How Kobe Bryant memorial can help wife Vanessa, others with grieving

Kobe Bryant’s wife, Vanessa Laine Bryant, is half-Mexican and Kobe would often do full interviews in Spanish. USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES – Four weeks after Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash, the scope of the tragedy’s impact has become clear.

Millions of people around the world have used social media to express shock and sadness.

Tens of thousands of people have flocked to Staples Center to pay their respects where Bryant starred for the Los Angeles Lakers during a 20-year career that included five NBA championships.

And on Monday, about 20,000 people are expected to fill Staples Center for a memorial service that will start at 1 p.m. ET and be televised live in Southern California. The crowd might include a mourner whose grief is incomparable.

While the world has lost a legendary basketball player, Vanessa Bryant has lost her husband and a teenage daughter. She has yet to make a public appearance since the Jan. 26 crash that killed Kobe Bryant, Gianna (who was affectionately known as “Gigi”) and seven other people, friends and family members en route to an AAU game, along with pilot Ara Zobayan.

At 37, Vanessa Bryant is now a widow after nearly two decades of marriage to Kobe Bryant. She is the sole parent of the couple’s three other daughters – Natalia, 17; Bianka, 3; and Capri, 8 months.

“I’m very concerned,’’ said Therese Rando, a clinical psychologist who specializes in traumatic loss. “Vanessa has this very complicated task. Even if you don’t look at her own grief, she has three children of very different ages and so very different intellectual and cognitive ability to grasp this particular loss.

“I know people can and do survive this. However, it takes more time, more understanding, more support, more accurate expectations than if this had been an expected death.’’

Since the crash, Bryant has used Instagram to communicate with the public and on Feb. 10 she shared details of her struggle.

“I’ve been reluctant to put my feelings into words,’’ she wrote. “My brain refuses to accept that both Kobe and Gigi are gone. I can’t process both at the same time. It’s like I’m trying to process Kobe being gone but my body refuses to accept my Gigi will never come back to me. It feels wrong.’’

There are signs of how Bryant might cope with the deaths, if how she coped with difficulties in her marriage is evidence.

In 2003, Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a woman at a hotel in Colorado. He denied the accusations but acknowledged having sex with the 19-year-old. Vanessa Bryant forgave Kobe Bryant, and the case was dropped when Kobe Bryant’s accuser refused to testify. A civil case was settled out of court.

But in 2011, Vanessa Bryant filed for divorce and cited “irreconcilable differences.’’

With the divorce still pending a year later, Vanessa Bryant posted on her Instagram page a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit.”

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.’’

The following month, she and Kobe publicly announced they had called off plans for the divorce. That same day, Vanessa Bryant posted on her Instagram page: “Have Faith.’’

A practicing Catholic, Vanessa Bryant graduated from St. Boniface Catholic School in Anaheim in 1996 before attending Marina High School in Huntington Beach. On Ash Wednesday last year, she posted on Instagram a photo of herself with ashes on her forehead in the shape of a cross. She also has posted images to commemorate Easter and Christmas.

Over the years, Vanessa Bryant, Kobe Bryant and their daughters were seen several times attending mass services at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach.

“Her faith may be one of the most important resources that she has,’’ said Rando, the clinical psychologist who is the author of several books, including “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies," "Parental Loss of a Child," and "Treatment of Complicated Mourning.’’

“I can attest to the fact that many times it is only faith that gets people through. We know for many people it is a tremendous resource. But faith doesn’t take away separation pain.’’

Vanessa Bryant revealed as much in an Instagram post Feb. 10.

“Why should I be able to wake up another day when my baby girl isn’t being able to have that opportunity?!’’ she wrote. “I’m so mad. She had so much life to live.

“Then I realize I need to be strong and be here for my 3 daughters. Mad I’m not with Kobe and Gigi but thankful I’m here with Natalia, Bianka and Capri.’’

Although Vanessa Bryant’s three daughters can be a source of comfort for her, they also will complicate her grieving process, said Joanne Cacciatore, a professor and researcher of trauma and bereavement at Arizona State University.

“If you’re a parent and you’re also trying to pay attention to your grieving children, this can be really hard,’’ Cacciatore said. “And that’s why community support and family support is absolutely essential.’’

Vanessa Bryant likely has been drawing support from her mother, Sofia, and her sister, Sophie, during a time that Cacciatore said can drain the energy needed to handle daily tasks like preparing meals.

“Now I realize we’re talking about Kobe Bryant’s family, so it’s a little bit different in terms of practical hardship because obviously they have the means,’’ Cacciatore said. “But there are other forms of support that will be important for any family no matter what your socioeconomic status is, and that is the loving support of family and friends, of neighbors and our communities, in an unrushed, nonjudgmental way.’’

Bearing almost unthinkable loss, Vanessa Bryant surely will be embraced Monday if she attends the memorial service – something in which she appears to have taken a special interest.

On Feb. 7, the day Kobe Bryant and Gianna were buried in a private ceremony at Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona Del Mar, Vanessa Bryant posted on Instagram a notice for the memorial service billed as “A Celebration of Life.” The notice has butterflies on it, a common theme on her Instagram account.

She also referred to the service being held on a fitting date, 2-24-2020. No. 2 is the jersey number Gianna wore, No. 24 is a jersey number Kobe Bryant wore and 20 has special significance too.

Wrote Vanessa Bryant: "#2, #24, #20 years as a Laker and the amount of years Kobe and I were together ❤️❤️💜💛"

Alan Wolfelt, founder and director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Colorado, said the public memorial service will help Bryant with the healing process.

“When words are inadequate, you have ceremony,’’ Wolfelt said. “Right now words are inadequate.

“But if she can feel the loving arms of people wrapped around her … that’ll help her and her kids survive and go on to live again.’’


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