Life is full of grief and loss, but tragedy only happens rarely. A tragic event is one with even deeper resonances of sadness than others. For example, a car accident where a couple is killed is sad and painful for their families, but if there are small children left orphaned it becomes a tragedy. An event that leaves a man with a broken leg may be disruptive and hard to navigate because many things have to change in his life, but if he is never going to walk again it becomes a tragedy.
Image via Kenhphunu.com
And it varies from person to person: what is a tragedy for one person may be something that someone else can resiliently take in their stride and recover from relatively easily.
Something that gives a tragedy extra resonance is the contrast with life before. For those who have experienced a tragedy there is a clear ‘life before’ and a ‘life after’, when nothing will ever be the same again. After the tragedy life has become ruptured and so many things, great and small, have to be renegotiated, revisited, redrawn to fit into the new world. People often struggle to return to normality in a world where, for other people, not much has changed. Often they use one of two strategies to cope and to make this adjustment: one is to study and re-educate themselves, and the second is to forge a new personal significance in a lasting and meaningful way. We frequently hear of survivors from a family tragedy launching campaigns or foundations or memorials in the name of the one they have lost, and talk in terms of keeping their memory alive, or their death not being wasted.
Tragedy is never expected, and it is this sheer novelty value that gives it extra poignancy, and makes it frightening. It is often something that could never have been imagined before it happened. It is strange, unfamiliar and sudden, so there is a shock value. And the depth of the impact continues to be felt, like an echo, for years later.
Tragedy is very hard to deal with because it requires us to think, act and feel in ways that we are unprepared for and we have to struggle to find ways to cope, fast. There is a sense that we are out of control, and this makes us panic and feel unsafe. We don’t know what’s coming next – if something so awful can happen, there seems suddenly no limit to what else might happen. There is something random and impersonal about tragedy that makes us feel that we have no autonomy and are vulnerable to another occurrence.
After a tragedy, we see people becoming preoccupied with repetitive tasks because they are doing something and it is the thing least likely to be risky, they feel safe. People often physically retreat and hide, and stop wanting to go out to the point where they become agraphobic. Or they may rise up and suddenly show extraordinary powers or capabilities that they hadn’t shown at all before. These are all attempts to preserve the normality of life before the event, efforts to show that the tragedy has not floored them completely.
For many, tragedy can undermine their belief system. A plane crash in which many die including children can lead one to doubt that God has a plan for us all, or that the Universe will look after us, or that everything happens for a reason. The truth is that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, and the universe is utterly random and unpredictable, its just that one of the ways we help ourselves to feel safe is to find patterns and explanations for everything. That’s why we see co-incidences, and believe in conspiracy theories. When a tragedy happens we look for meanings, and try and ensure that something good will come out of it.
In the short-term, the best way to cope is to reach out and accept help from friends and strangers. People are generally very kind and well-meaning, and by accepting their offers you are doing them a service as well as allowing them to benefit you.
After the sharing, and the after the grieving, there will come a stage of anger, still tainted with disbelief. Slowly over time, with an attitude of forgiveness and gratitude for what is left, we can accept the tragedy and integrate it into our lives, although often it is very hard. Vengeance, retaliation or retribution rarely help.
Annie Gurton is a Couples Counsellor and Psychotherapist based in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. To contact Annie go to www.anniegurton.com
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