Just over a week ago, my wife’s cousin — a young wife and mother — died suddenly at the age of 32. Within just a few days, two friends in the community lost their fathers — both aged around 90. Offering comfort and support to the families and understanding their respective grief led to a complex muddle of emotions.
The situation evoked strong emotions for me, as something similar happened after my father passed away, at the ripe age of 93. Just weeks after his passing, our local community was struck with a series of tragedies — the sudden death of people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, with young families and parents. I was caught grieving two very different types of things at the same time.
This taught me that there are two very different types of adverse events, and it is important to differentiate between them. I denote them using the terms sad and tragic, and the first step to understand the difference is to define them.
Life has a natural cycle: we are born, grow up, age, and then die — no-one has yet been able to cheat death. That natural cycle incorporates both happiness and sadness. The passing of my father and those of my friends followed this order — they lived mostly full lives and saw grandchildren and great-grandchildren – and they were buried by their children.
Tragedy, on the other hand, is an event that breaks with the natural order — such as when parents bury children, and leave young spouses and orphans. When a tragedy befalls us or our loved ones, we are left shocked.
This juxtaposition of sad and tragic can help us understand the critical distinction between them is qualitative rather than quantitative. That means there is no progression from sad to tragic — that some things are less sad, some more sad, and some so sad as to be deemed tragic. Rather, tragic is something entirely different, and our emotional response is therefore very different.
Because sad is part of the natural cycle of life and death, it’s OK to be sad when an old person leaves this world, and within the feelings of sadness, to find acceptance (i.e., not to feel sad about feeling sad). “They had lived a full life”, “It was their time”. That sadness eases with the passage of time, and is readily comforted. A few months ago, a friend’s elderly mother died, and on the same day his daughter gave birth to a baby girl. His sadness was tempered with joy, and an acceptance that life and death are all part of the cycle.
Tragedy, on the other hand, smashes through the natural cycle and leaves us shocked and numb, questioning God, and wondering how we can deal with such a loss. It evokes very different emotional responses. The after-effects of tragedy can stay with us for years, and profoundly impact the lives of those closest to it. Years later, its recall can quickly bring back the visceral responses we experienced at the time.
Experiencing both my father’s passing and the tragic loss of several personal friends at around the same time led to a strange response on my part. For a time, I felt it was unreasonable for me to feel sad about the loss of my father, in comparison to others (far younger than me) who had experienced a far greater loss. But that logic didn’t make my sadness go away. All it did was add guilt into my emotional soup!
My erroneous logic led to the next important lesson: the juxtaposition of tragic doesn’t diminish sad. Two things that are at their core similar — for example two happy, sad, or tragic events — lend themselves to comparison. We can say one thing is more (of some attribute) than another. But because sad and tragic are so fundamentally different, comparisons are totally meaningless. Someone else’s tragedy was something that belonged in a different ‘box’ to my own sadness. Acknowledging this helped me deal with both my sadness and their tragedy.
Knowing this difference, it’s important not to mix them up, which is the final lesson: don’t mislabel sad and tragic. The death of an elderly parent is painful, but rarely tragic. When a life is cut down in its prime, we can justifiably scream out to God: “why didn’t you give them another 10/20/30 years?!” It would be unreasonable to do this regarding a person who died in their 80s or 90s. When we mislabel a sad event as tragic, we (a) make it harder for ourselves to grieve appropriately for that event, and (b) don’t allow the correct space for a genuinely tragic event.
Being comfortable with the ups and downs of the cycle of life – the happy as well as the sad – can help us be more robust and have sufficient emotional space to deal with the tragic.
For more in this series, see Shiva: sitting then getting up, And who before his time, ‘Hamakom’ as a Verb and Transactional Judaism, Celebrating Liberation without the one Liberated, Kaddish Club 2: chained to the amud, But Who’s Counting,The Long and Short of a Year of Mourning and Second Yahrzeit.