Bringing Personal Meaning to National Tragedies

Terror at the Boston Marathon

Terror at the Boston Marathon

I had a sense of déjà vu after the bombing in Boston on Monday.  It brought me right back to 9/11, Sandy Hook, and Columbine and was akin to a seismic shift in my world.   How about you?

Almost 3000 died in the 9/11 attacks, 26 including 20 children at Sandy Hook, and 3 in Boston but with over 170 casualties.  The images from each event are of unspeakable loss, senseless violence and lives changed forever.  No doubt, such catastrophic events not only impact the victims and their families but the whole country as well.   After 9/11, the whole world mourned with us.

As awful as those events are, what is also equally, and possibly more disconcerting is the number of people who die each year due to accidental death, suicide and homicide.  According to the CDC, over 120,000 and 38,000 died in 2011 from accident and suicide, respectively.  The good news is, homicide fell below the top 15 causes of death starting in 2010 to a mere 16,259.   Combined, that’s approximately 3 people per minute who die from these seemingly preventable, tragic reasons.

But why do Boston, Sandy Hook and 9/11 feel so much worse compared to the literally scores of people dying from preventable tragedies each day?

I’m sure the reasons are many.  But for me, the other thing I mourned when the twin towers came down in 2011 was not only the 3000 lost lives but the feeling that my world would never be the same.

The reality is, of course, that the world has always been a dangerous place.  Up until 9/11 though, I was able to insulate myself from that reality.  Even with scores dying from preventable deaths every day, and right here in my own community, I was firmly and undeniably invested in the concept that the world is a safe and logical place.  Maintaining the façade of this belief is sort of like a James Bond movie – it requires a suspension of reality despite all logic or available evidence.  In this reality, bad things only happen to people who are doing the wrong thing, are in the wrong place or are with the wrong people.  Though I never went so far as to blame the victim, a part of me believed that.  It couldn’t happen to me.

Maybe that’s one reason, in addition to the loss of life, why Boston, 9/11, Virginia Tech and Columbine are all so upsetting to us.  They all did happen to people just like me.  Just like us.   Now I have to confront, head on, my delusion about being in control of my world, each time it happens.  And it’s happening at a rate of what seems like every few weeks.  More frequently if you include the international community.

Intellectually, I knew control was an illusion.  In my heart, for years, I deluded myself that it was also my reality.    So, in addition to 3000 lost souls, on 9/11 I am mourning the loss of my illusion of control over my environment, my loss of innocence.  Each tragedy thereafter serves as salt in that wound.

The world has not changed.  The world was not markedly different on 9/11 compared to 8/11, or on Monday compared to Sunday.   I have changed.   Does that mean I should act differently?  Feel differently about myself or the world?  The world is the same – so do I become paralyzed by fear and anger now anyway?

I think it’s foolish to take unnecessary risks;  these days we need additional precautions.  I’m not going to travel to Syria or walk in unsafe neighborhoods.  I will still lock my house and car doors.  We should still pursue justice for the guilty for the sake of everyone.  But I refuse to let someone else determine how I should feel in this world – whether I walk with peace, love and forgiveness, or fear, hate and vengeance.   I choose to keep my personal power and look for ways to be a positive influence, despite local, national or international events.  I don’t have any control, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take action – write a letter, donate money, volunteer, speak my mind, donate blood, attend a rally.

In addition, I believe it’s also important to remember that if we are in mourning, it is because we have been blessed with a precious gift.  Even though my feeling of almost complete safety was a delusion, it also represents that in this country we enjoy an unparalleled level of affluence and security, even now.  Our brethren in the Middle East do not enjoy even our current level of security, and haven’t for generations.  How can we resent the loss of a privilege that too few in the world enjoy?

It’s also up to each one of us to create meaning out of a senseless loss of life  and our own loss of  innocence.  The Sandy Hook parents have rallied to create peaceful reform in response to their unimaginable loss instead of seeking vengeance and hate.    We too have the choice as to whether to perpetuate violence – whether physical, psychological, financial or emotional, or to foster peace, love and healing.  

