I watched a man die the other day.
It was 6:15pm on a Tuesday, and a friend and I were on our way to the gym. An elderly man stumbled, then fell, a couple of metres in front of us. He might have been homeless, and my first thought was that he was probably drunk (he wasn’t). By 6:31pm, he was dead.
When I close my eyes to sleep all I see is his face, and his frail little body convulsing in time with the CPR a passing first aid offer administered. I don’t sleep.
Partly because I feel (understandably if not rightly) guilty. What if I had done more? What if we had realised sooner that it was serious? What if I’d remembered better my own first aid training from high school? What if we’d used different words on the phone to the emergency services? What if they’d come sooner?
But that isn’t the whole picture.
His death, is a tragedy. I didn’t know the man, and I didn’t know his name. I don’t know the cause of death. I don’t know if he was homeless. I don’t know if he had children or grandchildren or a partner. I’m guessing he was no one significant, as no newspaper has reported it.
His death is a tragedy, but it isn’t my tragedy. At least not the way we usually define it.
Our tolerance of tragedy seems to be limited to three key factors:
1/ Proximity to the victim
2/ Time since the event
3/ The age of the victim
If you lose a partner, or a parent, or a child, we tolerate you crying at your desk, taking some time off, not being okay. If it is a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle or cousin, or neighbor or friend-of-a-friend, our time-to-grieve allowance is subtly shortened. If the event took place a week ago, a month ago, seven years ago, our patience starts to wear thin. Chin up, we say. Get on with life. Don’t dwell on the past. If the dead person is an old person, we say that it was expected. Unsurprising. We imply a lack of foresight in the mourner who dares to feel the shock of loss.
1/ I wasn’t close to the victim. I didn’t know the man.
2/ It happened days ago.
3/ He was old.
All of which perfectly inadequately explain the fact that I feel crushed, stopped-in-my-tracks sad about his death.
There are surely many reasons for this, the easiest being that it is, without doubt, an unpleasant thing to watch somebody die. Then there is the fact that death of any kind reminds us of our own mortality. Or that the randomness, the normalness of going about your everyday life then falling down dead in the street is a scarily possible possibility.
But I think maybe it’s because every tragedy is more than just itself. It is itself, plus every other tragedy you’ve ever experienced. That man is himself, and he is every other death I’ve known.
Tragedy is not singular or finite, it is plural and boundless. And our experience of it rich, and deep and varied and non-linear.
And our understanding, so very slight.