NBA Player’s Mom Speaks Out About Family Loss

Part of the Hiding in Plain Sight blog series

Written by Cathy Cassata, Health & Wellness Writer.

June 15, 2022 / Forbes

Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and the pandemic has caused many to grieve, including children. More than 200,000 children in the United States have lost a parent or caregiver during the pandemic, according to the Imperial College of London. Moreover, a study in the journal Pediatrics found that kids of color have been disproportionately affected by these losses, accounting for 65% of those who lost a primary caregiver.

Kate Okongwu, mother of NBA Atlanta Hawks player Onyeka Okongwu, is sharing her family’s past experience of loss to connect with those experiencing grief now. When Onyeka was 13 years old, his older brother Nnamdi died suddenly.

It began as a typical Tuesday for the Okongwu family. Kate dropped off 17-year-old Nnamdi at school around 6:30 a.m. to take an exam for a summer course. Then she rushed off to her part-time nursing job at Kaiser Permanente Ontario Medical Center in Southern California.

Shortly after she arrived, Kate received a call informing her that Nnamdi was in the intensive care unit at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton—the other hospital where she worked. “They told me he suffered a traumatic head injury while skateboarding home from school,” said Kate.

When she arrived at the hospital, Nnamdi was on life support. “It was just two-and-a-half hours after I dropped him at school,” Kate said.

Three days later, Kate and Nnamdi’s father Mike had to make the heartbreaking decision to remove their son from life support. “In the beginning, you blame yourself. You try to find answers to questions: What did I do wrong? Why did I go to work?” said Kate. “In counseling, they taught us not to do that—you’re never going to find answers.”

Grieving individually and together

At the time of Nnamdi’s death, Kate’s other children were 13, 10, and 6 years old. While they all were shocked, Kate said each of them grieved in their own way. Onyeka turned to playing basketball, something he and Nnamdi shared a passion for.

“They were close, and it was a very, very hard time for him. He would take his ball and go to the park. I think he found Nnamdi there [in spirit] by the basketball court,” said Kate.

While Onyeka found his way to grieve, Kate said it took her then 10-year-old son a while to truly understand what happened to his oldest brother and that her 6-year-old daughter blocked out the tragedy. “I found out she wasn’t talking in school, and so I had to put her in therapy, which continues now,” said Kate.

“The different reactions of Kate’s children are not unusual,” said Dr. Don Mordecai, national leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente. “Children at different ages have different understandings of what death is and whether it’s a permanent state or not. As they get older, they tend to have a clearer understanding,” he said.

The circumstance of a death may also affect how a child grieves. “If there is a chronic illness, there might be more time to prepare. If it’s a sudden, tragic death, as in this case, that can make a difference for the child who’s trying to make sense of this,” said Mordecai.

The level of support within the family can also make a difference. For Kate and her children, the tragedy brought them closer and strengthened the relationship between her and Onyeka. (Their tight bond is well known among NBA fans after Kate teared up in a television interview when Onyeka was drafted to the Hawks in 2020.) She spends at least one week a month in Atlanta watching him play.

However, she noted that her marriage of 20 years suffered after Nnamdi’s death and that it wasn’t always easy balancing her own grief with that of her children’s. “We were all confused, and as the mom, I had to care for my children and me,” she said.

Kate credits group therapy as a critical support in her grieving process.

“You can talk to other moms who know where you are coming from with no judgment,” she said. “I tell moms who I meet along this journey, if possible, go to counseling.”

How to help the grieving

When a friend or coworker experiences a loss, don’t assume you know how the person feels, Mordecai said, and avoid phrases like, “I’m sure it’s going to get better” or “It takes time, but you’ll be fine.”

“[These statements] may be true, but they send the message of ‘I don’t really want to get into it,’” he said.

Instead, he suggested saying, “I’m so sorry this happened and I’m here.” Offering to get coffee together or go on a walk during lunch may also be helpful. “There can be a tendency to withdraw [when grieving] and not want to burden people like friends and coworkers, so be open and say, ‘It’s not going to overwhelm me,’” said Mordecai.

Kate cautioned against judging a person’s grieving process. “Something that you think is not a big deal can be a big deal for them,” she said.

If you’re worried about a child who experienced a recent death, Mordecai said the following are concerning signs:

· Displaying internalizing symptoms, such as withdrawal from socializing, resisting going to school, holding in emotions, not talking, and getting anxious about death. “Short-term fears about death or sadness and withdrawal would be normal. However, if it goes on and on and doesn’t seem to be improving or is getting worse, that would be concerning,” he said.

· Acting out with externalizing symptoms, such as anger, irritability, or lashing out. “In older kids, you might see substance use issues emerge, which may be another way of showing you they’re in distress,” Mordecai said.

If a child needs help and won’t open up to a parent, they may be willing to talk to another trusted adult, such as an uncle, coach, or religious counselor, Mordecai said. Grief groups focused on children and teens can also provide support.

Mordecai notes that in more extreme cases, grief can lead into a major depressive episode that may require therapy and medication.

Kate shared that the loss gets more bearable over time. “It becomes like an old wound. When you hit it, it hurts, but it does get softer,” she said. She encourages mothers to grieve for as long as it takes them and in their own way, “not the way anybody [else] tells you to grieve.”

About the Author

Cathy Cassata is a Health & Wellness Writer.

The “Hiding in Plain Sight” blog is a series leading to the upcoming 2022 documentary Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illnessproduced and directed by Ewers Brothers Productions, executive produced by Ken Burns, and presented by WETA, the PBS flagship station in our nation’s capital. 

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