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The smiles look bright, but, as is often the case with social media, they don’t show Vanessa Bryant’s whole story.
“Grief is a messed up cluster of emotions,” Bryant posted on an Instagram story on Jan. 15. “One day you’re in the moment laughing and the next day you don’t feel like being alive.”
Since Bryant lost husband Kobe and daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020, her carefully curated Instagram account is a window into her difficult grieving process. There is joy in the photos and videos. There is also pain.
In her three surviving daughters Natalia, 18, Bianka, 4, and Capri, 1, the Lakers legend’s widow finds strength amid agony, every emotion laid bare on her social media.
“Smile though your heart is aching”
In one of the family’s first public pictures together after the accident, Vanessa holds Capri on her hip and stands next to Natalia and Bianka while wearing oversized black sunglasses. Her lips are barely curled into a tight smile as they stand in front of a mural of Kobe kissing Gianna on the head.
“Smile though your heart is aching,” lyrics from Nat King Cole’s “Smile” the caption read. “Smile even though it’s breaking.”
The photo shared on March 9 was taken as Natalia prepared for her winter formal. The family continues to pass milestones together, but the celebrations can seem bittersweet.
The family’s Christmas photo, instead of the smiling family of six pictured sitting among bright green pine trees from last year, was a black-and-white portrait of Vanessa and her three daughters. They are dressed in black sitting on a white couch. They were still smiling.
Vanessa also shared portraits of each of her daughters individually. Natalia, Bianka and Capri are grinning in black dresses. Gianna is the only one in white.
Natalia turned 18 on Jan. 19, one week before the anniversary of the deadly crash. Vanessa shared six photos of her first-born daughter on her birthday. Kobe is in two, holding toddler-aged Natalia at Staples Center.
Kobe's youngest daughter is now about the same age as Natalia was in those photos. The five-time NBA champion missed Capri’s first birthday and her first steps. In September, Vanessa shared a video of her then-15-month-old daughter walking and holding a framed photo of her father dressed in his Lakers uniform. Vanessa asks who is in the photo.
“Dada,” Capri replies without hesitation.
“It takes a village”
The Bryant family may never fill the gaping hole left by the Jan. 26 accident, but Vanessa’s Instagram shows how she and her daughters turned to a strong group of friends for support.
“It takes a village,” Vanessa wrote on an Aug. 24 picture that included Bianka, Capri and singer Ciara.
Friends gather to celebrate holidays or drop in for at-home dance parties. The Bryant family’s smiles seem to be a bit brighter when surrounded by friends.
New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu often appears in lip-syncing Tik Toks videos with Natalia. Ciara, who is married to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, took the family on a Christmas vacation in Montana, where they skied, snowboarded and inner tubed with the kids.
Vanessa dressed as Darth Vadar in a group Halloween costume with Pau Gasol’s family. Gasol towered over the group as Chewbacca. His newborn daughter was dressed as Grogu, or Baby Yoda.
Elisabet Gianna Gasol was born on Sept. 10. The Gasols asked Vanessa whether they could honor Gianna in the naming of their daughter.
“My goddaughter is here!!!!” Vanessa wrote. “Kob would’ve loved to have been her godfather.”
Like fans who painted murals and left flowers at Staples Center, the Bryant family’s close friends also honored Kobe and Gianna in personal ways. Soccer star Sydney LeRoux got a No. 2 tattoo, inking the number in the same font as Gianna’s basketball jersey. When she played soccer, Gianna wore No. 2 as a nod to LeRoux, who wears it for the U.S. women’s national team and Orlando Pride. Gianna kept the number for basketball.
In June, Vanessa shared a photo of the custom work of art LeRoux and her husband, Orlando City SC forward Dom Dwyer, sent the family. The canvas showed Bryant and Gianna, both dressed in their basketball jerseys, with angel wings.
“We’re always here for you,” the note from the Dwyer family read.
The Queen Mamba
On New Year’s Day, Vanessa posted a video of pink envelopes meticulously labeled with topics, including “Kobe’s statue,” “Helicopter” and “Sherriff’s Dept.” There were post-its for Hall of Fame, LA Olympics 2028 and appraisals. A three-ring binder was labeled “publishing.”
“2020 [to] 2021,” the caption read, using an arrow emoji between the years. “#Compartmentalization.”
Amid the tragedy, Vanessa has overseen many of Kobe’s post-basketball pursuits and aggressively worked to protect her husband’s legacy. She sued the L.A. County sheriff after deputies took and shared photos of the helicopter crash scene, managed the posthumous release of three of Kobe’s books and re-branded the family’s foundation.
To honor Gianna, Vanessa changed the name from “Mamba Sports Foundation” to the “Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation.” While she often shares videos remembering Kobe’s impact on sports, Vanessa has also focused on reinforcing Gianna’s legacy.
For what would have been her daughter’s 14th birthday on May 1, Vanessa encouraged people to wear red — the color Gigi liked to wear in her school photos — and complete acts of kindness the way her daughter often did.
Gianna and teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Peyton Chester, who also died in the helicopter crash, were announced as honorary WNBA draft picks in April, and the league created the Kobe & Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award, which honors those who contribute to the visibility, perception and advancement of women’s and girls’ basketball. Vanessa is expected to play a large role in choosing the honoree and presenting the award each year.
The inaugural recipient was expected to be announced during the NBA’s All-Star weekend in 2021, but the event was postponed. Vanessa could still make a rare public appearance this year when her husband is enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame in May.
While Vanessa is known to be very private, she grieved publicly on Instagram, offering a glimpse of how she’s built her new life.
“Two things in life change you, and you are never the same,” Vanessa wrote in July, captioning a black-and-white portrait where half of her face is hidden by her dark hair. “Love and grief.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.