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After tragedy, Virginia begins the long march through grief

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After Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, his fellow riders, including his own son, decided to get back on track the following weekend. When Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident in September 2016, the team canceled that night’s game but resumed play the next night. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the NFL played games the very next weekend, and when Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, the NBA played games that night—two decisions that drew heavy criticism.

Grief works at its own pace and in its own time, which means that sports leagues, defined by rules, schedules, traditions and routines, are completely unsuitable for dealing with the real world intrusion into games. When the brutality of life breaks into the arena, fans and players alike are at a loss.

Charlottesville mourns the deaths of its students in the gunfight.  (Vin McNamee/Getty Images)
Charlottesville mourns the deaths of its students in the gunfight. (Vin McNamee/Getty Images)
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Five students were shot to death in a horrific act of gun violence Sunday night on campus, and three of them – soccer players Devin Chandler, D’Shawn Perry and Lavel Davis Jr. – died in the attack. The alleged shooter was arrested 75 miles from the city after a one-day hunt and remains in custody on three counts of second-degree murder, among other charges.

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The impact these deaths have had on the university and its surrounding city of Charlottesville, a college town as pastoral and idyllic as it is in America, cannot be overestimated. We haven’t been saying, “I never thought this would happen here” for a long time – sadly, gun violence can erupt anywhere in the United States, at any moment – but when it does, it’s horrendous to watch.

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About 150 miles southwest of Charlottesville is Virginia Tech, which was hit by gunfire in April 2007. A university student killed 32 students and faculty and injured 17 more, frightening and paralyzing the community. Dr. Gary Bennett, assistant athletic director at Virginia Tech and licensed clinical psychologist, sees the tragic echoes of what happened in Blacksburg in Sunday’s tragedy in Charlottesville.

“We need to get the community together to start moving forward,” said Bennett, who lived in Blacksburg at the time of the Virginia Tech shooting. “There’s this feeling of, ‘How can we even get through this? For an individual, moving forward can be overwhelming, but when a community comes together, they can use that sense of identity to start moving forward.”

Virginia canceled a game against Coastal Carolina this weekend. The team’s season-ending game against Virginia Tech, scheduled for next weekend in Blacksburg, remains uncertain.

A mourner at a makeshift memorial near Scott Stadium in Virginia.  (Vin McNamee/Getty Images)
A mourner at a makeshift memorial near Scott Stadium in Virginia. (Vin McNamee/Getty Images)

What is the correct response in these situations? No answer, no tutorial, no roadmap for what to do when violence strikes at the heart of your community. The university and Charlottesville are still in shock, stunned by the brutality of the crime and the sudden loss of young lives.

“You have to give people space for their emotional reactions — listen a lot, be there to support each other, show grace to those who have suffered the most,” Bennett said. “There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people bounce back faster than others. If there is a wrong path, he tells people to get over it and move on.”

After their own shootings, Virginia Tech canceled a spring football game and the campus effectively shut down for a week. The first public event was a series of baseball games against Miami, and the college used this as an opportunity to move on to the next phase of grief.

“It became a rallying point. We got together and celebrated together, instead of this heavy mourning at the vigil,” Bennett said. “These sports activities can be therapeutic. It is hard to imagine [UVa] I could do it this weekend.”

The Cavaliers decided not to play as a team. It’s their right, their decision, and it’s right by definition because it’s what they thought was right. Some students and players may want to hide away until the grief subsides, some may want to resume what will pass for normal life as soon as possible, some may want to get together and cheer everyone together, angry at the cruelty of the universe, supporting each other. move forward. There is no single correct way to deal with such trauma. Grief is general, pain is individual.

“The community is made up of many individuals who perceive things differently,” Bennett said. “It would be nice if we could all fit into this five-stage grief model. But for most people, grief comes in waves. Some days everything seems normal, and then out of nowhere comes an all-consuming feeling of sadness and loss.”

However, it is always like this: rejoice that you are alive, and keep the memory of the lost. They were exceptional people and deserved a fulfilling, joyful life that they would not get. This is all so horribly unfair.

“The bottom line is that most communities think it can’t happen here,” Bennett said. “The reality is that we see that it can happen anywhere. Therefore, we need to value our relationships. We must take care of each other, support each other. Not only in times of crisis – it should be a daily thing.”

The question is not whether the team should play through grief. The question is, why does the team have to make a choice at all?

For a list of GoFundMe campaigns supporting the families of the three players, see go here.


Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.


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