On Sunday, it was 4ºC out and I was waiting for a train in Cold Spring, New York. I was ill-prepared and freezing, wearing Jeff’s lightweight Patagonia jacket and my own T-shirt underneath, clumsily tucking my icy fingers into the sleeves that stretch below my knuckles (as all his sleeves do). It was the end of a day following what had been our regular Sunday itinerary: a hike, a local beer, a walk down a little town’s main drag before confronting the Sunday scaries awaiting us in the city.
With at least 15 minutes until the train would arrive to cart me and our dog back to Manhattan, I felt my phone vibrate in my back pocket. I took it out assuming my friend was texting about our evening plans, only to read a CBS Sports alert that the larger-than-life, invincible Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter accident.
I’m not much of a basketball fan, but Kobe’s legendary status wasn’t lost on me, the sister of a devout NBA follower and the best friend of a Los Angeles native who wore Kobe’s number 24 jersey the day I met him and quite literally every day in college.
“Oh my god,” I said loudly to no one, shocked by what I’d just learned.
But then I was shocked again ... to be shocked. Of all the people who understand how suddenly death can happen, I’m the first in line.
Less than two years ago, Jeff, my husband, was killed in an accident that sent waves through our community and upended my entire life. Jeff was larger than life and invincible in his own way: a mentor to countless young men in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. A colleague known for amping up his team with encouragement and ice cream bars during otherwise dull meetings. A total goofball who loved to get a playful rise out of me before he left for work by pointing finger guns in our bathroom mirror and exclaiming, “YOU are a good-lookin’ guy.”
That very good-lookin’ guy was hit by a semitruck on a sunny D.C. Saturday morning while riding his bike to his regular yoga class. I stayed in the hospital by his side, surrounded by doctors buzzing in and out of the ICU, as phones vibrated in friends’ pockets across the country with the news that the class president and lacrosse team captain-turned-Capitol Hill staffer and newlywed dog dad was fighting for his life in ways no one wants to imagine. Thirty-six hours later, their phones would vibrate again with the news that he didn’t make it. My Mr. Invincible was gone.
If you had asked me a week ago, “How would you react to the sudden death of a figure like Kobe Bryant, given what you’ve faced?” my honest answer would have likely been: “That’s devastating, and it’s sadly a part of life.”
“Less than two years ago, Jeff, my husband, was killed in an accident that sent waves through our community and upended my entire life.”
Sudden deaths of the kind that took Kobe and my husband ― fatal accidents during otherwise mundane activities that turn horribly wrong ― are rare. But they happen. “Shocked” would not be the reaction I’d expect from myself. Sudden death runs through my brain all the time, draining me even when I don’t quite realize it or want to admit it. It now defines me in many ways. I’m wise enough to know that to many, or maybe to all, I’m not just Kaylie anymore. I’m Kaylie “the girl whose husband, that popular guy Jeff, was hit by a truck, I have no idea how she’s surviving after he died, I couldn’t imagine.”
And yet shock is precisely what I found myself feeling on Sunday afternoon, which raised real questions for me about my own grief. The fact that I was shocked by a freak accident, the kind that stole my husband less than two years ago, produced a new kind of survivor’s guilt: If I was shocked, did that mean I ... had forgotten about Jeff? Was I too distant from his memory? Had I done the unthinkable and “moved on”? If I was shocked ― just as millions of people whose husbands hadn’t been hit by trucks were ― what did that say about me?
I believe it says that while grief that stops you in your tracks ― quietly and discreetly crying to no one when you step off the train at Cold Spring to discover that it’s exactly the kind of downtown Jeff would have wanted to take you to on date day ― is an outgrowth of sudden death, resilience can be a part of it, too.
“I certainly haven’t ‘moved on’ ― I never will. But I have slowly, messily and painfully moved forward. I’m also not normal, and neither is my ‘situation,’ as I awkwardly call it. But parts of my life are.”
I certainly haven’t “moved on” ― I never will. But I have slowly, messily and painfully moved forward. I’m also not normal, and neither is my “situation,” as I awkwardly call it. But parts of my life are. Like millions around the globe, I really need to fold the massive pile of laundry that’s sat by my bed for three days now. I’m wondering which is better, the cute jeans or the cute dress, for hinting “I think I might like you” just subtly and cooly enough over drinks. I plan to spend tonight ordering through Seamless and laughing along to John Mulaney’s new comedy special on Netflix if I finish my work on time. I really owe my retired father a phone call.
I wish Kobe Bryant’s wife Vanessa, their daughters and his whole family weren’t the newest members of the shittiest club in the world. More experienced members of this club, like me, can understand what his family is facing now and the isolation that’s to come, especially as other mourners may move forward more quickly.
But, at the same time, we have no idea what they’re going through at all because this kind of grief hits every person differently. They may face their own downtown Cold Spring moments that stop them in their tracks when they thought everything was going pretty much OK. They may have grief and the impact of sudden death running in the backs of their brains, draining them even when they don’t quite realize it or want to admit it. But hopefully, one day, they’ll also be shocked by the resilience that exists in all of us.
Kaylie Hanson Long is the founder of KHL Consulting, a communications firm dedicated to advancing gender equality. She is a dog mom to her sweet hound, Layla. You can follow her on Twitter at @KaylieEHanson and Instagram at @KaylieEHanson_.