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Bray Wyatt, 1987-2023
Remembering those who remind you of what's important.
One of the many things that has always stayed with me about my grandmother was a conversation that I had with her not long before she passed away. She was lamenting that, as she and my grandfather got older, they had seen virtually everyone who has been a constant fixture in their lives pass away. Relatives, lifelong family friends, slowly dying one by one. She said she couldn’t begin to count the number of funerals that they had attended. Initially I thought that experiencing this would numb you to being around death. Similar to what many medical professionals who work in hospitals experience.
After you’ve been around a couple hundred dead people, things start to feel same-y.
In the years since this conversation I have thought about it many times. Any time a family friend, relative, acquaintance, etc. dies it enters my mind. I’ve played that discussion over and over, and the more I have done that, the more I realize that what my beautiful grandmother was experiencing wasn’t numbness, it was exhaustion. Mental and emotional exhaustion.
When someone around you dies, you not only have to struggle with the grief that eats away at you internally, but you also are giving to those around you. You spend your time and energy trying to lift up others who are hurting. You try to carry some of the burdens that they are living with. When someone you are close to dies, you have to be there.
I am a little less than half the age that my grandmother was when she and I had this conversation. Despite having not experienced the amount of loss that she had up to that point, my own mortality is a near-constant subject on that reel of thoughts that plays in my head. This is exacerbated by the fact that, despite me not quite hitting the traditional "middle age" mark, I keep hearing about someone around my age has passed away due to a health-related issue.
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January 6, 2014.
I am approximately two weeks into a new job and I am looking to fill some time in the evening following a day at work. I saw on social media that there were people talking about the "Old School" episode of Monday Night Raw, the longstanding WWE cable TV show. A show I hadn't watched an episode of since 2007.
Professional wrestling was something I was very passionate about from my childhood years into young adulthood. From the moment I rented WrestleMania IX on VHS from Future World Video, I was hooked. From there I continued to convince my parents to allow me to rent more videos, purchase action figures, T-shirts, etc. I became fixated on the weekly television shows from WWF and WCW.
This passion continued for many years. My circle of friends were into it, I made friends online talking about it, and eventually I started watching it with a new group of friends when I went to college. Throughout the mid-2000s we would get together in my dorm on Mondays and on pay-per-view nights to watch the events played out.
Those are some of my fondest memories of my time living on campus in my college years. Pro wrestling is such a simple and effective way to tell stories. It is theater. It could elicit any emotion from me. I loved it.
As my time in college continued, I slowly began developing more particular tastes. I only wanted to watch acclaimed films, read top tier literature, and listen to music that was rated 8.5 or above on Pitchfork. I became active in campus political organizations and spent free time working on local campaigns. Slowly, the fervent energy that I dedicated to a lot of my hobbies went out the door. I was an *educated adult* and I was going to prove it to the world.
In the following years I continued to grow and experience many wonderful things. I met my wife, we got married, I earned my Bachelor's degree, and we had our first daughter. I began working in the field that I am still in to this day. As life began piling up and stressors continued to manifest themselves, it became apparent to me that it is not worth my time trying to only consume high art. Over time I slowly began returning to some of the things I used to love.
When it came time to turn Monday Night Raw on in January of 2014, I was ready to give it an honest shot. There was probably no better re-entry point than a show that was designed to interweave the current roster of talent with legends I grew up watching.
Pro wrestler deaths always seem to hit me a lot harder than many of the other industries or hobbies that I follow. I don't know exactly why that is, but it seems to be something that is shared among many people who enjoy it. I don't know if it has anything to do with the inherent risk that comes from being a performer in this business, to the fact that so many wrestlers don't live to be old, or the other countless tragic stories that are out there about what happens when the show is over.
The first time that I felt this was on May 24th, 1999. I was walking to first period at my middle school and on the way I ran into one of my friends, someone whose parents would regularly allow them to purchase pay-per-view events. He told me that at the show last night Owen Hart had been in an accident and died as a result of it. I still remember my stomach being in knots all day.
I remember watching Raw with my younger brother that night. It was a tribute show to Owen. I remember the two of us stood up in our bedroom out of respect when the ten bell salute began. It hit hard.
The following decade continued to be difficult in this regard. It seemed as if every month or so I would read a report about another professional wrestler dying before they were 40. Eventually the impact of these stories weakened when I heard about them. I don't think I was alone in feeling this way. It felt like, as a community, professional wrestling fans were becoming numb to losing one of their beloved performers. Of course, some hit harder than others, but the volume of deaths was a lot for a long period of time.
