His name was Eric. The quiet kid with the gentle spirit and a leg that kicked the ball a mile. I remember the night the phone call came in as we sat in tears, shocked that one who had worn the uniform, one who had ridden the bus and attended the banquets, was gone. As we wandered through the grief of his specific situation it kept occurring to me that he was the first, but not likely the last. I had always known that statistically, we were going to lose one of these kids one day, but I had no idea the journey that lay ahead. How can you?
Since that time we have lost others. We’ve lost our own, and we’ve walked with our friends as they have called us choking out those dreaded words, “Coach, one of my players died.” The line that often follows is, “I’m not sure what to do. What do I say to the team? How can I support their family? What am I supposed to say to his parents?” They are uncomfortable and in uncharted waters.
The reality is that many people who have this level of influence and contact with people get some type of formal training for loss. While it doesn’t make it easier, it certainly helps them be better prepared. Pastors do not head into their profession thinking, “Huh, I wonder if I will have to do a funeral?” Doctors, nurses, and counselors are acutely aware that a central part of their job is the ability to sit with people in crisis and walk with them through loss. Coaches and educators rarely get this same type of training, and it can leave them unprepared and unsure how to proceed when it happens.
My professional training is as a mental health therapist so I assume that is why we have received quite a few of these phone calls from coaching colleagues over the years. Through our own difficult experiences and those of others, I am hopeful that I may be able to share some tips here that can help your family navigate these tragic situations with a little more secure footing.
Losing a Player to Illness or Worse is a Tragedy that Happens Too Often.
- Oddly, the first thing that can be helpful is to simply realize that if you are in coaching for any length of time, it is extremely likely you will lose a player. And, if not a player, it may be his parent mid-season, his sibling, or some other type of loss such as paralysis or illness that is a loss all the same if he has to say goodbye to the game he loves. Simply accepting loss as part of your coaching ministry can be helpful in managing the shock when it happens.
- Supporting others through loss is far harder to “mess up” than you may realize. One of the most difficult parts about grieving, particularly sudden loss or the loss of a young person is that it makes people feel out of control. It shakes our reality and it’s not “supposed” to happen this way. The act of simply being present and providing physical comfort (i.e. hug, hold hand, etc.) can be a great steadying force. In pastoral counseling they call this being a “non-anxious presence.”
- You can trust grieving people to let you know what they need. For example, when it comes to telling the team, your job is really just that. Provide them the information, answer the questions you can, and then give them the space to talk. They already have a foundation with one another, and they will build another connection through this experience as well. In similar fashion you can trust that the family and the community will know what it needs. Memorials and tributes are all discussed in due time. Don’t feel like you need to make these types of decisions quickly or on your own; communities usually figure it out together.
- Grieving takes about every form you could possibly think of. Crying, anger, silence, overly talkative, withdrawing, and telling silly memories is extremely common. A coach telling his players it’s okay to grieve in the way most helpful for them can be very freeing.
- Find your space to fall apart. Every single loss we’ve had brings me to my knees. Literally. I have strong visuals of every room I have been in where I have dropped to the floor and sobbed for that child, for his parents, for the difficult days I knew were ahead. You and your coach have your own grieving patterns. You may face the pain right away or you may be delayed grievers. I’m a little of both and it helps me to know that about myself so I can cry a little bit at the beginning, strap up for a while, and then be okay when more tears show up again in a few weeks. Support each other as you ebb and flow through the grief at your own pace and in your own way.
- Know your strengths in a crisis. Some people are hospital people and some people are not. Some people are hostesses and food providers and others are memorial run and dedication organizers. For some people it takes everything they have just to show up to the funeral. All of this is okay and all of it has its place. What is most helpful is knowing what you can do and be when the losses come. Whatever you can provide is enough.
Just like when you lose a player, there are no perfect words to end so I will just say thank you. Thank you for being willing to be a part of a lifestyle that strives to teach young people about life. And thank you for being willing to be a part of a lifestyle that also gets to teach young people about loss. It is a unique, challenging, and necessary ministry in the fabric of our sports-driven nation, and I am glad we are in it together.