How to support grieving parents, spouses in wake of Kobe Bryant's death

"Grief lasts longer than most people think."
/ Source: TODAY

After the initial shock that NBA icon Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash came another sickening gut punch: his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, including two of her 13-year-old teammates, Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, were lost as well.

Amid the public's collective grieving for the legendary athlete, the realization has grown that his wife, Vanessa, lost both her husband and her daughter.

While a word exists to describe someone who has lost a spouse — widow or widower — it is notable that no word describes a parent who has lost a child. For other parents who have lost children, Vanessa Bryant's profound loss might feel all too terribly relatable right now.

Should you reach out to friends who have experienced loss in the wake of this week's tragedy? Author and grief therapist Claire Bidwell Smith told TODAY Parents yes, the support of friends can be important to grieving parents as they wade through the feelings dredged up by the sad news.

Author and grief therapist Claire Bidwell Smith, pictured here as a teenager, later wrote about losing both of her parents as a young adult in her book "The Rules of Inheritance." "Grieving is one of the most human experiences we can have," she told TODAY Parents.Courtesy of Claire Bidwell Smith

"Media onslaughts like this one can be very triggering for parents who have lost a child," said Bidwell Smith, whose books include "The Rules of Inheritance" and "Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief."

"It is completely normal for public deaths like this to bring up a lot of memories and emotions for someone who has been through a similar loss. They should take care to get extra support during these times. Friends, family members, professional therapists or grief groups can all be great resources."

Anna Whiston-Donaldson, who wrote two books after the accidental drowning of her son Jack when he was 12, said that when friends reach out to her at times like this, she finds it comforting. She said friends should not to be afraid to bring up a child who has died.

"People often reach out to me after sudden, public tragedies, especially the death of a child, wondering how I'm doing with the news," said Whiston-Donaldson, author of "Rare Bird" and "A Hug from Heaven."

"Bringing up my son Jack's death and mentioning him by name doesn't make it harder for me," she added. "It's always good to be remembered. I reached out to a few recent widows when I heard the news, because I wondered if it was putting them right back in that place of shock and confusion. I can't make it better, but I wanted them to know I care."

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Like Kobe Bryant's wife Vanessa, Whiston-Donaldson had a younger daughter, Margaret, to care for in the wake of Jack's death. She said that if her experience is similar, Bryant would be in survival mode right now and focused on the immediate needs of her surviving daughters, Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.

"When my son died, I was terrified for the emotional well-being of my young daughter, who was incredibly close to her big brother," Whiston-Donaldson said. "Vanessa will be there to comfort her kids, who will each grieve their dad and sister in their own ways. And she won't have the one person who loves Gigi as much as she does — her husband Kobe — to navigate it all with her."

Bidwell Smith said a grieving mom will often try to put aside her own pain so that she can tend to her grieving children.

"Anything you can do to help support her and give her some time to herself is helpful," she said. "From taking her kids for playdates, helping tidy up the house or dropping off meals, these tasks will allow the mom some time to rest, cry and relax."

Anna Whiston-Donaldson, pictured here with her husband Tim and daughter Margaret, lost her son Jack when he died after an accidental drowning at age 12. Anna Whiston-Donaldson

Friends who gently checking in to make sure a grieving mom is finding healthy ways to process emotions also can help relieve anxiety and depression, Bidwell Smith said. She noted that the world of grief and loss has changed in the last two decades.

"There are so many more outlets and resources available than ever before," she said. "People are often surprised by the enormity of emotions that come with grief. Grief lasts longer than most people think."

Whiston-Donaldson pointed out that whether a grieving person is famous or not, it's important to remember this:

"Grief is brutal. Grief is lonely. And in the weeks, months and years ahead, all of these families need loving support."

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