Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette will begin her quest for Olympic gold today with a heavy heart. Just hours before Rochette took to the ice on Sunday, her mother died unexpectedly. Rochette’s parents had flown in from their home in Montreal earlier in the day to watch her daughter compete this week.
They had been traveling to watch their daughter compete for years, and before that they had been shuffling her to and from ice skating practice from the time Rochette was a little girl. “She was a very supportive mom,” said one friend. “Supportive of the figure skating, but very much in the background of Joannie’s career. They had a really tight bond.” Rochette’s mother’s heart attack came completely unexpected, making her passing all the more devastating to the Olympian.
It must surely be difficult, then, for her to head back out onto the ice in pursuit of Olympic gold. Yet her competitors and friends on the Canadian team are full of support and encouragement. Benoit Lavoie, president of the Canadian Olympic skating association, said that Rochette was quickly able to control her grief. “The thing that amazed me is that she was so composed, going back into her Olympic mode.”
“Joannie is a very courageous person, and just to be here in the practice hall, I was very impressed,” the Canadian skater Cynthia Phaneuf said after the training session. “I think she is doing the right thing. She won’t get any better staying in her room. It shows how strong she is. It shows that she is a person to look up to here.”
The public too seems to hold unrealistically high expectations for Rochette. The New York Times closes its story by quoting an American skater whose mother has cancer. “I think this will spur her on to do even better.”
One critique that professional grieving counselors make of these kinds of statements is that we don’t like to be confronted with the emotions of a grieving person, so we expect the bereaved to function as if nothing had ever happened. It used to be that when someone died in Christian societies, the normal activities of life stopped. They were replaced by rituals of mourning. This provided a healthy respect for the deceased and allowed the bereaved to fully express their grief. Such rituals involved lots of community activity so that a person could–in his or her own time–resume normal life once again.
Of course, the Olympic Games cannot be stopped to allow space for a skater in mourning. And Rochette may truly feel that competing today is what is best for her and what her mother would have wanted. After all, the Olympics only come every four years. I wish her the best of luck out on the ice this evening.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder: Would it be so bad if Rochette chose not to skate, out of respect for her mother and her own grief? And if she did, would the public also respect that choice? Would we be as quick to commend her actions if she made a different — equally courageous — choice and didn’t take to the ice? Or would we be disappointed that she wasn’t able to compartmentalize her grief and focus on “getting back to normal”?
PS: Watch Rochette skate at NBC.