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  • Writer's pictureKaren Okonkwo

Why Kobe Bryant's Death Hurts Different

I’ve been sitting here trying to process why I’ve cried just a little bit louder and longer for Kobe Bryant and others who lost their lives in the fatal and tragic helicopter crash on January 26th. Aside from this being a horrible way to die and the fact that Kobe was an icon, my pain felt different. It felt familiar.

On Sunday, I had woken up early in New York to catch my 7AM flight. We were breezing down the freeway when we were abruptly met with a bottleneck. “My GPS is telling me that there was an accident,” said my Lyft driver. Like every rubber neck on the road, I kept my eyes peeled every inch we progressed on the road to see if I could get a front row view on the accident. As I parted the police and emergency lights like the Red Sea, I saw the aftermath of the accident which was a freeway median split into two. I sighed and started to backtrack time to see if this accident could have possibly involved me. As we approached Delta and I gathered my small carry ons, I hear a traveler comment about the accident and the Delta guy says, “Yeah, people died.” My stomach flopped. Again, I wondered if that could have been me.

My final destination was Seattle and I landed a little after 9AM PST. What a lot of people don’t know is that every time a plane lands I thank both God and the pilot as I exit. No matter how many times I fly, I always treat it like a blessing to safely land. From the airport, I rushed to 11AM mass at my church. I got there 10 minutes before 11AM so I got down on my knees in the pew and thanked God that he let me land safe. All the while I didn’t know that the same was not afforded to others at the exact same time. Unreal.

In church I like to write notes. They come to me at random times. Shortly after mass started a thought came to my mind and not wanting it to escape, I rummaged through my purse for anything to write on. On a receipt I wrote, “Devote your entire life to uncovering the many gifts that God has buried within you.” One hour later, I walked out of church, sat idle in my car and saw Drake post art work of Kobe with a cryptic caption that lead me to double back with a Google check in on Kobe. My stomach churned as I read “died in helicopter crash this morning.” The same morning sky that allowed me to safely land? The same God that spared my life at the same time? A familiar feeling crept in: gratitude with survivor’s guilt.

This is a familiar feeling for me because in 2004 I was in a fatal car crash that took the life of my friend, Ashley Mitchell. I was the only person that didn’t sustain life threatening injuries. As we waited to hear more about Kobe and the helicopter crash, I realized that this same anguish of uncertainty was the same feeling I had waiting, sitting on the side of the road with my friend Alyssa unsure of Ashley’s predicament as we watched her laying on the side of the road, a result of being ejected like 2 others who were in the vehicle. The feeling of waiting for more news about someone’s life is a feeling I never wanted to experience again. But, here I am on the couch, in bed, pacing my kitchen wondering about Kobe and his family. Whose lives were lost? Why? How? Why does God always spare me? As I scrolled through social media to get any glimmer of more news, a word popped out at me: PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Yep, that’s what’s making this hit so much different. I get pulled in again to that gut-wrenching day and all the trauma resurfaces. As an empath it goes so much deeper for me. I feel everything.

A lot of signs/symbolic things happened leading up to and after Ashley’s passing that I will save for a different post for a different day. Needless to say, I couldn’t help but wonder the signs/symbols right underneath our nose and the ones we may never know as they took off. For example, LeBron passing Kobe in the amount of all-time points scored and Kobe sending a message passing the torch. Eerie yet perhaps all apart of the plan in hindsight. I pay attention to God talking to us, because He is VERY present in these situations. When the accident happened with Ashley, I pondered why God saved me. I grew up a God-fearing, extremely spiritual kid and it didn’t take too long for me to realize one of the reasons God spared me: it was to explain death so that even the weary hearts could understand.

I will never be able to explain why people die the tragic ways that they do. Truthfully, that is something I continue to grapple with. It’s a fragile reminder of how fleeting life is. We are on borrowed time and God is constantly trying to show that to us. He ‘buried in us gifts’ that He wants us to uncover. Those gifts fulfill your mission, your purpose on this Earth. Kobe recognized His many gifts and he shared that which caused a positive ripple effect. I remember hearing this profound statement: on your tombstone is the day you were born and the day that you died, but you die when the last person says your name. What matters is what you do in between that dash that will outlive you. Kobe did what he was called to do and left a legacy that will be felt forever. Mamba Forever.


If nothing else, when people die in the manners with which they die whether tragically or not, maybe it buys us more time to live our life fuller- to pursue our why, our purpose. What are you going to do to make use of your short time here?

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