When Isaiah Thomas first heard he'd lost his sister to a car accident, he reacted as any of us would – he was devastated, and couldn't see how he would move on. And yet soon after, he found a way to draw strength from his emotions and perform at his peak in the NBA playoffs.
Thomas's drive didn't come from ignoring his feelings, but from embracing them. He channeled his emotions into his recovery and performance, all in honor of his sister. His experience provides powerful lessons for how to face tragedy, guidance we can all carry with us when we're hit with a terrible loss.
Allowing for pain, and recovery
Physical and emotional pain are equally devastating, but we treat them differently. While no one hesitates to recover from a physical injury, we're expected to hide our feelings and treat emotions as secondary, or even non-existent.
They do exist—we can't recover our minds without recovering our emotions—but when we recover is unique to each of us. While burying pain doesn't help, I actually believe delaying it is okay. You're more resilient than you may think, and you need time to process what you're experiencing.
Human nature will force you to search for an outlet for your feelings, a process surprisingly similar to stress management. You will find a way to break through – just be careful not to turn to short-term fixes to dull the pain, such as alcohol or drugs, bad choices you'll quickly come to regret.
For athletes, we can channel painful emotions in a way that helps performance. That's especially true for elite athletes. They have honed their ability to compartmentalize and channel emotion in a positive way. Many, like Thomas, will dedicate a season or game to a loved one, adding meaning and dedication to what they're experiencing.
As Thomas told ESPN recently: "Basketball, when I'm on the court, it just keeps me going. I do everything for my sister now. That’s all I can do."
Living life after tragedy
For visual artists and musicians, the connection between emotion and performance is obvious. Think of how many songs emerge from pain and loss, and how we relate to those songs when we listen to them. For athletes, those expressions are there, though athletics is their paintbrush. For Thomas, he's expressing his strength beyond his pain.
He can do that because he's lifted up by friends and family. His support system is huge. Those close to him are listening, and making sure he doesn't feel he has to face his struggles alone. Thomas has also been helped by having immediate distraction. He's still in the NBA season, and while that may not leave time to fully grieve, keeping his mind occupied helps him gain control over the process.
It also helps that Thomas is able to follow a routine. He had the opportunity to take some time off, but by finding a game-life balance that worked for him, he was able to begin to mourn with his family while still retaining some day-to-day familiarity.
Finally, while Thomas may or may not seek someone off the court he can talk with, for many of us, a counselor can be a tremendous help. As a sports psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, I frequently help patients deal with loss. It's as much a part of my work as helping them overcome stress or other athletic challenges. For any of us, loss is unique, but how you recover can be helped by experiences from others, and a counselor or psychologist can help you find those answers.
Loss is a part of life's natural ups and downs, and despite it all, we have to perform. The more we can acknowledge and accept what we are going through, the better we can deal with it. As Isaiah Thomas has shown us by sharing his experiences, even after great tragedy we can find ways to recover. Recognizing emotional pain sets us up for post traumatic growth instead of post traumatic stress, and a way to keep moving forward beyond loss.