Kobe Bryant, retired NBA champion and future hall of famer, tragically died Sunday after his helicopter crashed outside of Los Angeles. As I got the news, I was overcome with sadness, and I must admit those emotions were somewhat surprising. I never met Kobe Bryant. I don’t have any personal connections with him. I never really even rooted for his success. To be honest, as he was such a great player who played for great teams, I often found myself cheering for his losses and championing the underdog. Why, then, outside of the tragic loss of life, was I so overwhelmed in hearing of his death?
The thing about losing those who achieve such fame in our popular culture — athletes and pop stars alike — is that they intersect with our lives in such unique ways. We may never have met them, but their craft creates touch points for our memories. These memories are tied to moments that help define who we were, who we are and who we hope to become. They can be powerful reminders of our successes or failures. As I was processing these thoughts, I came across a tweet (user @ElusiveJ) that did a great job at summing up this odd feeling I was wrestling with: “In the mourning of those we have never met, we don’t cry because we knew them. We cry because they helped us know ourselves.”
That’s just it, isn’t it? Our connection with these people, who at times can seem bigger than life itself, are nostalgic touch points to our own growth and development. We share ourselves with them and allow for their accomplishments to line our internal trophy rooms. When they leave us, we lose a piece of ourselves — and that, quite frankly, can be absolutely heartbreaking. My opinion? It’s OK to grieve when someone we shared a connection with dies, whether we knew them or not.