My Tears….Before my Players’ Tears

by Jill Manly

Experiencing our emotions can feel like a visit from an old friend or a shocking encounter with a stranger. When those familiar emotions come knocking on your door, you greet them like a friend and sink into a comfortable routine. When those rare, difficult emotions come to visit, it can feel like an unwelcome and frightening intrusion from a stranger. They shake you to your very core when they come crashing into your life. We tend to want to keep enjoyable emotions, such as joy and happiness, close by. We’d prefer to keep difficult emotions, such as sadness, anger, and grief, at a safe distance. Grief is the hardest one of all to confront, not only due to the immense pain it brings but also because we feel ill-equipped to handle it. It often feels so foreign to us that we push it away, resisting the feelings of heartache, despair, and confusion. Yet, what if we invited grief in? What if grief came over for tea, cozying up by the fire with a warm blanket, and engaged in deep conversation with us? If we let grief into our hearts and opened our minds to it, what might we learn? What feelings would arise in us? Where would our minds take us? 

Last week, grief knocked on my door, as it has knocked on many people’s doors. An unwelcome visitor, it startled me out of my day-to-day routine and left me reeling. Walking out of the shower, I knew I had to go meet my girls JV basketball team for practice. How would I face them? Fifty percent of the players, mostly ninth-graders, had played and gone to school with one of the players that had died in the recent helicopter crash. 

Trying to catch my breath, I hoped I would cry now as I stood alone in my bathroom before I went to see the girls. I needed to process my own feelings before I could be strong for them. Why did I have the urge to do this? I think about how each of us has a strong internal compass that knows how to navigate life better than we do, guiding us in times of need. It’s not our minds; it’s even deeper. You might call it a gut feeling or a soul feeling. While I’m not very familiar with grief, something deep inside me knew I needed to cry before I faced those girls and talked to them about their friend, Payton. As I cried, I invited grief in, feeling it take over my whole body. This all-encompassing sorrow felt unbearably heavy, but I knew the only way forward was to move through it. 

My sobs started like thunder then slowly subsided like the final droplets of a rainstorm. In a moment of clarity, I suddenly had the idea that the team should write letters. I showed up at the gym and met my team. As we shared our grief, we came together in the center of the basketball court. We traded our basketball for an art box, and we wrote. We wrote letters to our friends who were close to the victims, sharing all that we could find the strength to write, but might not have been able to say. 

As coaches, teachers, and parents, we don’t have all the answers. We certainly are not expected to. But if we can, let’s allow ourselves to be seen for who we truly are and what we’re authentically feeling. Confused. Grieving. Reeling… from a blast that rocks us to our core and reminds us how fragile and precious every moment of every day is. When we unabashedly show all this, then we are helping our students and players. Our job as role models and mentors is to be wholeheartedly authentic, meeting the difficult emotions along with the easy ones. This is what we signed up for. We need to rise to the challenge of being there for our students through it all. 

Nothing in life is a given. No one promises that you will get to the next moment. We fiercely grasp onto what we can, fighting for some semblance of control. We attempt to plan what the next moment will be. Yet, if we are honest, have a little life experience under our belts, and surround ourselves with honest people, we know that nothing is guaranteed outside of this very moment. 

All we can do is make the most of this moment. Sometimes, we have to dig deep inside of ourselves and let some tears fall to get the answer.