Within the tight knit derby community, any loss of a community member has a deep impact on us all. However, death – even using the word “death”, instead of a euphemism – is a hard subject. As a general rule we seem to think that if we don’t think about it, we won’t have to deal with it.
What this winds up meaning is that when tragedy does occur we are left scrambling to figure out what to do, what to say, and how to process.
Having thought through how to care for people beforehand won’t make the pain of grief less, but it will allow your league to come together more readily and let fewer people go through this alone.
First of all, start by reaching out to the family of the deceased. Sometimes that will be members of the league. Although we consider our derby family, family, it’s important that we reach out to the person’s non-derby life also.
Family can be defined differently for different people, but whether it’s the person’s parents, partner, children, or friends, everyone leaves someone behind. Although our individual grief can be great, our collective community strength can be leant to support the mourning family.
Find someone in the league who is comfortable being a pre-arranged sole point-person with the family when it comes to logistics – both for offers to help and funeral arrangements – so the family’s not stuck telling many people information multiple times.
But remember, this is a tough job. If you or someone else was close with the person who died, giving yourself your own space to grieve is important, so be prepared to pass this particular torch on to someone a little more distant.
That said, some grieve through action, so don’t exclude someone just because they were close to the person who died – just be sure to offer them the choice, and all the support they need from people who are less directly impacted by the death.
When you approach the family, go with specific suggestions. “We’re here to help” could be said in all sincerity, but every grieving family I have work with tells me that they were in no place to even think of what they needed, much less having the ability to reach out and communicate it to all but their closest inner circle.
You may want to offer tangible things like setting up a meal delivery schedule, putting together a collage of the skater for the memorial, taking the skater’s children out for the afternoon, walking their dog, or taking their cat home until someone can figure out who is keeping them.
If the family is far away, offer houses to stay, airport pick-ups, and running errands that cannot be done remotely. Just remember to get a sense of what people are willing to do before volunteering your league. Follow through is vital. Keep in mind, the more concrete your offers to help, the more likely you will be of service.
The more concrete your offers to help, the more likely you will be of service.
Create a space for collective mourning – whether a time, or a place. Routine is wonderful, but it must be disrupted when tragedy occurs.
In lieu of practice, perhaps plan to have a night dedicated to support. You may want to have a memory circle, a candlelight vigil, a condolence card making evening, or something specific that your team does when you come together for any event.
I have seen leagues dedicating part of their half-time to a memorial slideshow, holding annual memorial scrimmages, or creating awards to honor skaters that embody the qualities of the skater who died. For the more public events or statements, be sure to reach out to include the family of the person who died.
Some people will not be ready to engage with their grief right away, so create several times where the person can be honored and remembered, and don’t mistake a little distance for being unsupportive.
Keep in mind that if someone close is in the league, they may have had patchy attendance or been unable to show up for their committee involvements for a little while prior, also. This is not the time to demand explanations, make them fill out forms, or strictly enforce that “no retrospective leave” policy.
For larger leagues, you may find that the smaller group the member was a part of – a team, rec league, fresh meat, ref crew, volunteer army – may need extra TLC. Offers to create practice plans, to take on more of the league work for a bit, or lessening attendance requirements for a month are all ways you can show your support.
Next, allow yourself and your league members compassionate grieving: Everyone grieves differently. There is no “right” way to grieve. There are no timelines. There are no “stages of grief” that we all must run through sequentially to get to some sort of finish line.
There is no “right” way to grieve.
Societally, the expectations of grief are often to cry, be depressed, do something a bit reckless, and move on. If only it were that straightforward!
Some people will express their grief exactly like this, and of course that’s totally okay. However, other common grief responses are anger, lack of follow-through on tasks, lack of motivation, lowered frustration tolerance, or a determined happy-go-lucky-everything-is-fine attitude.
When we are in the throes of our own grief, it is hard to recognize what others are going through – again totally normal. Yet, the more aware we are that we are collectively in the midst of surviving an overwhelming situation, the more we can be aware of other’s expression of pain and not hold it against them.
Although there is no right way to grieve, we as a community must rally around those who fall into a destructive way of grieving. So, pay attention to those who have changed.
I tell my clients all the time, “A health coping skill is safe, healthy, respectful, and effective.” If you notice a teammate is drinking more, engaging in risky behavior, or using other unsafe means to cope, reach out not just with support, but with community resources as well such as low-cost counseling or a grief support group. “I see you are in pain. So am I. Let’s go through this together” can be the most powerful thing someone can hear in their lifetime.
If you notice a league member isn’t coming around as much (or at all), be proactive and reach out. Offer to pick them up or set up a time to meet for coffee. Let them know they are valued and their absence is felt.
And remember, the people impacted won’t always be the people you expect.
In the longer term, don’t make any big decisions. If things felt okay before the death of your league mate, but things just seem to be off the rails – and they legitimately might be – try not to make any immediate major changes.
Create short-term contingency plans so the league can move forward, but anything that can impact the league for more than 3-6 months should be avoided for the first couple of months after the death. This is true not just for your league, but for yourself as well.
Our bodies’ hormonal composition actually changes with grief and so what is “logical” shifts as well. The decisions we make are ones we want to be able to stand by, so we can care for each other well – we deserve the space to make the calls that support this.
The decisions we make are ones we want to be able to stand by, so we can care for each other well
These suggestions have been for when a member of your league is affected by death. However, keep in mind that a more extended derby community member’s death, be it the family of a teammate, or someone in the league across town or across the world can still affect your members. If the person who died was someone your league would bout against or otherwise knew, many of the suggestions you’ve just read would be appropriate for your league as well.
For those who have experienced the death of someone close in the past, emotions can sometimes be brought up from the smallest of similarities – the way the person died, their age, who they left behind. This isn’t someone “making it about them,” it’s a normal part of processing personal grief.
Take these suggestions for what they are: suggestions. If there were hard and fast rules for this, things would be so much easier. Unfortunately, there is no rulebook (or casebook) for mourning.
If you feel your league needs more support, there are agencies or organization in every city in America that focus on grief or psychological support. Bringing in a professional, even for a few hours, can give your league the space it needs to begin the very serious and needed process of mourning.
If you remember nothing else from this, keep this foremost: The most important thing anyone can do during grief is to find support, and be supportive. How that looks like, what the function is, can change person to person, league to league. Having thought things through before these events happen can help you with that support, both personally and as a league.
Skylar Lenox, “Manischowitz,” holds a Master in Social Welfare from UCLA and is an Associate Clinical Social Worker. She has worked in multiple grief support settings, supporting both children and adults. She is also a member of Infinity Roller Derby and a former member of LA Derby Dolls.