Tackling Grief

This week’s Mental Fitness Friday takes on a heavy topic: grief, loss and the natural affects it has on athletes and mental fitness.

For me, this topic particularly hits home. My friend, Robb Malone, died last week due to COVID-19. He was a beloved coach in our community, and a great family man. He lit up rooms with his smile and energy, and parents whose kids have been coached by Robb have shared the impact he had on their child’s lives.

My thoughts and prayers continue to be with him and his family as they navigate this loss.

After I heard about his passing, and hearing about the impact and connection he had on others in the community, I knew it was a topic we needed to tackle. Because grief touches us all. We’ve all experienced loss, and we’ve all comforted those who have experienced losses that may not directly impact us but reach us indirectly.

Earlier this week, we learned that Bloomington Jefferson girl’s hockey coach Michael Ryan was also killed. Like my friend Robb, his impact was felt amongst every family he coached, and my thoughts and prayers are with him, his family, and his team in this tragic time. 

As I said, grief impacts us all, and all experience it. No one is immune.

WATCH: Managing Loss


But we need to be aware of it to cope. Stages of grief don’t progress in a neat order–they loop: anger, despair, detachment and back again. 

Over and over again.

And unfortunately, grief never completely leaves us, the intensity simply lessens.

Throughout my career I have helped many athletes and teams deal with the emotional impacts of serious injuries, accidents, and deaths. No matter what has happened, all these situations have been highly emotional and hard for all to know how to navigate. 

It does not matter if it’s a serious spinal injury, the death of a teammate or coach, or the witnessing of a traumatic event on the field or ice, it hurts. When kids who believe they are invincible experience these types of things, it is even harder. And watching your kid cry over something that’s truly painful sucks. 

My experience has been that the mental toughness myths that I have talked about in past episodes get in the way of grieving. For athletes, permission to show and accept emotion only comes at the end of a championship game or when a great athlete dies. 

Mental fitness means knowing how you grieve. It’s a skill, and an emotion. 

Become familiar with your pattern in grief and how it spins from protest, to denial to detachment. At first it’s raw, right at the surface. Eventually it fades, but it doesn’t mean you don’t care. Acceptance happens and is okay. The pain blends into your life and moves forward with you. 

Nora McInerny, who lost her husband, has a great Ted Talk about this.

Awareness helps. Learn your steps in the loop.

Find ways to actively grieve. Honor who you have lost, and add actions to your day to honor them. It can be simple, something that just takes a few seconds. My friend, and 2009 Hobey Baker Award Winner Matt Gilroy, lost his brother in bike accident when they were both young. Here’s a story about how he continues to honor him to this day.

Grieving is complicated and is different for everyone. The past year has made it even more so, so these small but yet significant challenges offer an opportunity to reflect and grow.  

We miss you Robb; your smile, your energy, your enthusiasm, your presence and your impact on our kids. 

Please consider donating to Robb’s family through their GoFundMe Page.

BONUS PDF: When something truly terrible happens