Thursday 19 September 2019

Stella O'Malley: 'None of us can keep loved ones safe all the time - but we can all be compassionate if tragedy strikes'

Nora Quoirin. Photo: Lucie Blackman Trust/Family handout/PA Wire
Nora Quoirin. Photo: Lucie Blackman Trust/Family handout/PA Wire
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

The spate of recent reports about harrowing tragedies has left many of us feeling almost overwhelmed with sympathy and sadness for the grieving families who are left behind.

Pictures and reports about the tragic deaths of 15-year-old Nóra Quoirin, four-year-old Avery Greene from Cork, who died in a swimming pool in Spain, and also of the teenagers Jack Downey and Jessica Moore, who recently died in tragic circumstances, are all so unspeakably sad many of us question whether there is anything we can do to help.

But the truth is there is little we can do. We can't prevent terrible tragedies, and when they inevitably occur, the awful finality of death means we can do little but watch helplessly as others try to cope with their unimaginable grief.

The five stages of grief and loss are well-known - originally developed by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross for those who were diagnosed with a terminal illness - they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The problem with these stages of loss though, is that our response to losing a loved one can be very complicated.

We don't march through them in lock-step - indeed some of us might dash through all but one of the stages and then remain in there for a very long time. Others might repeat certain stages.

We process our grief and loss in many complex ways; and Kubler-Ross wrote regretfully at the end of her career she believed her stages had been misunderstood.

Grief isn't linear and it can feel pressurising when we feel we aren't doing grief "right". The old-fashioned system of wearing mourning clothes had a lot of merit as it was a visual aid to communicate that those who wore black might need to rely more upon the kindness of others.

Because thankfully, when something awful happens, the rest of us often feel a deep sense of compassion and we can often be motivated to try to relieve suffering in any way possible.

Although some people are judgmental about our collective distress in the fact of public tragedy, this well of feeling can be a reflection of a society that cares deeply about the vulnerable. Perhaps if we were a colder, less connected society, we would shrug our shoulders and maintain a distance; but, instead, many of us feel in some strange way deeply distressed by public tragedies.

Some of us might suddenly feel compelled to speak about what has happened to random strangers this week in a bid to make sense of it all and most of us wish to help these grieving families as we know deep down that there but for the grace of God go we.

Indeed, the main reason why so many people are discussing these sad stories is because most of us identify with these kids and their families. We know the young and the vulnerable rely upon the rest of us in society to look after them and we also know that sometimes, as a result of unforeseen circumstances, we earnest protectors can't manage to keep everybody safe at all times.

Lightning can strike. Children can go wandering. Teenagers can be curious. Bad people can attack. And sometimes there is nothing anybody can do to prevent these events from happening.

When musician Nick Cave's 15-year-old son, Arthur, fell from a cliff and died after he tried LSD, Cave later commented: "It seems to me that if we love, we grieve. That's the deal. That's the pact." If we open ourselves to loving other people, we immediately make ourselves vulnerable to the terrible grief and loss that can occur when our loved ones die.

And if our loved ones die too soon, if mistakes are made, or if they are too young when they die, then our grief can multiply and become complicated by undeserved feelings of shame and failure as we mistakenly believe that we should be able to keep everyone we love alive, safe and healthy. The terrible truth is, we can't do this. We just don't have that power.

None of us really has any power over life or death - although our powerlessness in the face of tragedy is a fact many of us try to deny.

When a terrible event happens in the public eye many people try to ascertain where mistakes were made, what could have been improved and how this random tragedy could have been prevented.

This is often why certain sad stories seem to attract conspiracy theorists who become very exercised by any tragedies that don't immediately produce a clear and concise summary of events. They are often motivated to create a theory out of random facts so they can feel they understand life. These apparent truth-seekers can be driven by feelings of anxiety that life is uncontrollable and, rather than honestly face the wretched powerlessness we have over life and death, they prefer to focus upon their own version of events.

But the truth is life is often messy and unknowable. Sadly, sometimes through a terribly sad twist of fate, some people's lives are torn apart by random tragedy and there is little any of us can do but remember to be that bit kinder, more compassionate and sympathetic and to appreciate just how lucky we are.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss