Care and Feeding

Being “the Adult” in the Shadow of Death

Parents are supposed to calmly guide their kids through tragedies like the loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter. But what if calm is the last thing you’re feeling?

A mother and daughter hold each other while looking off into the distance.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week, in lieu of responding to your questions, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the recent tragedy that has consumed my family’s thoughts, and certainly many of your own.

I have not been myself since approximately 12:10 p.m. local time on Sunday, when an alert on my phone stunned me twice, first with the news that Kobe Bryant had died and second with the tears that news immediately caused to stream down my face.

Admittedly, I’d never been a huge fan of the basketball legend, and my already-mixed feelings about him were rendered incredibly complicated in the wake of his 2003 sexual assault case (something I’ve explored over the past few days in 3,000 unsolicited, unpitched words that I may or may not ever attempt to see published).

However, if there is anything I hate more than the idea that violence against a woman can so easily be reduced to a mere footnote in the life of a mediocre man—and edited out almost completely when we examine the stories of an accomplished, widely beloved one—it is the concept of sudden death. Of violent, scary death; of young deaths. Forty-one is young, very young.

Instinctively, I called my ex-partner to check on both him and our daughter, Naima. The two of them, along with the son he shares with his wife, are serious basketball fans. Both households relocated to Los Angeles last summer, and the kids even appeared in a Los Angeles Lakers commercial. He let me know that the children had been made aware of what had happened, and while they were sad, they seemed to be OK. We briefly chatted about our own feelings of shock and how relived we were that, at that point, reports suggested none of his four daughters had been on board the ill-fated helicopter. Then we exchanged goodbyes.

I shuffled around my apartment a bit, still stunned, scrolling through my social media timelines for additional information and the relative comfort to be found from sharing in these moments with friends, fans, celebrities and thousands of others. Eventually, I summoned the focus to get dressed and was walking out the door to make a coffee run when it was announced that, in fact, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna had also died.

When it was “just” Kobe who’d died, I was able to focus on how my daughter might be impacted and had begun to think about the conversations we’d have to have about the most significant public death of her nearly-seven years of life. She was too young to perceive the widespread devastation in our home and community when Prince died in 2016; the death of 21-year-old rapper Juice Wrld late last year left her sad, but did not seem to consume many of her thoughts; she’s become somewhat fixated on Nipsey Hussle, who is omnipresent in our strange new land (which I can best describe as the part of Los Angeles where most of the Black folks live), but did not know much of him until after he’d died.

But now we—I was faced with the death of a child, one I’d somehow watched grow up despite turning largely away from the image of her father. Though I had about 24 more non-custodial hours to consider how I may engage my baby girl about the tragedy, I had (and have, really) no clue about how to deal with this information myself.

Of course, the world would soon find out that the Bryants and the pilot were accompanied by two of Gianna’s teammates, three of their parents, as well as another adult. Nine souls, three of them just little girls, gone just like that. A father and daughter, a mother and daughter, gone. A mother, father, and daughter, gone.

I’m not good with death. I struggle deeply to cope with the loss of those I know intimately and those I know casually alike. At funerals, I am often assumed to be closer to the deceased than I am because I tend to weep the entire length of the service. Public deaths, those involving well-known people and/or devastating events, find me pouring over detail after detail, picture after picture, regardless of my prior connection (or lack thereof) to those who have perished. The only deaths that I can accept with peace are those of very old people, or very bad people.

I don’t know if Kobe Bryant was very bad. I believe he may have done something very bad on at least once occasion, a very bad thing that people who do such things tend to do more than once. I do know that he was relatively young, especially for someone with the means to remain in the best health possible. I do know that Gianna was very young, and that very young girls are not supposed to die. I am certain that whatever the truest truth of Kobe Bryant’s life and character may have been, that falling out of the sky with his baby girl and their friends from his basketball camp and a pilot was not the ending to his life that anyone deserved. Most certainly not his wife, who is seven months post-partum and has to bury her man and one of her babies all at once.

When I picked up Naima from school on Monday, she immediately asked if I’d been sad (yes) and if I’d cried (yes).

“I was sad today and I cried,” she said, matter-of-factly. “My teacher said I could take a break and write about my feelings. I wrote “My favorite basketball player died—”

I was preparing to interrupt and ask if Kobe Bryant, who retired in 2016, was actually her favorite player, as I’d only heard her speak about LeBron James, Kobe White of the Chicago Bulls, and the LA Sparks as a whole.

“…and she was only 13.”

I’d wanted so badly to keep a stiff upper lip, to make my daughter feel safe and calm in the midst of this deeply awful moment. But the tears just began to flow—mine, not hers.

The endless stream of photos of Kobe and Gianna, a gifted athlete who seemed poised to follow in her famous dad’s footsteps, that had filled my Instagram feed since the accident had certainly reminded me of Naima and her own father’s shared love of basketball. But I didn’t realize that she knew about the younger Bryant at all. I didn’t expect her to tell me that she’d had her eye on this poor baby who’d tumbled out of the sky.

I wanted to manage my sadness and tuck it away so that I could take care of my baby. Yet, as we sat in the back of our Uber, it was Naima who grabbed my head and pushed it towards her lap. She stroked my hair and kissed my forehead.

“It’s OK, Mama. It’s OK.”

This is, most often, an advice column where I provide parents and other adults with suggestions on how to face the challenges of caring for children. Today, I’m turning to our readers, not in search of support or advice for how I can navigate this particular moment, but to simply say that I am really sad, I am really struggling, and I know a lot of you are experiencing the same thing this week.

Being The Parent (or, really, The Adult) is fucking hard: I cannot say that enough. There are moments where the difficulty may be somewhat comical, like trying to explain why you have toys in your nightstand that are the same bright colors as the ones made for kids, but that are never to be touched by them. Others are uncomfortable or annoying—sacrificing your needs or tastes to accommodate a little person who isn’t equipped to care for their own, having to go places you’d prefer not to go, or eat things you’d sooner avoid.

But the cruelest moments are the ones where you just want to feel, to cry, to scream, to cope with the enormity of your own emotions, yet find yourself tasked with having to attend to those of your child(ren.)

Yes, I let Naima comfort me briefly while I wept, but we are very much on a journey of processing and grief for which I have to be a guide. I can’t let her know how terrifying the death of any child is for me as her mother, how I can’t help but to see her face in Gianna’s, how I’ve struggled with the idea of not just her own mortality, but that of her little classmates, my friends’ kids, and children everywhere since giving birth to her. She doesn’t know that today marks one year since a beautiful couple that I know lost their infant son to a somewhat sudden illness, and that my anxiety over her own health has since increased so that I’m now inclined to take her to a doctor at the sign of a mere cold.

To be The Adult is to tap into maturity, poise, and calm in the presence of circumstances that test your ability to do so. Even when kids fall out of the sky.

I’ll try my best to be a better grown-up next week.