I’ve been staying up way too late recently watching the Olympics, as I do every four years when they come around. I watch, not as a sports’ enthusiast, but rather as a behavioral health professional and expert on grief and loss. I find myself in awe of how the athletes deal with all the losses inherent in what they have gotten themselves into.
There’s the injury that occurs too close to the big day, so after 4 years of daily practice, the snow boarder’s out of the competition. There’s the skater’s fall in the first few minutes of the competition that threatens to wipe out her chance for a metal, or the continual repetition of video footage from the last Olympics four years prior when the skier wiped out on the slope. The announcer, building increased suspense for the audience asks, “Will this two-time medal winner repeat that mishap or overcome it for a victory?
I’ve never known an Olympic athlete personally, though my son, when he competed in college gymnastics had hoped, along with many other enthusiastic young people, of attaining that level of achievement some day. Most don’t get that far, but watching these Olympians, I’m sure that when the going gets tough they remind themselves of the rare good fortune it is to be able to compete at all.
Recovering from loss is one of life’s most frequent and reoccurring challenges, and those who go on to victory seem to have mastered it. They accept the changed reality as swiftly as possible, let go of prior expectations, regrets, and disappointments and turn with single-minded dedication to the job at hand.
I’ve recognized these qualities in people facing a death-defying health challenge. One million 700 thousand people in the US will be diagnosed with some type of cancer this year. They will go through the discomforts and pain of treatments, often over a long period of time, and courageously persist, often in the face of discouraging news and possible relapses.
The Olympics continually demonstrate the motivating power of deep desire and long-term commitment, the strong connection between guts and the glory of a win, and the often nearly infinitesimal difference between the gold, silver, and bronze performances.
As an expert on grief, I know that public expression of sorrows and triumphs are important for healthy living. The Olympic experience normalizes tears. Forget all those rules about who can cry and when. Men, women, family members, friends, and teammates cry often. They cry when they lose and they cry when they win. Tears, like the underlining of a critical phrase in a written document, deliver the message to both the athlete and the mourner, “This is important! Don’t ignore or minimize it. This really matters!”