Role models come in many forms for children: they can be parents, teachers, older friends, or even public figures.
When kids idolize a famous person who then dies, a complicated slew of emotions may follow as they deal with grief, as well as confusion about mourning someone they didn’t know personally. This has certainly been the case with retired NBA star Kobe Bryant.
Though many have highlighted complicated aspects of his legacy, there’s no doubt that Bryant was a hero and role model for countless young people, from the youths he served directly to those who admired him from afar.
In the aftermath of Bryant’s death on Sunday in a helicopter crash, HuffPost asked experts to share their guidance for parents hoping to help their kids cope with the loss of a personal hero. Read on for their advice.
Let Them Come To You
When a famous figure passes away, school-aged children and adolescents are likely to hear about it from their peers, so parents don’t necessarily have to be the ones to share the news.
“It’s OK for parents to wait and allow their children to bring the news to them and be open to discussing it when the child is ready,” said Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn, a board-certified licensed professional counselor-supervisor and owner of Wilborn Clinical Services in New Orleans.
If someone your child admired dies and they don’t bring it up, however, you as a parent can start the conversation and make it clear you’re there to talk about it and help them process.
Validate Their Feelings
Perhaps the most important thing is to let kids know that their feelings of grief after the death of a public figure are normal and welcomed.
“The child might be struggling with the fact that they are having such intense emotions for someone they have never met. In my own private practice following the death of Kobe Bryant, I had several clients express these mixed feelings where on the one hand they were incredibly sad because Kobe was someone they admired and looked up to, but on the other hand they couldn’t understand why they were feeling so sad for someone they had only seen on television,” Wilborn said.
“These reactions to the death of say Kobe Bryant speaks to the huge impact that he and other public figures have on society,” she continued. “For a lot of people, even though these are people we never met, we see ourselves in them. They inspire us. They motivate us. And because we live in an age where we have more media exposure, these public figures can feel like family, so when they die, it can feel like a family member died.”
For children who have little experience with trauma or death, the death of a beloved public figure may be overwhelming as they feel scary, unfamiliar emotions. Parents have a duty to normalize these feelings, encourage their kids to talk about them, and prepare them for the emotional shifts they may experience.
“Give them permission to feel happy, too,” said Amanda Fialk, a licensed clinical social worker and chief of clinical services at The Dorm, a mental health treatment community for adolescents and young adults with locations in New York and Washington. “It’s OK to be grieving one moment and then a few hours later watch something funny on TV and laugh about it.”
“For a lot of people, even though these are people we never met, we see ourselves in them. They inspire us. They motivate us.”
Caregivers can model emotional literacy and make their kids feel less alone by expressing their own feelings of sadness instead of putting on a brave face. If they feel deeply affected by the loss, however, they may also want to seek their own help and support to ensure they’re able to fulfill their basic parental roles.
Recognize That It’s A Non-Linear Process
The stages of grief don’t play out in the linear fashion people sometimes expect, so it’s completely normal for kids and teens to move back and forth emotionally. The process can also take longer than parents anticipate.
“It’s important for parents to be patient, to be available and to validate,” Fialk said. “The last thing that anybody, teen or adult, wants to hear when experiencing emotions is, ‘You shouldn’t feel this way,’ or, ‘You should feel that way.’”
When it comes to Bryant’s death, kids may feel fear about the possibility of accidents or even anger about the way he died.
A teen might say, ‘I’m so angry at the person who was flying the helicopter. I hate him for killing my idol,’” Fialk said. “To respond with, ‘Oh don’t feel that way, you shouldn’t hate them, it’s not their fault,’ is invalidating. Instead, say, ‘I hear you feel really angry. It must feel really icky to be that angry and have that kind of rage inside you. Tell me about it.’ This opens a dialogue.”
Use Developmentally Appropriate Language
When talking to kids about the death of a beloved public figure, caregivers can use practically the same language they’d use to discuss a deceased family member. The main thing is to keep it age and developmentally appropriate ― and to recognize what that means.
“For younger children, it’s important to resist the urge to use cutesy language that confuses more than it helps,” Wilborn said. “Younger children, whether we are talking about their favorite basketball player or their favorite uncle, need to understand the permanence of death. So using language like death, died, dead ― while seemingly harsh ― is more appropriate to use than the language we typically use like ‘loss’ or ‘gone to heaven’ or ‘sleeping permanently.’”
Fialk noted that tragic events often spark bigger existential questions about life’s meaning in older kids and teens.
“Teens may want to engage in conversations around these types of profound and mysterious thoughts. They might get frustrated when they can’t wrap their heads around it and need help,” she said. “For parents, providing answers can be equally daunting. But there are no right answers. Parents can acknowledge, ‘This is hard for me to wrap my head around as well, and I wish I had the answers. But I’m curious to continue to explore this stuff with you.’”
Encourage Them To Pay Tribute
Parents can also help kids cope by encouraging them to memorialize their heroes and what they meant to them. The type of tribute may vary, based on the child’s personality, interests, age and developmental level, but it’s a great way to process and express difficult emotions.
“For younger children, they might want to draw or cut out pictures and make a collage to honor their role model. For adolescents, it might be wearing that person’s jersey or their team number if the role model was an athlete or listening to their music if the deceased was a musician,” Wilborn said. Fialk suggested journaling, painting, writing music or making T-shirts.
“Grief is a process. It’s important to give children the space to go through it their own way with the assurance that you will be there for them no matter how it looks or how long it takes.”
Social media is another outlet young people (as well as adults) use to express these kinds of feelings and process a loss. In the aftermath of Bryant’s death, millions have posted old photos or videos of his jump shots, interviews and sweet courtside moments with his daughter, 13-year-old Gigi, who also died in the crash.
Parents can take part in the memorialization process by helping kids brainstorm ideas or participating in the activity alongside them.
“Parental involvement can be therapeutic and a reminder that despite the loss, the child still has family there,” Wilborn said. “Of course, caregivers need to also monitor for changes in mood that might suggest that the child may need to take a break from the activity and resume it when they are able to cope.”
Keep An Eye On Them
Just as parents need to monitor kids during their memorialization activities, they should generally keep an eye on them throughout the aftermath of the loss. Everyone processes loss differently, so it’s important for caregivers to tune in and observe how their children are coping.
“Grief is a process. It’s important to give children the space to go through it their own way with the assurance that you will be there for them no matter how it looks or how long it takes,” Wilborn said. “If you notice changes or fluctuations in mood, diet, sleep, school performance, or friends, don’t be afraid to involve a professional counselor.”