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“When you go through a really hard time there are things that you can learn. And they make you stronger.”

My name is Gabrielle Reece. My first occupation was professional beach volleyball player and I've also done quite a few other jobs in the interim: television, writing books, and a mother of three daughters—that's my biggest job.

I played at Florida State and we went to the NCAA Tournament three times. And then I played in the pros. And in the pros I was nominated four years in a row for best offensive player and went to the world championships in the professional league.

My father passed away in a plane crash when I was 5 years old.

One of the biggest memories I have of my father was he would take me out to sail. I can remember being perfectly happy to just be with him.

He passed on the eve of his birthday because he flew from Northern California down his own plane—a prop plane, which is dangerous. That night he got caught in bad weather and the plane went down.

I could hear her voice and I was like, something is really wrong. 

I was just like a normal five-year-old kid—groggy, getting ready to brush my teeth and my hair to go to school. And I remember the phone ringing and my Aunt Norette—who was raising me at the time and was also very close to my father—I could hear her voice and I was like, something is really wrong. And I knew, and she told me. She came in my room and sat on my bed with me and told me.

And I think in a way if my dad was coming home every day it would be a different way that it sets in. But because my dad was sort of so infrequently in my life, maybe the impact of him really being gone gone took longer.

I think I was a bit numb. It was very surreal. I can remember it happening. It’s like you have this very big, monumental, catastrophic thing happen, but it feels like nobody really even gets it. You go to school as usual and it's not like, oh sorry about your dad. It sort of was my own very private experience.

And so I think I went into that mode—pure survival mode. Instead of being self-destructive, I was just going to try to figure out the way to make it. By eight or nine or ten, I can remember being geared up to be like, I have to really look out for myself.

Because a lot of times in my younger years I had so much anger and hurt from everything that had gone on, that I was acting out against everyone—and especially my mother—out of defiance. But what was happening was it was really only hurting me.

And then you realize that's really no way to go through life. It will be your life, and what do you want that life to look like?

Well, volleyball—it was a place to put energy of all types: sadness, anger. It gave me something to put my attention into. I think being part of a team was incredibly therapeutic and has always been that way for me because I never felt like I really had a family. So for me to always feel like a part of something—a tribe if you will—was really, really beneficial and really, really important. When you're in a team, you're still like a family. And so I think that that has always been something very strong in me. At least 50% of my enjoyment of playing sports is, I think, being connected to something.

If you lose a parent, I think it's really important in your way—on your time schedule—that you take a proactive stance when you're ready. To talk about it, feel whatever you want to feel, and see if there's a way to feel better.

But if someone loses a parent, I think—first of all—feel whatever you want to feel. You can be mad, you can be scared, you can be angry, you can be everything.

Don't allow all of that to slow down your opportunity to continue to build your own life. If you can build healthy, supportive relationships, then you can get through it. You might always miss them, and sometimes understanding that’s ok.

When you go through a really hard time there are things that you can learn. 

You can be going through something very heavy—like losing a parent—and having all of those feelings, and you should not deny your feelings. But then, simultaneously, your life is still happening. So it's sort of like, how do you protect everything that's good with you and going on in your life and allow yourself to have those feelings?

When you go through a really hard time there are things that you can learn. And they make you stronger. And it's sort of like, well that’s one of the worst things that could happen. And it did. And I'm still here.


This story was first published by The Shared Grief Project. The Shared Grief Project is a nonprofit organization focused on sharing stories of individuals who experienced loss at an early age and have gone on to live healthy, happy, and successful lives. 

By Gabrielle Reece

Grief & Loss