A Neuropsychiatrist Explains Why Kobe’s Death Hurts Us So Much

A Neuropsychiatrist Explains Why Kobe’s Death Hurts Us So Much

On Sunday, January 26, my brain got hijacked. The shocking news that Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash slammed into my brain’s emotional centers, the limbic system, with a thud. As a lifelong Lakers fan and former season ticket holder, I had the privilege of seeing Kobe grow up on the basketball court and witnessed some of his most glorious achievements. I only met Kobe a few times, but my brain doesn’t care about that. Like millions of other Lakers fans, I felt like I knew him.

That’s what’s so strange about how our brains process the way we feel about icons. When we see the famous people we admire on television, at a sporting event, or at a concert, our brains can register it as a real friendship. That’s why, when tragedy strikes, we can experience profound grief, as if a loved one died.

Sadly, the news of the crash, which occurred on the way to Kobe’s Mamba Academy basketball facility, just kept getting worse. Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna “Gigi,” a basketball phenom in the making, also perished in the accident. So did 7 other people—baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and their daughter Alyssa who was one of Gigi’s teammates; Sarah Chester and her basketball-player daughter Payton; Christina Mauser, a Mamba Academy basketball coach; and the pilot Ara Zobayan.

They all leave behind family members whose lives—and brains—will never be the same.

What Grief Does to the Brain

The unspeakable loss of a loved one fires up the limbic system, especially the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure on the inside of your temporal lobes involved in emotional reactions. When the amygdala remains overactive, it can impair our ability to get past the pain. The grief we feel can become part of the story of our lives, the way we view ourselves and our place in this world. For some people, these stories can rob us of joy, hold us back, and lead to depression.

My friend Dr. Sharon May, a world-renowned relationship psychologist, calls the stories that interfere with our lives “dragons from the past” that are still breathing fire on your amygdala, which can drive anxiety, anger, irrational behavior, and automatic negative reactions.

She says, “All of us have dragons from the past influencing our present feelings and actions.” Unless you recognize and tame them, and consciously calm and protect your amygdala from overfiring, they will haunt your unconscious mind and drive emotional pain for the rest of your life. What blows from an ember, or small action of another, can turn into a destructive fire of anxiety and rage.

That’s how I’m feeling right now—like a dragon is breathing fire on my amygdala and igniting all my inner anxieties, fears, and negative thoughts. I know it is going to take time to calm my brain so I can process the grief and heal.

Support the Healing Process

Here are 5 ways to calm the amygdala and support the grieving process:

  1. Find the upside: It may seem hard right now to think there could be an upside to a terrible tragedy like the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe, Gigi, and 7 others. But after a loss, some people decide to make important, positive changes to their lives. In the past few days, I’ve heard many people talking about how they’re going to incorporate Kobe’s “Mamba Mentality” into their daily lives—trying to be the best version of themselves at all times. For you, this might mean making health a greater priority, trying to make the most of the life you’ve been given, or showing more appreciation for the important people in your life.
  2. Start as soon as possible. People may tell you to wait to heal from grief, but if you fell and broke your arm, when would you want to start healing? Immediately!
  3. Keep a brain healthy routine. It’s especially important to eat brain healthy food, take supplements, exercise, and sleep. This is often the missing link in grief recovery. When people are in pain, they will often do nearly anything to stop it. Yet, overeating, binge drinking, smoking marijuana, and other habits may put a temporary Band-Aid on the negative feelings, but often prolong the pain.
  4. Reach out for social support. Therapy and support groups can be helpful if they help you build skills to overcome grief.
  5. When grief is prolonged or becomes complicated, get professional help. In people who are more vulnerable, grief can trigger depressive episodes.

Most people are able to overcome feelings of grief in time, but if you find yourself slipping into depression, Amen Clinics is here for you. If you need help, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. Thank you so much for this article. I have a friend at the gym who was trying to understand why some people are reacting so strongly to someone they didn’t know personally. I could explain my own reaction, and how this tragic accident triggered memories from the loss of two of my family members in tragic accidents, but your article explains it SO well!

