Basketball fans and non-fans alike can recall where they were on January 26, 2020, the day that Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in California, along with his daughter, Gianna and her peers Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli. I was out with my family, celebrating my mother-in-law’s birthday. Right before we made it to the restaurant, the announcement flashed across my phone, and my partner and I spent the next few hours engrossed in our respective news spheres. Dinner was quiet.
Alyssa’s parents died in the crash with her as did Payton’s mom, Sarah, along with the pilot, Ara Zobayan, and a friend of the Bryants, Christina Mauser. Three teenage girls gone in an instant, leaving behind grieving parents and family members, along with the haunting question of what their lives might have been had they made it into adulthood. This imagining frequently focused on Gianna Bryant, referred to by friends and family as Gigi, a budding young basketball star under the tutelage of her superstar father, who dreamed of playing for the UConn Huskies.
In the year since the death of her husband and daughter, Vanessa Bryant has been under an excruciating spotlight, as fans and sports journalists followed every moment of her grieving process. For the most part, Bryant has clung to her privacy, breaking her silence sporadically to post a happy memory of her daughter. In the lead up to the one year anniversary of the accident, Bryant asked Lakers fans and the NBA to refrain from scheduling tributes during games, out of respect for her family.
Kobe Bryant may have been a complicated figure, but in the wake of his death, thousands joined his family in mourning. It was a communal moment of grief, one of the last such events before the country was plunged into the shared experience of coronavirus. In a benevolent acknowledgment that there are still those mourning with her, Vanessa Bryant posted a letter on Instagram sent to her by one of Gianna’s friends, which simultaneously breaks and warms my heart.
The young girl who wrote the letter, Aubrey, shares her happy memories of Gianna and describes how their friendship inspired Aubrey to be better. But what is most striking, particularly coming from someone so young, is how fully Aubrey is able to describe the grief of lost potential. Aubrey writes about falling into “a pit of despair thinking about [Gianna] and what she could have accomplished in a couple more years. . .Her fights for equality in sports made the world reconsider there (sic) opinions.” Aubrey writes that she is eternally grateful to Vanessa Bryant for bringing Gianna into the world.
During the month of January, death is on my mind more than other times of the year. A recent loss in my family of a child has compounded that feeling and now, to read the words of a 14-year-old reflecting on the death of one of her peers reopens old wounds. During a year when death tolls in the United States exceeded hundreds of thousands, it’s easy to forget that with the loss of just one life an unknown number of people suffer. For most of 2020, death was a statistic, a measuring stick for political parties to gauge their performance on handling a global pandemic. Reflecting on the loss of the children in that helicopter crash, death feels tangible again.
I mourn with the families who lost someone on this day a year ago. Not because I can fully grasp the loss of a daughter, but because to some degree, everyone shares in their loss—not just of a person, but of a specific idea of what the future will hold. A parent creates an image of who their child will be when they grow up, the life they work tirelessly for that child to have, and the feeling of all of that being snatched away is a pain I don’t believe can ever heal. It still astonishes me that people survive the loss of someone so young, let alone find the strength to memorialize them in a letter that so succinctly serves as a reminder that individual grief can be specific and universal all at once.