Dealing with Loss at the Gym
It was heartbreaking to hear of the recent losses in the cheer community this week and it prompted me to write this piece in hopes of helping those who are directly affected by these lives taken too soon. This isn’t the easiest article for me to write, being both a mother who has lost two children of her own and a former coach who has lost an athlete, but I hope my past experiences will bring some comfort and help to those struggling to cope right now and also provide a resource for those who have experienced this in the past, or may experience it in the future.
While there are many types of losses we can experience being a part of a close knit cheer family, I’m primarily going to focus on the loss of an athlete. Whether you are a coach, a teammate, or a parent, this is something we never want to consider being a possibility of happening, but it can and when it does it can leave you feeling devastated, helpless, upset beyond comprehension, and many overwhelming emotions.
Here are some tips below. These are general ideas and may not apply to every situation.
As a gym owner or coach…
-While your initial reaction may be to be strong for your athletes, make sure you are taking care of yourself too. Allow yourself time to grieve and allow your friends and family to provide you with much needed support during this time.
-Make your gym a safe haven of sorts. Allow your athletes and their families to come there and grieve together, share memories and cry on each other’s shoulders.
-Hold a candlelight vigil in the athlete’s honor.
-Hold a Celebration of Life ceremony where gym families can share photos, exchange stories, and be with those who were close to the athlete. End the ceremony with a butterfly release, or if weather will not allow, release balloons or paper lanterns.
-Make a scrapbook and gift basket for the athlete’s family with handwritten cards and letters of their favorite memories and photos.
-Be gentle and be patient with your athletes. Death affects everyone differently. Your athletes who were close to the individual who passed may be more sensitive, suffer a mental block, or push themselves to their limits trying to channel their emotions into physical activity.
-Consider consulting a grief counselor to volunteer a few days at your gym in the coming weeks.
-Hold a benefit (if needed) to assist the family with funeral and/or medical expenses.
-Reach out to the family of the deceased and let them know you are there for them.
As a parent…
-Allow your child to grieve openly and provide them with support. Be respectful of how they choose to grieve. They may want to be surrounded by their friends or they may not even want to go to the gym.
-They may have very strong reactions. Expect a variety of emotions and validate those emotions. Show your child that you understand how they are feeling and that they are being heard.
-Engage in open communication, be honest. Your child may be more likely to open up about their feelings when you take the lead and discuss your own thoughts and feelings about the loss.
-Encourage your child to participate in the memorial ceremonies surrounding the event, but don’t force.
-Seek outside help. As a parent, you may need some support to work through your feelings and thoughts about the loss and how it has affected your child and your family. Seek out support from your friends and family. If you see significant changes in your child’s behaviors and emotions which concern you, seek professional help.
As a teammate…
-Find a safe and trusted adult to talk to.
-Talk to your friends and be open about what kind of support you need.
-Find helpful vents for your feelings such as journaling, exercising, art, prayer, meditation, attending a support group, or spending time with friends.
-Attend the memorial services if you feel comfortable. Offer to assist with things your gym may be doing in memory of your teammate.
-Make a memory box, scrapbook or online memorial page. Make a photo collage of you and your friend to hang in your bedroom.
-Share your thoughts with a good listener. Call a hot-line if you don't have someone to listen. 2nd Floor is for kids 10-24 to call about anything: 1-888-222-2228. It is free and 24/7 and confidential.
-Write goodbye letters and read them at the grave, site of the ashes, and/or a special place.
-Light candles and share memories of the deceased
General tips and caring words of advice for helping the parents of the lost athlete.
Do not be afraid to take initiative.
-Be there for the family. Call, email, text. Tell them they don’t have to respond. Let them know you are thinking of them, and their child, all the time. Don’t drop away after the funeral – that’s when they’ll need you the most.
-Don't forget about the siblings of the lost child. Not only have they lost a brother or sister, they've lost their parents during the grieving process.
-Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Many people feel they have to be strong for their friends, that they can’t cry or show emotion. You can be strong AND be emotional. If tears come, don’t fight them. This shows your friends that you, too, are crushed and sad and lost.
– Don't avoid or ignore the grieving parents. They are already grieving a loss, and losing a friend or loved one only compounds it.
-Address the unfairness. People often worry about addressing how awful the situation is, but the parents want to hear that people get the hell they are in. The parents feel alone when they don’t think people understand how awful this is. Saying things like, “This is the worst thing. I am so sorry and sad that it had to happen to you and your child,” helps.
-Food is very helpful. The last thing you want to do when mourning is worry about eating. There are always people around after a death, and the last thing you want to think about is feeding them. A gift of food also tells the parents they are loved.
-If you're financially able to, send some money to the grieving parents. The cost of a funeral for a child is high, and is often (especially if the loss of the child is not expected) not planned for.
-When you visit, bring a bag of groceries, throw in a load of laundry, clean up the kitchen. Daily responsibilities are extremely difficult while in the throes of grief.
-It's okay if you only have fifteen minutes to stop by and visit. Do it anyway.
-Send a photo or keepsake with the child's name on it. It will be cherished by the grieving parents.
-Send a card when you learn that your loved one has lost a child. They will hold onto these keepsakes for a long time.
–Send a message of concern by phone, mail, or email. Do something that does not necessarily require a response from the person, as he or she may already feel overwhelmed by the immediacy of the event and the tasks they are confronting in the initial days and weeks following a loss or traumatic event. It may be tempting to compare their situation to one you have experienced but it is better to simply listen to what the person feels and wants as people may have different reactions from you and may even feel differently from day to day.
–Often, friends and family feel a need to “problem solve” or offer advice. This is often not necessary. For those who are close to a grieving person, physical presence and support are usually more valuable. Suggestions as to what a grieving person should have done or should do now are usually not helpful.
–Educate yourself about trauma and the healing process. Learn about common reactions to traumatic experiences and about resources by attending seminars, searching the internet, reading books, or talking to a counselor.
–Listen and allow the family to talk about the traumatic experience at his or her own pace. Friends can let the family know that they are there to listen and give support when the survivor is ready.
–Take a break from talking about it. Follow the family’s lead on when to talk about it and when to take a break. Allow time for mutual relaxation and engaging in ordinary tasks and activities.
For in the future….
-If you were close to the athlete and her family, something incredible you can do for them in the years to come is to remember their child that died. Most support fades off after a few short months, but this is something devestating that the family will have to live with forever.
-Send them a card on their child's birthday and angelversary date or offer to take them out to lunch.
-Talk to your coach about dedicating a future competition or fundraiser in honor of the athlete's memory.
-Make a donation to a cause they were passionate about in their memory.
-Find a positive way to remember their life and keep the memories you made together close to your heart.
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