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Supporting an Athlete Who has Experienced a Loss

Posted on: March 16th, 2023 by Our Team

When an athlete does not reach his or her goals at the Olympic/Paralympic Games, suffers a major injury, or is cut from a team, it may be devastating. Many athletes experience pain similar to a death or an intense life loss. While there is no one perfect way to respond or to support someone facing a loss, here are some good guidelines:

#1 Grief belongs to the griever.

Many of the suggestions, advice and “help” given to people facing losses suggest that they should be doing it differently or feeling differently than they do. Grief is a very personal experience and belongs entirely to the person experiencing it. Follow his or her lead.

#2 Stay present and state the truth.

It’s tempting to make statements about the past or the future when the athlete’s present life holds so much pain. You cannot know what the future will be, and it may or may not be better “later.” That the athlete’s life was good in the past is not a fair trade for the pain of now. Stay present with the athlete, even when the present is full of pain.

It’s also tempting to make generalized statements about the situation in an attempt to soothe the athlete. You cannot know that the athlete will “bounce back” or “get past it.” These future-based, generalized platitudes aren’t helpful. Stick with the truth: this hurts. I’m here with you to listen.

#3 Do not try to fix the unfixable.

The athlete’s loss cannot be fixed, repaired or solved. The pain itself cannot be made better. Please see #2. It is an unfathomable relief to have a friend who does not try to take the pain away.

#4 Be willing to witness unbearable pain.

To do #4 while also practicing #3 is very, very difficult. Become comfortable with the uncomfortable and recognize it will be challenging for you.

#5 This is not about you.

Being with someone in pain is not easy. You will have things come up — stresses, questions, fear, or guilt. Your feelings may be hurt. You may feel ignored and unappreciated. This is a one-sided relationship so don’t take it personally. Find your own people to lean on so that you feel supported in supporting the athletes. When in doubt, refer to #1.

#6 Anticipate, don’t ask.

Do not only say “Call or text me if you need anything,” because the athlete likely will not. Not because they don’t have the need, but because taking that initiative is beyond their energy levels, especially if they don’t know you well. You can also make concrete offers: “I will call to check in with you on Thursday” or “I am at my desk/this location each morning from 7-noon if you want to talk.” Be reliable.

#7 Do the small things.

The actual, heavy, real work of grieving is not something you can do (see #1), but you can lessen the burden of some life requirements for the athlete. Perhaps they need to pick up laundry or eat but don’t feel like walking there and facing everyone. Maybe they need information about health insurance or educational/career assistance. Help them with these basic tasks or connect them with someone who can. Support the athlete in small, ordinary ways.

#8 Show you care.

Above all, show you care. Show up. Say something. Do something. Be willing to sit with the grief without flinching or turning away. Be willing to not have any answers. Listen. Be there. Be present. Be a friend.

Adapted from Megan Devine’s “Everything is Not Okay: an audio program for grief.”