In recent years the frequency in which we hear about the untimely death of a young professional wrestler has declined. It seems to be a result of a greater understanding of head injuries, the use of safety protocols, strict guidelines on the use of substances, and a myriad of other factors. However, yesterday evening that feeling returned again. I pulled into my drive way following my day at work, look at my phone and see a message from a friend that read "Fucking Bray Wyatt died."
There's that feeling again.
After watching a few segments on the Old School Raw special episode, things mostly feel foreign to me, but periodically there's an old, familiar face to bring me up to speed and make me feel comfortable trying to learn this large roster of new names.
There's Ric Flair.
Hey, that's Rey Mysterio.
The New Age Outlaws? Hell yeah!
The world that these characters inhabit feels very lived in. Even though there are a number of older wrestlers there to appeal to the lapsed fan such as myself, I am watching the middle act of a lot of stories with characters I've never heard of. Who even is Alberto Del Rio, Sin Cara, or The Usos?
Regardless, right away there were a couple of people who were immediate standouts to me. Those individuals were the members of the Wyatt Family and the Shield. The Shield seemed to be this hitman-for-hire SWAT group and the Wyatt Family was some kind of Louisiana swamp cult. Between the two groups there seemed to be a tremendous amount of charisma that I was immediately drawn to.
I had made it to the end of the show and came away enjoying myself. Maybe I could get my head out of my own ass and allow myself to enjoy this. I watched the next week's episode. Then the next week. Soon after that, I purchased the Royal Rumble pay-per-view event. I hadn't watched one of these shows since the mid-2000s, when my friends and I would scour the internet for pirated links to watch them. When talking about them on forums, you referred to a link to the pirate feed as a "lamp" to avoid the ire of the moderation team.
"Anybody know where I can get a good lamp?"
"Guess I'll have to jump from lamp to lamp tonight."
My love of pro wrestling was returning to the surface. It was jarring to my wife, who would tell people "I guess he likes this wrestling stuff. He never liked it before." She had never seen me watch it before, and now I was watching a lot of it. She is a trooper, though. She's gone with me to multiple shows over the years and I knew she was so bored, but she wanted to be there with me while I did something I enjoyed. I love her.
I continued to follow the trajectory of not only the wrestlers I already knew, but many others that I came to know and appreciate. Bray Wyatt was one of the people who I was drawn to. His ability to tell stories in the ring. His ability to mesmerize any crowd he was in front of with his promo ability. His clear devotion to his character and his craft. He loved what he was doing and it came through every time he was out there. He was able to connect with people and elicit real emotion from them.
In February 2017, at the Elimination Chamber event, Bray Wyatt was able to win the WWE Championship in the main event match. Myself and other fans were elated. Seeing someone who doesn't fit the mold of a "traditional" WWE main eventer overcome that and get their flowers will always be rewarding.
This event occurred between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania events that year. Between these shows, however, was a house show that was slated to take place near my hometown. Myself, my wife, and our oldest daughter went to the show and one of the matches on the card was Bray Wyatt defending the WWE Championship against his former stablemate Luke Harper (aka Brodie Lee). With Brodie's passing in 2020, it makes me feel especially grateful that I was able to witness this.
The death of my grandmother remains the hardest I have ever grieved. I still think about her when something reminds me of her. I think about so many people who have passed away in my time on earth.
The death of Bray Wyatt, like so many others who went before they should have, hits different now. I am older than Bray was when he died. I am older than others that I knew that have died of health complications. This year I have been more paranoid about my health than at any point before. Although I am not exercising anywhere near as much as I should, I have dramatically changed my eating habits and lost more than 60 pounds. I know that these factors aren't all that matters when it comes to untimely deaths, but it can help reduce the chance that they contribute to my demise.
Even though I struggle with myself every day regarding my mental and physical health, I want to keep going. I am surrounded by people who love and need me to keep going, despite that fucked up part of my brain that tries to convince me otherwise. It's up to the people who are here to support each other when we are grieving and when we need it. Even if the idea of being "present" is unbearable at times.
One of the things that I keep seeing come up when his contemporaries recognize Bray is his laugh. By all accounts he seemed to be an absolute joy to be around. He seemed to be someone who tried to lift others up, even in small ways. He was one of the people who lifted me up years ago and reminded me that I can open myself up to just enjoy things, to feel things. Despite any issues I had with how he was presented on television over the years, I always felt a connection to him as a performer because of this. Even though he is gone I do not see that connection going anywhere.
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