How to Mourn a Person With a Complicated Legacy
Kobe Bryant’s death has raised difficult questions about how we express grief for imperfect people — that is, all of us
When basketball legend Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash along with his daughter and seven other passengers, the international outpouring of grief was swift and passionate.
Bryant was many things to many people. He was an 18-time NBA All-Star with five championships and two Olympic gold medals. He was a businessman, a philanthropist, a father of four.
He was also charged with sexual assault in 2003. The case against him was dropped after his accuser refused to testify, but a civil suit was settled out of court, and Bryant later issued a public apology.
Since the news of the helicopter crash broke, the backlash against those who mention this chapter in Bryant’s life has been as passionate as the groundswell of admiration for him. A Washington Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez, was suspended after tweeting a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article about the rape case. Sonmez later reported receiving death threats.
These polarizing reactions raise an uncomfortable question: How do we mourn someone who leaves behind a complicated legacy?
It’s not a question reserved for the famous. Whether the person in question is a celebrity, a family member, or a friend, speaking negatively about the recently deceased can feel callous, gauche, and unnecessarily critical. “[There are] societal norms around grief and how people are expected to express or experience grief,” says Natasha Crewdson, a psychologist based in New York City. “It might be expected that a person only positively talks of the deceased, due to an idea around respect.” (And those norms are far from new: It was the third-century philosopher Chilon of Sparta who coined the phrase “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”)
But as Crewdson notes, this taboo obscures the fact that there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. “The grieving person will likely experience a myriad of positive and negative symptoms that ebb and flow in an idiosyncratic manner over time,” Crewdson explains, adding: “Everyone has their own experience of the person who died.”