    Comment by Jane Massengill — February 3, 2020 @ 6:08 AM

  2. Right on. Echoes Grief Recovery Method definition: “grief is the conflicting feelings caused by a change in or loss of a familiar pattern of behaviour”….We have relationships to things and persons. When it changes….. griefbrain. Check their resources out www.griefrecoverymethod.com
    Thank you Dr Daniel……. And consolations to your grieving spirit.

    Comment by Jeff Archambeault — February 3, 2020 @ 8:05 AM

  3. A most ridiculous waste of time, energy, and print being concerned with a basketball players death. Let the fellow’s family grieve privately…Many individuals making valuable contributions to our country are ignored…Who really cares about professional athletics except politically correct sycophants attempting to nurture some grain of gratitude from the nouveau rich…

    Comment by Dr Henry Sinopoli — February 3, 2020 @ 8:08 AM

  4. Praying healing for you, Dr. Sinopoli, for your toxic thoughts. Bless you with a bigger heart and less bitterness.

    Comment by Cindy Thorsen — February 3, 2020 @ 8:22 AM

  5. Thank you so much for this article. I’m a hospice chaplain and grief counselor and his death did hit hard. It may me think of my fathers death. It was also a sudden death and those seem to hurt more.

    Comment by Danielle Parish Drake — February 3, 2020 @ 8:24 AM

  6. All great suggestions, Dr. Amen! Supporting our brains is so important, especially in grief! For those who need additional support, we are also lucky to have a wonderful non-profit here in Los Angeles called Our House Family Grief Support Centers, with locations in West Los Angeles, Koreatown and Woodland Hills. Our House’s support truly made a difference for my family during our grief process, which is why I am such a big ambassador! Their motto says it all: ”Our House Grief Support — because no one should have to grieve alone. “

    In case any of your followers are interested, Our House has sliding scale, in-house support groups for adults and children, and runs free grief support groups for children and adolescents at public schools throughout greater Los Angeles. They offer support in both English and Spanish.

    For more information, you can contact Our House at (310) 473-1511 or go to their website: http://www.ourhouse-grief.org. There you can find more info on their annual, city-wide, Run/Walk for Hope, Camp Erin Summer Grief Camp for children, and their in-house support groups for adults and children.

    Comment by Penny Alpert — February 3, 2020 @ 8:27 AM

  7. It wasn’t about the basketball players death, that was the segue go the more important topic of grief. Read before commenting. Are you really a doctor?

    Comment by Barbara Dorlaque — February 3, 2020 @ 8:40 AM

  8. An overlooked but important component to this “grief” about Kobe Brant that you neglected to identify in your article is that this man was credibly accused or rape and settled a civil lawsuit with the woman he assaulted. He was a perpetrator of some or the worst kind of trauma one human can inflict in another. He admitted his guilt in court, though in a way in which he did not fully take responsibility. While he went on to presumably heal this betrayal in his family, seem to be a supportive dad, and do philanthropic work, he never seemed to get the enormity of his actions, take full responsibility for them, and ask for forgiveness. This leaves a stain on his legacy that I see many people wishing to skip over, including you. It’s inconvenient for us to hold To account I the legacies of those who have sexually assaulted others but very important, especially if we want to live in a world where this is the exception and not the norm. For many sexual assault survivors, this type of blind worship of people who abuse their power is triggering and can lead to relapse and depression. This is an important aspect that I hope you would consider, as a psychiatrist who encounters trauma regularly.
    I grieve for his family, as they lost a child and no parent should ever have to live through that. But I do not grieve for love. In fact, in a week that there are many other sexual predators sho hold powerful positions who are in the news and on trial, this article and the like confine just reinforce the damaging cult of celebrity that our society holds.

    Comment by Heather H — February 3, 2020 @ 9:13 AM

  9. kobe’s death brought back the memory of the rape in eagle, Colorado of a teen struggling with mental health issues. the fact that kobe had to buy vannessa a very expensive ring to soothe her anger. and a civil lawsuit where the burden of proof is more likely to have happened than guilty or innocent, it raised anger. yes he died but what about the others? everyone focusing on him even in death. so he had mad basketball skills but the sum of his life includes some bad and it was overlooked. the rape occurred around the time of the birth of his first daughter.

    Comment by maryanne ryan — February 3, 2020 @ 9:56 AM

  10. Those of us who have lost someone close, including some celebrity we have followed and have enjoyed like Kobe, appreciate this article. Fighting the “dragons” is great advice as are the steps to be able to grieve properly. Thank you Dr Amen.

    Comment by Mike Fleming — February 3, 2020 @ 12:31 PM

  11. People were so indulgent in expressing to others how they were so saddened by Kobe’s death. When I didn’t show the same prolong sadness they got offended and thought I was cold or racist. I have seen so much death by way of working in hospitals and I personally lost loved ones like a fiancé unexpectedly. I hate to be depressed. When I feel depressed I try to figure out why I’m depressed and try to change my environment to increase positive thoughts. A co-worker (a trauma nurse) told me years ago while I was going through a divorce to think of 10 positive things when I get depressed and this has helped me to reverse my depressive thoughts. So having discussions on Kobe’s death I never want to dwell on his death but rather speak of his life which was far more interesting like he spoke Italian fluently and had reach for his religion in times of difficulty. I think of his life! But, people don’t want to feel anything good but rather people choose to bask in depression. Maybe I’m being selfish to converse with then about Kobe in a positive light? I don’t know but what I do know is I’m not going to live depressed.

    Comment by Olga — February 3, 2020 @ 12:56 PM

  12. Well put, Heather and a valid point. Thank you. One grief does not eclipse another.

    Comment by jan harrison — February 4, 2020 @ 4:02 AM

  13. …………..and what kind of ‘doctor’ are you?

    Comment by jan harrison — February 4, 2020 @ 4:03 AM

  14. Obviously, your judgment was made WITHOUT reading the article. Keep your insensitive, judgmental comments to yourself if you’re not even willing to read the article.

    Comment by Toni — February 6, 2020 @ 12:09 PM

  15. Thank you Heather. Why is it left to women to remember? But not all women. I lost “friends” on FB when I posted 5 words: Kobe Got Away with Rape. And my question to all those people who told me my timing was disrespectful is: when is the right time to bring it up? As we can see, his legend just rises. I’m saying he’s been relegated to Sainthood by now. And of course we know since he became a dad of daughters, I bet that he disgusts himself as he realizes that what he did so cavelierly (“I should have just listened to Shaq and paid her off.”), can very easily be done to them. Can you imagine what he would have been like with any boy who wanted to date one of his girls? Projection and guilt are a bitch.

    Talk about something getting stuck in your amygdala – sexual abuse/rape live in there forever. Those victims would give anything just to suffer from grief over the loss of a sports star.

    Comment by Debbie Unterman — February 6, 2020 @ 5:48 PM

  16. Kobe Bryant stated that he thought the sex was consensual. The whole story is vague and neither side has more truth to the other because it’s a he said/she said situation. That’s why it isn’t talked about much

    Comment by Gabe — February 20, 2020 @ 2:21 AM

  17. I am unable to sympathize with the death of a sports star, a rock star, or royalty anymore than I grieve over the loss of any ordinary person. Assigning greater value to one person’s life over that of another only because someone is famous and excessively admired over a mere meaningless game such as outdoing in a ritualistic separate the world into winners and losers and exalting the winners solely through the devaluation of the losers is morally repugnant. By valuing sports as the measure of character and achievement is how the basketball coach at Duke University is paid over 9,000,000 a year while the university system pays PhD faculty who put in years of hard labor and sacrifice to earn their PhD’s about $1000 per semester hour taught for the whole semester typically less than $12,000 a year and price gauges student debt destroying the lives of graduates. To me, the average death rate of three a day among the homeless street people in San Diego is far more tragic because the system and the culture which overpays its sports stars insists on making 2,000,000 Americans into street people. Pop stars are always safe in their security of food, shelter, and medical care but not the rest of us. Let us mourn for the nobodies who don’t deserve to have their lives destroyed.

    Comment by Robert Vincelette — February 24, 2020 @ 4:37 AM

  18. Thank u for this. I still feel deeply saddened. It’s like I lost a loved one. To those that don’t understand, move along this article, nobody needs u to understand. To those saying he was “accused “ of rape? If that was such a concern for u, why r u commenting here? This is about the grief his death brought upon many of us. And reality check, he was never convicted. Innocent until proven guilty .

    Comment by Jacqueline Chavez — February 28, 2020 @ 7:23 PM

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