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Grief in sport – At a loss to explain how you are thinking and feeling?

Female athlete feeling sad
Grief in sport: At a loss to explain how you are thinking and feeling

When we think about grief, we often think about bereavement – losing a loved one to death. The pain of loss influences us physically, socially, and psychologically. Grief is our response to bereavement. In sport, grief influences us more that we know. Losing people who formed part of our identity — teammates, coaches, parents, and friends along the journey of our lives through sport.

Two points I raise here are acute grief and complicated grief from the publication by Shear in 2015. Shear (2015) explored complicated grief, which I shall explore after acute grief. 


  • Acute grief refers to the time after a loved one has died. This ‘separating response’ also has a response to the stress of losing a loved one. In this stage, a person yearns, and longs for the deceased person, accompanied by sadness, thoughts, and images of the deceased. Losing someone close to us influences us in different ways because our identity and social role changes. Losing a beloved coach who influenced our lives, changed our lives and continues to change our lives as their memory lives on through us and our actions. Some people choose to disengage from their normal activities while they come to terms with this loss. According to Shear (2015), the symptoms include dysphoria, anxiety, depression, and anger. There are also physiological changes such as an increased heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone), a disturbed sleep and immune system. We might see these symptoms in ourselves or in others. It is clear how grief changes us in the short term.


 With loss comes an adaptation to loss. As human beings, our lives go on, but they go on differently. Loss is a process, not an event. This process might be lengthy, with fluctuating emotions. Emotions are typically short-lived experiences. The intensity of grief, however, diminishes as we realise the finality of the loss and revise our hopes, plans, and memories. But it is not possible to say that our grief goes, rather, it hides from our memory. The return of an anniversary, a reunion, a championship final where the community shares their victory with those present and those past (i.e., absent friends) brings our grief to the surface.

When we cannot adapt through the grieving process, we find ourselves with complicated grief. 


  • We also call complicated grief: prolonged grief disorder. In this condition, intense grief lasts longer that we expect and this intense grief affects our daily lives. But a complicated grief can follow the loss of any close relationship, which means it is the loss but perhaps not the death of a loved one. Complicated grief, according to Shear (2015) is more likely when a death is sudden or violent (e.g., suicide or accident).


This brief article draws our attention to two aspects of grief: acute and complicated. In sport, as in life, we have loss. We lose loved ones within our sport and outside our sport. It might be a loss of a loved one in our family, close friendship groups, but also our sporting families. We are, at this stage, opening us up to the signs and symptoms we recognise in ourselves and others. This knowledge helps our understanding of our ourselves and others so we can empathetically accept ourselves and others and put no time frame on our recovery from loss. Perhaps we might lose interest in activities, sleep and appetite or feel sad and lonely unexpectedly. We know we can treat ourselves and others with kindness and understanding. We might lose part of our identity, but in time, our identity changes and we know ourselves and our loved ones again, compassionately.

 

Shear, M. (2015). Complicated grief. The New England Journal of Medicine, 372(2), 153–160. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcp1315618


The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living – Marcus Tullius Cicero - Quote from Samuel, J. (2018). Grief works: Stories of life, death and surviving (p. 51). Penguin Books Ltd. 


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