Lee: Grief I never could have imagined | AspenTimes.com

Lee: Grief I never could have imagined

Aspen High state champion athlete deals with the loss of both parents

Lucas Lee
Guest Commentary
Aspen High School basketball senior Lucas Lee celebrates with teammates after beating Centauri in the 3A championshp on Saturday, March 12, 2022, inside Hamilton Gymnasium in Denver.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Sometimes when you live in a place known for its fancy houses and unprecedented views, you lose track of the actual reality outside of those mountains.

You become so accustomed to walking home late at night and the only thing you fear is running into a bear. You’re not worried about getting mugged or getting robbed as you may be in the inner city or many other parts of the country.

I think In my 18 years of living in Aspen I can only remember there being one murder and no serious tragedies. I always watch the news and see all the shootings and every other horrible thing that happens, and I’ve never been able to truly connect to any of those tragedies. I have always felt bad, don’t get me wrong, but as I said in Aspen we live in this bubble of sorts. This is the story of how my bubble burst before my eyes quicker than I ever could have imagined.

My senior year of high school was an absolute rollercoaster of emotions with the highest of highs but also the lowest of lows. I started by being elected the head boy of the high school, which I took as a great honor because to me it showed that my peers respected me and viewed me as a personable person.

Then in October my golf team ended up winning a state championship, and being completely honest between that and being head boy, I felt almost untouchable. After the golf season, it was time for basketball season, which made me very excited because we knew that we had a very good team and we could win a state championship in that. as well.

Just as we had expected, the season was going very well, and when it was time for playoffs we sat at the third best team in the state even though we were a perfect 22-0. For the first time in 20 years, Aspen got to host the first two rounds of the playoffs. We made quick work of our first opponent, Denver East, beating them by nearly 40 points.

After the game, I just needed to run home and grab my phone charger before going to a team dinner. I thought it was pretty weird that my mom wasn’t at the game, but I kind of just assumed she knew we were going to win and stayed home instead.

That, sadly, was not the case. I got home and saw my dad trying to bust in the bathroom door, but it wouldn’t budge. I won’t go into the grim details, but much to my surprise my mom had passed away. I don’t remember that night too well after that, other than the fact I went to a teammate’s house for the night. I remember telling everyone that I just couldn’t wait to go play basketball the next day, but when I woke up the next morning I didn’t want to move or speak to anyone. I ate breakfast quietly with my two best friends. I don’t think there has ever been a quiet time when we’ve been together, but that morning was different.

We went to the gym and I told my coach that I was good to play and start, just as I usually would. Even though I appeared eager to play on the outside, on the inside I just felt sick and gut-wrenched about my mom.

Then my coach said, “I want you to do what she would want you to do.” After he said, that I went and sat in the locker room, and I just sat and thought about everything and tried to harness all this bad energy and turn it into good.

My team had already begun warming up when I finally gathered the courage to get dressed and go out in front of a packed house of people that knew what had happened to me. When I finally got to the court, I was handed a white tee shirt that had a large No. 3, which was a number surrounded by the words “Aspen Strong.”

I tried my best to keep it together, but when I saw my teammates warming up in the shirt instead of our normal warmups I hugged my friend Ben’s mom and just cried until I was able to go play. When I heard the music and saw my dad walk into the gym, I got so amped we were not going to lose this game, we just couldn’t.

I wasn’t much of an offensive weapon. I usually focused my efforts more on defense, but at the beginning of the game I just wanted to win, and I ended up scoring the first six points of the game. I think I went unconscious because I don’t remember the rest of the game, but the only thing that mattered was that we won.

We ended up going on to win the state championship going a perfect 27-0 and winning the first-ever basketball state championship in Aspen history.

Through it all. If anyone asked me if I was OK, I would always say “I’m fine.” I was trying to run away from what had happened. I just played basketball and did nothing but eat, sleep and breathe basketball, but when the season was over the grief began to consume me because I didn’t have an outlet for it all and I wouldn’t talk to anyone. 

When I interviewed Allison Daly, who is a grief specialist and runs a nonprofit called Pathfinders up in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley that does grief and loss counseling, she said: “What I’ll tell people is if we can kind of open up and pull the scab off, it’s going to hurt so bad, but if we talk about it, it has less control over us than if we don’t.”

I remember in the days following my mom’s passing Allison had told me something similar to that, and what struck me was a huge part of me finally opened up about it all.

When I finally started talking to Allison about a week after the basketball season ended, I felt myself opening up more to the idea of just spilling everything in my head and trying to see if that helped me feel better. Sure enough, just as people had assured me, when I began to slowly accept what had happened the long, cloudy and gloomy days began happening less often.

However, that only lasted for a short time because two months and five days later I came home to cop cars and ambulances outside my house. I began walking into my house when my aunt stopped and told me that my dad passed away.

Instantly every emotion that I was working so hard to come to peace with began and this time way more intense. I cried for a max of 10 minutes that day. I was in shock, shocked that as an only child I was essentially alone. I realized that from now on when I go home it will be me and just me in that house with only the memories and photos to grasp onto what is left of my family.

However, I still felt this need to show that I was strong so that the kids that looked up to me never saw me show any weakness. That’s not to say that showing weakness is a bad thing, but in my position, I felt that was the best thing for me to do at least until I graduated.

The day my dad passed away, I went to baseball practice which is a 35-minute drive away. I don’t know how I was able to make it there and back safely because I know the last thing I was thinking about was the road. I had a million things flying through my head, but the one thing I knew I was certain about was going and playing baseball.

As Allison said, “Doing things such as working and other physical activities helps to take your mind off the situation.”

My coaches were stunned to see me because they had heard the news. However, my teammates didn’t know and I decided to keep it that way until the end of practice that day. I was a big fan of trying to have everything stay as normal as possible at that point because I was panicking that everything I had ever known was going to be taken from me. So for the last three weeks of school or so, I went to clas, and baseball practice every day, trying to keep my daily routine as similar as possible other than sleeping at my girlfriend’s house.

When it comes to the depression that comes with grief, I’ve found that it often tries to tear you apart limb from limb until you’re unable to feel. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me, though. I finished out my year doing what my parents would want me to do. I had to honor them in my daily routine by getting good grades, graduating and going to college.

When graduation day finally came, I remember getting lined up before we all went out on stage, and I knew everyone’s entire families were going to be there, which freaked me out. I went outside by myself and sat just so I could breathe and get some fresh air to hopefully help me from freaking out.

Nothing was working because my mind was running 1,000 miles per hour, so I just started talking to my mom. She was always very good at getting me to calm down and relax, and I just imagined her telling me to breathe. Just the thought of her guiding me made me feel better.

I went back inside, and after a couple of emotional moments during the ceremony, it was finally time for me to get my diploma. When they said my name I threw my hands in the air and screamed “Let’s go!” at the top of my lungs, and for the first time in a long time, at that moment I felt safe and untouchable again.

It’s been a long, tiring journey and experience, to say the least, and the past couple of months have most definitely been a total reality check. Like I started this with coming from a town as protected as Aspen, I never thought any of what I’ve gone through was even remotely possible of happening, let alone to me. The depression that has come with my grief has kicked my ass, but I never let it knock me out, and now I believe I am a way stronger person because of it.

Lucas Lee is a freshman at the University of Colorado Boulder. He graduated from Aspen High School in 2022 and was a multi-sport athlete for the Skiers, including as part of the state champion golf and basketball teams.