Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, died a month ago at the young age of 47 from blunt force trauma while exercising. Apparently he lost his grip on a gym treadmill, fell backward, and hit his head. He was the husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose bestselling book Lean In encouraged women to take control of their lives and careers. Suddenly she had to figure out how to take control of her life and two children after the shocking and unexpected loss of a husband and father in a strange accident which, as USA Today put it, mingled “senselessness” with tragedy.
The term “senseless tragedy” is so commonly heard today that it is applied to almost any dreadful, fatal circumstance. We reference it in relation to everything from murders to drunk driving deaths to terrorism. But what makes a tragedy senseless, and what does that mean for the survivors who cope with it?
Simply put, tragedies are when terrible things happen to good people. All are by definition devastating, but a senseless tragedy is one that seems particularly purposeless, random, meaningless, premature, and unnecessary—like Dave Goldberg’s death. We are left with no one to blame except God or the Fates or bad luck. Heath Ledger’s death in 2008 from accidental prescription drug abuse, at the age of 28, tragically—and senselessly—cut short the talented young actor’s life. On a more personal level, a friend of mine—a decent, good-hearted, good-humored fellow nearly 20 years my junior—recently passed away from a brain tumor.
These last examples seem like a meaningless waste, and meaninglessness doesn’t sit well with human beings. We are hard-wired to ask why, even of tragedies that have no apparent meaning. Answers give us closure; they enable us to make sense of the world, our place in it, and our passing from it. And so questions haunt us in the wake of a senseless tragedy: Why did it have to happen? Is there some lesson in it for us? As the survivors, coming to terms with a loss that seems to have no rhyme or reason is an especially difficult struggle.
I’m not a psychologist, grief counselor, or theologian, so I confess I don’t have consoling answers. And this is a book-length topic that involves a theological or metaphysical mystery which humans have been wrestling with since the origins of humankind. But it seems to me that there are only two choices for grappling with senseless tragedy, the same choices Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius described almost two millennia ago: “Either this world is a chaos,” he mused, “or it is a work of beauty, and though seemingly trackless and confused, governed by a certain order.”
For those who don’t believe in a deity or afterlife, this world is a chaos (one ordered by natural law, but nonetheless without meaning or purpose), and therefore there is no meaning in senseless tragedy—shit just happens. They must derive their consolation, if any, from this resignation before an indifferent universe. For them, Dave Goldberg’s death was a tragic accident and nothing more—he simply stumbled and died, and that’s all there was to it.
Religious believers find, or at least seek, answers and consolation in the certainty that even senseless tragedies are part of a compassionate larger plan, a “certain order,” even if now we “see through a glass, darkly” and cannot comprehend what the plan may be or how this tragedy fits into it.
Either way, tragedy requires from us as survivors a bottomless reservoir of resilience.
In an incredibly eloquent, touching post on Facebook yesterday, Sheryl Sandberg herself mused about this choice and listed resilience among the lessons she learned about coping with grief in the thirty days since her husband’s death. “I have lived thirty years in these thirty days,” she shared “I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.” But “I have learned that resilience can be learned.”
“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice,” she wrote:
You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.
But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.
Whether you believe this world is chaos or an ordered work of beauty, life is an extraordinary gift. But tragedy, senseless or otherwise, is inescapable, and nothing is ever the same afterward. The duty of the living, however, is to keep living, and so we must find the resilience to carry on in a way that honors both the gift of life and the memory of those whom tragedy takes from us.