In recent months I’ve watched tragedy unfold far away from me, in places like Norway and Japan, and very close to me in my home state of Alabama. As I watched the loss of life, I revisited my own personal loss and the way I view the loss of people I don’t even know.
I feel great empathy for the people that are dealing with the loss of loved ones in the wake of the attack on Norway, the tsunami in Japan and the tragic loss of life during the April 27 tornado outbreak that killed many near my home. More importantly, I feel great sadness and sympathy for each person who lost someone.
There was a time in my life when such tragedy was just a math problem on the nightly news that caused me concern, but not sadness. I was shocked, but I didn’t grieve in any way. I thought in macrocosms that my mind said were horrible, but that my heart never received until my mother and father died a month apart in 1992.
More recently, in 2009, my wife died unexpectedly of respiratory arrest and complications from liver failure. I gave her CPR on the bed we had shared for 14 years and prayed to God that she would stay with me. She did not. She was literally alive one day and gone the next. My world crumbled, but so did the walls that kept out the heartfelt emotion of tragedy in its many forms.
Since then, when I see the news and the senseless death, I don’t think in terms of large groups of people, but my mind and heart reach out to each single person who has lost their mother, their father, their wife, husband, brother, sister or lover. I feel the pain of their loss in a surreal fashion. I can hear the sirens—the sounds of breath forced into lungs in vain to save the person they love. My heart can relate to the broken heart of a man who’s found his wife or child dead in rubble from a madman’s bomb or a tornado’s violence.
Because I have experienced such personal loss, I can’t go back to days when large, tragic loss were math problems on the evening news because I know that each tragedy is like a pebble plopping into a lake. The ripple effects of each tragedy touch the life of immediate family first, then spread to friends, classmates, work colleagues and outward. Every life touched by the person who dies is in turn touched by their death.
While it creates a profound sadness in me for each person that is lost, I also find hope that each of the dead have touched others and have exponentially made the world a better place for it. While we grieve the loss of our loved ones during such a tragedy, we also remember how they made our lives more joyful, more meaningful and more complete.
So tragedy causes us sadness on a global scale, but we should also take the time to understand every loss on a personal scale. If we just empathize with each person who is struggling to keep going in the wake of the storm, the tsunami or the bomb blast that has torn their world apart, then we become more human and more humane.