’d been a three-sport athlete, the toughest kid in a family of five boys. Everyone presumed that one day he’d be coaching a son.
But his daughters were the joy of his life. They brought out a tenderness that balanced his ferocity. He coddled and cuddled them, but also encouraged them to test their limits in a way that their doting mother never would.
I imagine Kobe’s daughters softened him that same way. His relationship with them certainly helped shape the way we perceived him. The public shame of a sexual assault allegation and marital indiscretion seemed to fade as years went by and we watched him defer to his wife and dote on his daughters.
His girls, like mine, lost something irreplaceable when their father died. That loss will be etched into their psyche — as individuals and a family.
We’ve been shadowed since then by the sense that happiness is a tenuous thing. But we’ve also learned to be grateful for every good thing.