[As seen published in River Valley Woman Magazine}
Tragedy. It’s been a rough month in the river valley. The endless winter that has only recently begun to ease its icy grip on our lives seems to give way to endless tragedy. House fires, fatal car accidents, deaths from exposure to the elements, carbon-monoxide poisonings, youth drug overdoses. The weather is but one minutiae of our existence that we can’t control.
Tragedy has a particular and terrible way of reminding us of our helplessness, our lack of control, the chaos that is the reality of life on earth. Just as we’re pedaling along through life minding our own business, it rears its ugly head and we are dealt a blow that floors us.
We hug our loved ones a little tighter, a little longer. We call up mom to say “I love you.”
We reel between the traditional stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, depression, guilt, bargaining and acceptance, never arriving at one for long before we are thrust into another. We struggle to make meaning of it all. To answer the impossible question that has plagued humankind since the dawn of existence. The question that will haunt most of us at some point in each and every one of our lives: “why?”
When we experience tragedy as families or as communities those around us are rarely experiencing the same thing that we are. So we struggle to support one another while navigating our own emotional states. In our hope to offer comfort, as well as answer the impossible “why,” we lean on a great number of clichés: “only the good die young,” “everything happens for a reason,” “God has a plan.” The latter has a particular sting for me. The idea that God has some divine purpose for their agony has caused more than a few people additional pain. In adulthood, I can no longer imagine worshipping a God who wills suffering of such magnitude. But for those who find comfort in an all-powerful God at work in every event that comes to pass, who am I to take that from them? I have no quantifiable evidence one way or the other. I’m merely another person who takes a few extra minutes to tuck my little ones in at night.
Few clichés help cure the pain, at best they might take the edge off. Making meaning of tragedy is a tricky business. The wise do more listening than speaking when faced with the impossible: “why.” While there is no universal answer, I think there is an individual one. This is why listening is imperative, because every person arrives at a different meaning. The sharing of those meanings can help us recoil from the tragic, to rise from the ashes, but never do we forget completely. The wound heals, the scar fades, but it never disappears, it’s a part of our identity now.
In the face of tragedy, we need to do more than cry. We need to weep. You weep with your whole body, mind, and spirit. Afterwards you may feel you wept away the very bones inside you, leaving nothing to hold you up. And in that broken and vulnerable state, you have only one choice to make: lay there in a puddle (a legitimate option, often necessary to do for a period of time), or drag yourself up. And it is at that moment that we stop asking the impossible “why.” For we have learned that it is not a helpful question. It’s not a question for which we have a verifiable answer. So the question changes from “why,” to “what now?”
Many people know President Theodore Roosevelt as an author, naturalist, explorer, and of course one of the most important leaders of the free world. Few know that at the young age of 27, he experienced such a death blow that he wrote in his diary, “for joy or for sorrow, my life has now been lived out.” What happened to President Theodore Roosevelt is a story we rarely hear when his legacy is conjured.
Teddy Roosevelt announced his engagement to Alice Hathaway Lee on February 14 after spending two years begging her to marry him. His love for her bordered on obsession. While at Harvard, and later working for the New York Assembly, he almost certainly spent more time writing her love letters than working. His elation at finding out he was an expecting father was palpable on the night of February 13, 1884 as he boarded the train in Grand Central Station to be with his laboring wife.
Then the unthinkable happened. He arrived home to a gravely ill Alice, who was suffering from an undiagnosed Bright’s Disease, rapidly causing her kidney’s to fail. Downstairs, his mother was suffering from typhoid fever. For the next 16 hours Teddy went back and forth between the two women, both suffering terribly, nothing doctors could do for either. His mother was the first to die in his arms in the early morning. Later that afternoon his beloved wife Alice breathed her last. Sorrow turned to crippling devastation. To add insult to injury, they both died on February 14. He marked it in his diary with a black “X” and wrote “the light has gone out in my life.”
Two days later he sat expressionless at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and gazed at two identical rosewood caskets sitting side by side at the altar. The media predicted he would never recover from his heartbreak. He was numb, inconsolable, and in his mind his life was over. Teddy Roosevelt retreated to the Dakota Territory and spent two years working as a cattle rancher and deputy sheriff. Presumably, never to be seen again.
We of course, know the rest of the story; we saw the Bull Moose again.
We also know the myth of the Phoenix, the story of Jesus, and the process of the metamorphosis by which the butterfly will emerge from its cocoon. Resurrection and transformation bring us hope in our anguish. These are not stories of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and all will be well in the end.” They are stories of unbearable pain and tragic loss. Why does death make way for new life? Why does childbirth hurt so damn much? Why does transformation demand such loss?
Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and author shares a story in the preface of his book Night, of being asked the question: “what do you think is the appropriate response to Auschwitz?” To which he replies, “I don’t know that tragedy of this magnitude has an appropriate response. What I do know is that there is ‘response’ in ‘responsibility.’” In the face of the disasters that we live through, what words, what response, could ever be “appropriate?” So many well-meaning friends and family, at a loss for words, end up saying precisely the wrong thing.
The “response” part of “responsibility” is not in our explanations and attempts to answer the impossible “why,” it is in our standing in solidarity with one another during the “what now?” Probably the only appropriate thing we can say is “I am here, I am with you,” over and over and over again.
Does tragedy always give way for some good in the end? No. But change always opens doors. We don’t attempt to bring good from tragedy to excuse it. We do it because it’s all that is left to do. In the midst of the chaos of tragedy, it is perhaps the only thing we actually do have control over.
Then we hope. We hope that when tragedy casts its ugly shadow that the grieving we do together eases the burden of sorrow on those most directly affected. That it strengthens us and unites us in our commonalities rather than our differences. That we are comforted not by a grand and mysterious purpose for our pain, but perhaps a God who appears to us in our friends and family who weep bitterly alongside us. In these ways, perhaps we are able to create some beauty out of the tragic, a terrible beauty, but without it, it’s all for naught. So we hope. That’s all we have.
So what now?