Column: Grief gives no timetable on Stewart return

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 18, 2014 at 5:17 pm •  Published: August 18, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — There are hundreds of guidebooks on how to handle grief, how to navigate the emotional suffering that follows a significant loss.

None of those studies offer a clean timetable on when the roller coaster of emotion will come to a stop. So there is no timetable on when Tony Stewart will get back into a race car.

The three-time NASCAR champion has skipped two races since his car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during an Aug. 9 sprint car race. His Stewart-Haas Racing team will not pressure him to return, and wins and trophies and a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship have all been put into perspective in a sport in which the show always goes on.

"The Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now," said Brett Frood, executive vice president at SHR. "Right now it's about getting Tony in a better place than he is. When he's ready to do that, he'll get back in the car."

Stewart has been in seclusion since Ward's death, his whereabouts undisclosed.

He's been described as heartbroken, devastated for Ward's family and overcome by the outpouring of behind-the-scenes support he's received from the NASCAR community. But very few people have spoken to Stewart, who seems to be grieving away from many he's close to at the track.

Kevin Harvick, his longtime friend and teammate, said Sunday he's not spoken to Stewart. Nor had Rick Hendrick, one of the most steadying voices in NASCAR and a mentor to many, including Stewart.

Dr. Joseph R. Ferrari, a social psychologist at DePaul University, said Stewart could be acting on the advice of legal counsel, or simply struggling through a tricky emotional process.

"Does he feel guilt or shame? I think that's what is going on," Ferrari said. "There's a difference between shame and guilt and people often confuse this. With guilt, you've done some moral offense, you've done something to really offend somebody, and you say 'I've done something wrong.'

"Shame-prone people, they will begin to devalue themselves and begin to examine their character, wonder, 'What a terrible person I am.' It could be so bad, so demoralizing, that he just isn't ready to come back."

Dr. Charles Figley, a psychologist at Tulane University, believes Stewart is likely suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But he believed taking time away from racing is helping Stewart heal, and likened Stewart's situation to that of war medics who seek isolation while struggling with combat.

"Everybody needs to be able to focus inward — if you go back to work, it's almost like nothing has happened and you are hoping people will forget," Figley said. "He is taking this seriously. Staying away indicates this is a very serious thing that causes him to reflect to the very core."

Nobody in the NASCAR community doubts Stewart is suffering. You could walk from one end of the garage to the other listening to stories of Stewart's generosity and willingness to help in an emergency. He's gifted cash to a crew member who had an unexpected and urgent need, sent his plane to pick up family members of a stricken employee, scrambled to get someone home in time for the birth of a child.

When someone in NASCAR needs an immediate favor, they go to Stewart, who always says yes.

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