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Grief and sports: Playing on when bereavement hits

Isaiah Thomas on court playing for Boston Celtics against the Washington Wizards

Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics in action against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on January 24, 2017. Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr.

Anyone who has lost a loved one can tell you that getting ‘back to normal’ after their death is far from easy – sometimes impossible. Yet they will also know that, at some point after a bereavement, you are expected to return to work and get on with life. The pressure to return to normality and to function in whatever roles you had before can be immense. This burden is felt keenly by America’s professional sports stars.

They may have wealth and fame that most of us can only dream about, but when tragedy strikes, sports players seem to have an amazing ability to carry on – to make those plays and score those touchdowns even when their heart is heavy with grief.

In April, Boston Celtics star Isaiah Thomas’s 22-year-old sister, Chyna, was killed in a car crash. Thomas learned of his sister’s death on the Saturday afternoon, but played against the Chicago Bulls in Celtics’ first NBA playoff game the very next day.

Thomas was welcomed to the court with cheers from Celtics and Bulls fans alike. Visibly moved, teammate Gerald Green said before the match: “The fact that he’s here shows what kind of man he is.”

Yet other commentators had mixed feelings when, just before the game, Thomas appeared visibly distressed.

“I’m not feeling comfortable with him sitting on the sideline like that,” said TV’s Charles Barkley. “That tells me he’s not in shape to play…He’s clearly devastated like we all would be if we lost a sibling. But sitting on the sideline right before the game, that makes me uncomfortable.”

Barkley defended his comments, saying that he wasn’t criticizing Thomas for being upset, but instead questioning whether it’s reasonable to ask a player to perform so soon after a bereavement. Despite concerns, Thomas managed to put in a strong performance and scored a game-high 33 points, going on to play Game 2 of the series before flying home to attend his sister’s funeral.

Recently bereaved players taking to the court, or field, is not uncommon. Back in 2003, NFL player Brett Favre played a crucial game the day after he found out that his father, Irv, had died. The game turned out to be one of the best of his career – he threw for 399 yards and scored four touchdowns, leading to a Green Bay Packers win in Oakland.

After the game, Favre paid tribute to his father, saying: “I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play. I love him so much, and I love this game. It’s meant a great deal to me, to my dad, to my family, and I didn’t expect this kind of performance. But I know he was watching tonight.”

Ice hockey player Martin St. Louis experienced heartache in 2014, when he played just 72 hours after learning that his mother, France, had suffered a sudden heart attack and died. He went on to score the first goal of the Rangers playoff game which was, poignantly, on Mother’s Day.

Major League Baseball player and Toronto Blue Jays shortstop John MacDonald hit a home run against the San Francisco Giants on Father’s Day 2010, shortly after the death of his father. MacDonald had been placed on the bereavement list, an MBL initiative introduced in 2007 allowing bereaved players to take time off after the death of a loved one. Speaking to reporters after his successful first game back, MacDonald said that his dad had asked him to hit a home run for him.

Seeing the tenacity of sports players dealing with bereavement, it’s easy to forget that they still need time out to grieve. Sometimes, the pressure to carry on can be too much.

Back in 2007, there was controversy when the Minnesota Vikings docked former wide receiver Troy Williamson’s pay check for missing a game to attend his grandmother’s funeral. Williamson had been very close to his grandmother – she had helped raise him – and there was public outcry that the NFL team seemed to be punishing him for grieving.

The Vikings later paid Williamson for the game he missed and Williamson decided to donate the paycheck to charity.

Isaiah Thomas has reopened the debate around sports and bereavement, after revealing that he has struggled to cope with his sister’s loss, although with the support of his team and fans, he has played on.

“Mentally and emotionally I'm not here,” he said following the Celtics’ win on April 23 against the Chicago Bulls. “I just feed off what the guys give me. They give me a lot of confidence, so I can’t do without those guys. They believe in me, and being here is what makes me, I guess, sane and makes me feel somewhat normal through this tough time.”

The matter of how long is long enough to grieve resurfaces every time a player suffers a bereavement. In reality, it’s a question that affects anyone who has lost a loved one. When, if ever, will you be ready for business as usual?

Recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called on American companies to improve their bereavement leave policies, igniting debate about what’s reasonable to expect from someone who is grieving. Though the money and the stakes may be higher for superstar athletes, in the end everyone who has been bereaved needs the best support possible when trying to return to something we call ‘normal’.

If you’ve lost a loved one, read more about coping with bereavement, or contact a specialist bereavement support organization for expert help and advice.