We also have the choice as to whether to live in the past with our anger,  in the future with our fear…. or in the present savoring each precious moment on earth.   Yes, feeling that we have no control makes each day feel more precious.  Like the control we never had, our brief time on earth has always been precious, even if we have taken that time for granted.  Maybe, in exchange for our loss of innocence we gain a new appreciation and awareness for what we’ve had all along.



On Loss


My little dog has stopped eating today.  He has refused chicken, salmon, cheese, and even pate.  He ate a few bites of doggie treat, maybe a teaspoonful for his diminished 8 lb frame.

For the last 5 months, he’s been battling a soft-tissue cancer, called a sarcoma.  The tumor has advanced so aggressively that meaningful treatments were either not an option or ineffective.  He’s not even 11, which is young for a little dog to be so sick.

I have been a pet owner since I moved out of the dorm in college.  Cats first, then more recently dogs ever since I acquired first a cat allergy and then a fenced back yard.  So for the last 15 years, I’ve surrounded myself with as many dogs as the county will allow without having to register my home as a kennel, a paltry three animals at a time.  Even still, when out walking my three dogs, I am the recipient of looks of amusement combined with curiosity for the crazy dog-lady.

So, I’ve owned and lost pets for many years, and have accepted that loss as part of the price of having loved my animal companions.  If you’re lucky, they live 10-15 years.  Then they’re gone.   It’s the price of “doing business”.

Dogs have varying degrees of need for proximity, depending on their personality.  Cats are at one end of the spectrum: they pretty much come hang out only when inclined.  Max is at the other end.  He moves heaven and earth to be by my side.  If he is not nearby within peripheral vision, then I know there’s trouble. As a result, this little guy has been particularly special to me.  I can say that to all of you because my other dogs haven’t yet managed to get on the blogosphere.

Max has been my constant companion, devoted friend, and nonjudgmental listener for the last 8 or so years.  Max always forgives me for being grumpy, not paying attention to him, or having morning breath.   He never holds a grudge, tolerates all the undignified things I impose upon him like brushing his teeth, having his temperature measured, carrying him in a bag, or dressing him in a lobster costume.  He never complains, not even now when this tumor is covering most of his head.  He is the Wikipedia definition of the words loyalty, patience and devotion.  He reminds me to not worry about the past or future, to just be in the here and now.  His ability to do that now is an inspiration.

I admit, I’m having trouble being present today in light of this development.

I know non-pet owners can’t understand our obsession with our like-family members. I also know that losing a pet is nowhere near on par with losing an actual human family member.  I guess I have been fortunate to have avoided that experience so far.  Being the daughter of immigrants, the family has been primarily thousands of miles away and largely unknown.  My own immediate family is for now, alive and well.  So am I lucky to not have lost grandparents and aunts and uncles that doted on and spoiled me?  Have I been blessed that I didn’t grow up in a big, noisy family with the extended cousin network, only to lose them to death? My ex has an extended family that, for the most part, has enthusiastically and generously welcomed me in to their big, noisy fold and has been a wonderful surrogate for many years.  Much of that family is still there for me; some are not since the divorce.  I consider it a blessing for the time that I was adopted and accepted into their family.

Since I have spent most of my life without, I have to admit that I have always been somewhat (ok, very) jealous of the folks with those big, noisy families, family dysfunction notwithstanding.  I am especially jealous of people with family members for whom they describe as providing a special, safe, accepting and unconditionally loving place that was reserved just for them.  Am I lucky that I never had to lose someone like that, if I’ve never had someone like that?  Is it true that “it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all”?

I feel like, even today, that the very fortunate ones are those that have, or have had, those special loved ones in their life, not people like me who haven’t had that experience.    I can’t know what it feels like so I have no idea if that’s true for human loved ones.  Most people will love again, and want to love again after loss like death or divorce.  I guess to keep taking the risk over and over again shows that it is better to choose love, even if it may end too soon.

With regard to little Max, I am ever so grateful for every day that he graced my life with his unconditional doggie love and devotion.   I feel my grief is a small price to pay given how he shepherded me safely from one phase of my life to the next, and devoted his life to accompanying me on mine.