King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Sean Taylor killing: A grief counselor talks about how teammates and fans can gain "control" after a senseless tragedy.


King Kaufman
November 28, 2007 4:00PM (UTC)

We've had entirely too much practice lately at trying to make sense of the death of a beautiful 24-year-old athlete. Washington safety Sean Taylor, who died early Tuesday, a day after he was shot by an apparent intruder in his Miami-area home, is the fourth NFL player to die at that age in this calendar year.

It's a fool's errand, trying to make sense of the senseless, of Taylor or Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams being shot to death, of Broncos running back Damien Nash collapsing and dying after a charity basketball game, of New England Patriots lineman Marquise Hill drowning in Lake Pontchartrain after a jet-ski accident.

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Taylor's teammates were understandably grief stricken at the news. Grief counselors were on hand at Washington's practice facility Tuesday, and several players and coaches, as well as team owner Daniel Snyder, broke down or barely held it together as they spoke to the media about Taylor.

There was also an outpouring of grief from fans of the team. Message boards filled with memories, prayers and expressions of sympathy. Candlelight vigils were held, flowers and tokens were left at the team's headquarters. All by people who, with rare exceptions, had never met Taylor and knew him only as a uniformed, and even masked, performer on a football field.

"Sometimes it's almost an idealized relationship," Lynn Kahle, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Oregon, says about fans' feelings toward famous athletes. "If a person is involved with your life and you're heavily involved with them, there may be 500 things you think about them. Four hundred of them are good and 75 of them are neutral and a few of them are negative.

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"With a celebrity, on the other hand, most of what you get is filtered through media reports that may only emphasize certain aspects of a person. So if a person is a football player, most of what you may know about the person is what kind of football player the person is."

Psychologist Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, says that "fandom is always self-serving."

"The person is a celebrity to a given individual because of how that celebrity makes the fan feel, about himself, about the world," he says. "It always goes back to the fan. It's what the fan felt, what the fan needed. So in some sense [the outpouring of grief and sympathy] is an egocentric, rather than an altruistic, compassion and concern."

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That doesn't make the feelings any less real, though Jane V. Bissler, a clinical counselor in Kent, Ohio, says they tend to be fleeting.

"We live through our sports heroes," she says, but "we don't have a day-to-day relationship with this person. We have a Sunday afternoon, or a Monday night, relationship with them. So that's when you'd be thinking about them, as opposed to if it's a personal relationship, they didn't come home for dinner or they didn't come home for the holidays. We miss the people where we expect to see them."

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I talked with Bissler, a grief counselor who also teaches counseling at Kent State University, about the grief surrounding this latest death in the sports world.

Sometimes when there are tragedies, part of the news story is "Grief counselors will be on hand." How will a grief counselor help Sean Taylor's teammates?

Grief in the workplace is second only to grief in the home. We spend more hours with our teammates, whether it be on the playing field or in corporate offices, than we do a lot of times with the people that live in our own homes. So for them it will be a much more personal loss and a much more personal grief.

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The grief counselors who are going to be there are going to be doing a couple of things. First of all they're going to be listening, and they're going to be listening with fresh ears, I always tell my students. Because they want to make sure that that person who's talking realizes that their story needs to be heard. The other thing they'll be doing is kind of normalizing the feelings they have: Well, of course you feel that way.

The big thing these counselors are going to do, in my opinion, would be to help these teammates have some control, because when something like this happens, whether it's a school shooting, whether it's in the workplace, whether it's Virginia Tech, or wherever it happens to be, the students and the players and the workmates feel like they have absolutely no control, and that is a horrible feeling.

The other thing I would be looking for if I was doing this would be what kind of losses these individual people have had, because a lot of times these losses can kind of rupture, basically. You think you've got the lid kind of nicely tight on those other losses, but something like this can kind of unpack them all.

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But what about the fans, where it's not a workplace issue? It's this love affair with probably an idealized version of who this guy was. They just know him as No. 21 --

Right. I just wanted to say one more thing about the team, and I think this goes exactly with that. That is that the team will need to develop some way to memorialize him, whether that's putting his number on their helmets or dedicating the next game to him or whatever the case may be.

[Washington owner Snyder announced Tuesday that the team would wear a patch with Taylor's No. 21 on their game jerseys and that all NFL teams would wear similar decals on their helmets in this week's games.]

And that's something the fans can then get into as well, whether it's a moment of silence before this next game or it's something that even happens at the Super Bowl. You know, they take five minutes of that awful halftime show and dedicate it to Sean, or whatever the case may be. The fans can get involved with that.

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That gives them -- please don't use the word closure, because I hate that word, because there isn't any closure with this -- but it gives them some control over the fact that, OK, we were able to memorialize it too. We all had Sean's number on signs at the game.

OK, so let's say I'm a fan of the Washington team and, hypothetically, let's say my mom died five years ago. And I handled it pretty well. Now I hear about Sean Taylor, a person I never met and don't know very much about because he didn't talk to the press, so he didn't get written about very much except when he made a play on the field or got in trouble. And I've gone to pieces over it. Am I making that up or does that happen?

No, it definitely happens. And as grief counselors, when we see someone have an inordinate response to a loss, we're oftentimes looking at what else is going on.

We had a young man at our local middle school here die of a long illness, and I took a class of counselors with me, and I warned them. I said, "You watch, the kids that come down here, some of these kids aren't even going to have known him. They saw him in the hallways maybe, but they didn't really know him. They're here for another reason, and your job is to find out why they're here."

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Sometimes that's a mental health issue that they're having, sometimes it's a previous loss, sometimes it's an attention kind of thing. But you're definitely going to try to figure out what's going on here. People are just looking for control. Are they really talking about Sean Taylor, or are they talking about something else?

And anger is a huge part of it. That's something I would definitely be looking at. What do you do with that anger? What's normal for you? Grief does not change normal coping mechanisms; it exaggerates them. So if someone normally when they're stressed out becomes angry, in a grief situation they're going to get really angry. If somebody gets really quiet when they're stressed out, they're going to get very quiet.

Lastly, say a kid is a big football fan, and he loves Sean Taylor. How would I as a parent expect my kid to react to this and how would I deal with that?

I think the first part of your question is impossible to know because people react according to their personalities and their environment and what their experiences have been. So it depends on where your child is developmentally, it depends on whether there have been other losses, it depends on whether they have been involved in random acts of violence. It depends on their spirituality, whether they believe that Sean's now in heaven and that his perpetrator's going to go to hell. It's very, very dependent on that child and that personality.

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[When they hear about violence such as a favorite player's murder,] kids become very, very frightened. It's kind of like what happened with 9/11. Little kids thought that there were millions of planes that were hitting the towers, because they kept seeing it over and over again.

So to be able to sit down and say no, it was one player. It was a man by the name of Sean. This is what happened to him. No, it doesn't happen every day. Why does it happen? We don't know, but there are bad people out there. Are there bad people in your neighborhood? Well, maybe, maybe not. We don't always know.

You just want to kind of talk with them at their level, realizing that they may be very frightened by all of this. It's a scary world out there, and we need to be able to talk to our children in a way that we're being honest with them but we're not scaring them.

And we have to make sure that we're answering the question that the child has. I always use the example: A child asks, "Where did I come from?" And you go through the birds and bees, and the child says, "Oh, I thought I was born in Cleveland."

Previous column: The ethics of Adrian Peterson's knee

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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