Category Archives: sports

What Olympic Athletes Teach Us About Dealing with Grief and Loss

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!”

The Art of Grieving: Sports Edition







“Do the Patriots need a grief counselor now?” a friend teasingly asked me in the aftermath of their unexpected loss, after 5 wins in the Super Bowl.

This got me thinking about the entire field of sports, and their communities’ continual need to grapple with individual and community experiences of heartbreak, disappointments, and loss. Does a grief expert like me have anything to say to them and do they have lessons for me?  Of course there is the glory of the Big Win, sometimes coming years and years after the last one. But as some Eagles’ Fans demonstrated recently, not everyone is able to handle gracefully a long awaited win. Perhaps the unprocessed anger from so many previous losses got the best of them as they destroyed property at their Philadelphia community celebration.

Forty years ago the dean at Wayne State University in Detroit where I was teaching asked me, when he learned I was moving to Nebraska, “How do you feel about football?” When I gave him a non-committal response he said, “Just a warning – you may feel that, on occasion, it takes on more importance than you feel it deserves.”
This turned out to be a mastery of understatement when I moved to where the décor of every restaurant across the state was red, (as in Go Big Red!), and the population of the State Capital doubled on each home game day, due to the sea of red in the stadium.

There’s no doubt that support from the larger community is a big part of the success and resilience of sports teams and athletes. And support is the essential element when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, a job, or a serious injury. But there can be, as it is called in psychology, an over identification with one’s team.


I see many examples of Good Grief on the platform of sports, especially in recent years. Accepting the Reality and Processing the Pain are two of the most important tasks in the grieving process. When it is clear that a loss has occurred but not a second before the end of the game, because that’s “giving up” many male athletes ignore the stupid “big boys don’t cry” notion and allow themselves to express their sorrow and heartbreak openly with tears. This gives spectators permission to grieve and enables everyone to move forward on their own healing, eventually able to invest again in the next contest.

Role models for determination against all odds are plentiful both in sports and in families when courageous members engage in death-defying treatments to gain more years of life. Whatever sports figures and teams do, this grandmother hopes they remember, the children are watching.

Give a listen to a radio conversation I had yesterday on this topic with Tom Bernard Show ) KQRS