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What sports can’t do: Fran Kirby on learning to be okay after devastating personal loss

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Being human in the time of sports

Chelsea Women v Bristol City Women - FA WSL Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Sports are among the most human things that we do, it’s what makes them so immediately relatable. Victory and defeat inspire extreme human emotion, and the sweat, frustration, and pains of self-betterment in between wins and losses is typically our first encounter with introspection.

The further we get from amateur and recreational levels, the more common it is to flatten sports into allegiance, wins and losses, and feeling good or bad determinant purely on result. But at professional levels the weight of humanity in sports only intensifies; when it becomes a livelihood it grows heavier, denser, and is much more biting. The money and celebrity suggest otherwise, and though we know that’s not a holistic fix for well-being, it’s easier and less complicated to believe.

Reminders of humanity in professional sports often go unnoticed, mocked, or pressed into something unfamiliar. In the instances of an athlete’s grieving, it’s the latter.

Because sport itself is a weight on humanity, and grief is humanity made murky, feeling anything to any extreme, and for whatever reason, feels in the moment superfluous and exhausting. Preparation, critique, pain, injury, winning and losing require specific debts from the gamut of human emotion; this is both why numbness becomes one’s baseline, and why sports don’t offer a shortcut through grief.

In The Players’ Tribune, Fran Kirby detailed living through this when her mom, Denise, died suddenly.

While accompanying Fran at a post-season review session at Madejski Stadium in Reading, Denise said she didn’t feel well, then laid her head on the table and lost consciousness. She had suffered a brain hemorrhage, was taken to the hospital, and passed away one day later.

Fran recounts being in a state of disbelief both when the doctor’s gave the initial prognosis — thinking, “she’ll be fine” — and after her mother was gone. “I was trying to be funny, trying to make light of the situation,” she remembered, “I just could not comprehend what had happened.”

The path her mother helped her set upon in football was what she used to distract herself from facing her immense loss. Her Mom, like a lot of other moms with their kids, was her biggest fan, and absolutely convinced that Fran’s skill and love of football would one day make her the best player in the world. Fran would tell her, “you have to say that don’t you?”

But it was happening.

“We just carried on, played football, was just normal. I’d done everything, I was at Reading I was playing at England, it was going great, really,” said Fran. “It was kinda just like nothing had really happened.”

Her career was unfolding just as Denise expected, however, the grief she was ignoring was growing too heavy, and catching up.

“I was away with England on a training camp in Manchester, and I was sitting in a room with Mo [Maureen] Marley, one of the coaches”, recalled Kirby. “Out of the blue, I turned to her and said, ‘I wanna go home … I don’t want to do this anymore.’” Her coach asked her what she meant, Fran replied through tears, “I miss my mum.”

Kirby quit the sport she loved deeply to grieve the loss of a person she deeply loved.

She recalls spending days in bed, missing college classes, and feeling like a zombie. At times she’d muster the energy to venture into public, but break down crying before reaching the bus stop. Her sadness flattened her into a person she no longer recognized, but had to deal with. Gone was the happy girl buzzing around football pitches and leading her all-girls team to a 13-0 defeat of a once-braggadocios all-boys team, present was one who was both too empty and too full to give.

It’s a familiar place. Most of us have been there. Grief makes being human hurt, as any emotion can be a direct reminder, or reminiscing of, that which is being grieved, that which was lost forever.

The primary constant of a professional sporting career is that it twirls the athlete around in a blender of physical and emotional strain, with extreme highs and ultra-low lows frequently teetering on nothing more than an inch. It’s exhilarating for us, the viewer, but is a drain. Most of us do not live high pressure moments at work where a split second can determine whether you’re hoisted upon everyone’s shoulders and splashed across front pages, or needing to turn off your phone to avoid the barrage of social media prodding (at its kindest, threats and abuse at its worst).

When this weight intersects with the weight of grief, grief always wins. “I think one thing that I’ve definitely learned from it is understanding when your body needs to have a break, and how to love yourself again is really important,” said Fran. “Understanding that it’s normal to feel a certain way when you’ve dealt with such bad experiences in your life.”

For Fran, she needed the time away to rediscover herself, and to cope with the truth that the love she had for her mom could never be replaced. It’s hard to accept that a void will always be there, but necessary to be able to give yourself permission to love something else again.

It wasn’t until a friend invited her to play casually — no routine, no training, no tactical examinations or meticulous critiquing — that she kicked a ball again. Experiencing football without the expectations that existed at the level at which she had climbed allowed the sport to feel safe again. “Just turn up on a Sunday, you play, and go in the bar afterwards,” Kirby explained, “and I think that was what really brought my love back. Just going there and there would be no pressure.”

Fran eventually returned to her Reading team and also began playing for England again, before signing with Chelsea FC Women in 2015.

As viewers we rarely if ever see this process of brokenness, acceptance, learning and re-learning to love and to live — which makes it easier to forget and/or ignore. We know it’s there, instinctively, but detaching the human from the athlete is commonplace, particularly in an instance where such heavy narratives can apply. What we manage to see of this process — if we see any of it at all — is a fragment, not the completion of a cycle of grieving.

Chelsea FC Women’s 2017-18 season was the best domestic season in the club’s history. The team won the FA Women’s Super League and the Women’s FA Cup, and Fran was named PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year.

That team’s last game of the season was away at Liverpool, but served as more of a celebration as the they’d already been crowned, and had their haul of trophies and awards in tow. For the team as a whole, and Fran as a footballer, it was the height of professional validation. But the moment also came with a familiar heaviness. Sitting on the coach and surrounded by exuberant teammates, she began to cry. “I just remember sitting next to the girls and I just said, ‘There’s only one person I want to pickup the phone and call, and I can’t do that.’”