Literature Review: Navigating Grief, Loss, and Heaviness
Let’s redefine mental toughness together.
By: Mikaela Brewer | Head of Content & Research
The athlete ecosystem is one of the most vibrant, inspiring, and soulful communities. It is also submerged in an expectation that these things can only be maintained by a standard of mental toughness that deeply embeds mental health stigma. At Timeout, we’re deconstructing this barrier by painting the full picture — bringing you the humans beneath athletes, coaches, care providers, and anyone else immersed in this world. We’re exploring mental health research in a fresh and approachable way — by welcoming our entire community into the conversation and asking questions that will prompt change. Let’s redefine mental toughness together.
In this literature review series called “Reimagining Science,” we are exploring research in a fresh way, by unpacking some of the literature around specific topics. Our goal is for these literature reviews to be accessible to the entire athletic community — coaches, athletes, care providers, etc. We’re beginning with grief, loss, and heaviness, as we navigate the uncertainty of our world.
We’re all carrying and parsing through so much right now, and we’ve struggled to find peace in the pieces of ourselves and the world around us. Nothing is as far away as we think, even if we’re not directly impacted by it. We carry that with us.
Athletes are a celebrated beacon of hope, family, spirit, friendship, and camaraderie. As athletes we may inadvertently feed this beacon, hoping to be something to celebrate in a troubled world, but we can’t always be expected/expect ourselves to celebrate.
As a community, research shows that athletes may carry and internalize grief, loss, and languishing a bit differently. Though the research is thin here, let’s explore some of what’s out there.
How to engage with research
First, you’ll see the title of the research paper, followed by its citation (if you’d like to read the full article, head to scholar.google.com and copy-paste this citation)! Beneath the citation are the critical points from the research, framed in an easy-to-understand way. There may be further citations beneath each “main citation” which can be used as further reading if you’re interested. Enjoy!
Teeming With Grief: Sports Teams’ Need for Resources and Support During Bereavement
Fogaca, J., Cupit, I., & Gonzalez, M. (2021). Teeming With Grief: Sports Teams’ Need for Resources and Support During Bereavement. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1 (aop), 1–17.
- Acute grief responses, such as to sudden death, can affect our performance.
- In the wake of loss, the most helpful supports are memorials and community support, whereas the least helpful are the news and media.
- Athlete-specific resources and policies are needed for the entire athlete ecosystem, rather than just athletes.
- Emotion-focused and restoration-focused coping may be helpful.
A Phenomenological Study: Experiencing the Unexpected Death of a Teammate
Simpson, D., & Elberty, L. P. (2018). A phenomenological study: Experiencing the unexpected death of a teammate. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 12 (2), 97–113.
- After the experience of an unexpected death of a teammate, student-athletes may feel a wide range of emotional and behavioral responses. These may alter their perspective on life.
- For sport psychology consultants, coaches, and administrators who provide support, sport-specific nuances may offer many practical applications.
Writing Lives, Writing Loss: An auto-ethnography on the death of a teammate.
Faust, K. (2017). Writing Lives, Writing Loss: An auto-ethnography on the death of a teammate.
- It is important to question the language that we use to talk about death and loss.
- It is difficult for grief to have space and take shape in our culture, which tends to highlight and prioritize dominant narratives that center heroics and triumph. Stories that offer a counter to these should be further explored. Here are a few great questions from the author to think about:
- “How are relationships affected when there is resistance to the established social and cultural norms surrounding grief?
- “When someone dies, a link in a chain is broken. Who repairs that chain, if at all?”
- “What other counter-narratives to the culture of grief exist? How is the culture of grief explored in a sporting context or in a team setting?”
- “Does proximity to the deceased play a role in who is delegated the responsibility to “repair”?”
- We struggle with language surrounding loss and grief, which is rather limiting when it should be allowed to be pure — “messy and chaotic.” We struggle to allow ourselves to experience grief outside of social expectations/prescriptions of what it should look like. We’re expected to have continued with life a mere few months after a loss.
- It is difficult to respond to the question, “Are you all right?” — we can feel damaged and altered while being physically healthy and connected.
Vernacchia, R., & Reardon, J. (1997). Sudden death in sport: Managing the aftermath. Sport Psychologist, 11(2), 223. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/tsp.11.2.223
- A staged model of bereavement — critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) — may be a great tool for sport psychology professionals to guide athletic departments.
McNeil, J., Silliman, B., & Swihart, J. (1991). Helping adolescents cope with the death of a peer: A high school case study. Journal of Adolescent Research, 6(1), 132–145. doi: 10.1177/074355489161010.
- Coping can be either active or passive. Active coping may look like conversations about loss, spending time with memories, or purposeful physical activity. Passive coping may look like impatience with those who wish to be more active, and feelings of avoidance. This particular study also found that eighteen months after a death, student-athletes still held feelings of confusion, sadness, and anger.
Buchko, K. (2005). Team consultation following an athlete’s suicide: A crisis intervention model. Sport Psychologist, 19(3), 288. doi: 10.1123/tsp.19.3.288.
- From the perspective of sport psychology, this research implemented a crisis intervention model following the loss of an athlete to suicide.
- There are 3 phases to this model:
- Share your story
- Validate the emotional impact
- Evaluate the context of the crisis
- Protect vulnerable family member(s)
- Negotiate a solvable problem
- Network with relevant resources
- Formulate a plan for change
- Identify developmental issues
- Engage therapeutic tools
- Assign homework
- Support systemic rules, roles, and rituals
- Track progress toward goals
- Acknowledge indicators of the time to terminate
- Address future sources of stress
- Refer for continuing treatment
- Exit the system
- It is important to note that when discussing this article, Faust identified the importance of identifying this approach as a template and including athletes’ perspectives on both the model and its implementation. Otherwise, it may not be helpful.
Thank you for reading. More to come!