By Olivia Yepez
Donna Gaffney had just watched her grandson’s basketball game, when the 12-year-old delivered tragic news.
“Kobe Bryant’s dead,” he said, his voice monotone as he stared at his cellphone screen.
At first, reports of the former Lakers star’s death in a helicopter crash last Sunday were met with disbelief. But confirmation came quickly, and grief started setting in for the children, said Gaffney, a Morristown psychotherapist and educator who specializes in helping children and families deal with trauma.
“I have seen how even though we don’t know someone, a cultural icon, a sports legend, it really does have a profound impact,” Gaffney said, citing her own vivid memories of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. “For children who have already had a loss, it can be especially upsetting.”
Many adults are afraid to talk to their children about grief because they fear saying the wrong thing, said Gaffney, whose practice spans three decades. We need to do a better job of handling loss in America, she said, because at some point, everyone will experience the death of a loved one.
These difficult conversations are especially important in an era when grief travels at blinding speed on social media, Gaffney said.
Pre-internet, “you’d have to be listening to a radio or sitting in front of a TV. Now it’s on your phone, and when you see something you start looking for validation,” she said.
Children easily can misinterpret the torrent of information. During the 911 terror attacks nearly two decades ago, some young people mistakenly thought the U.S. was under continuous attack because they saw so many TV rebroadcasts of the terror, Gaffney said.
It’s crucial for parents to explain what’s happening and give their kids ways to express their grief, she said.
“Provide the opening and the opportunity to talk, but don’t drive the conversation,” Gaffney advised. “We have to allow kids to talk about these things in an organic way that it springs naturally from them, and know when to stop, but still leave the door open.”
Gaffney holds degrees from Rutgers, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. She counseled young people after the Challenger explosion, the Pan Am 103 crash, and Hurricane Katrina and helped develop the International Trauma Studies Program and is an advisor to the Shared Grief Project.
She urged adults to recognize grief in children in Kobe Bryant, Children and Grief, an article she co-authored last week for The Hill‘s website with colleagues Joe Primo, Irwin Sandler and Jen Sandler.
They had been researching bereavement in children when Bryant’s death stunned the sports world.
Social media can play a positive role, Gaffney noted. Youths were able to share their sadness, offer condolences and re-post Bryant tributes by LeBron James and others on sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
MorristownGreen.com correspondent Olivia Yepez is an honors student at Drew University (’22), where she is an editor of The Acorn.