Is Tragedy Contagious?: How We Can Protect Ourselves and Still Help
This Kind of Thing Doesn't Happen To Us
Is tragedy contagious? It seems like a silly question, right? But pay attention to your response the next time you read the news. Note the moment that you take a tragic local story and distance yourself from it. Our minds will do this automatically, and so smoothly that we often don't even notice, and the further the physical distance between us and the event, the easier it is for us to distance ourselves emotionally. We never articulate what we're doing, because if we did, we would realize how absurd it is. It isn't all bad, though. This distancing is a basic protection mechanism. We couldn't survive the intensity of emotion we would experience if every tragedy everywhere affected us in the same way. The problem comes when we distance ourselves emotionally from those in our own community, believing we are immune from tragedy ourselves as long as we don't get too close.
When I was twenty, my nineteen year old brother was killed in a car accident. He and his friends had been travelling back home from spring break down south. There were four of them in the car when the tractor trailer hit them broadside, but John was the only one killed. I'll never forget the moment I heard the news. It was the moment that I became one of "them," those people that things like that happened to. I remember being aware, very soon after the accident, that we could never be "us" again, we could never even pretend to be immune again. I had known people who had lived through more than one tragedy. Once you became one of "them", there was no protection or illusion of protection anymore. It was as though I was walking along a road and someone punched me hard to the side of the head, so hard that it turned my body in a completely different direction and I could never get turned back again.
The Tragedy Divide
Changing direction, changing identity, and having my reality change before my eyes might have been manageable, if the tragedy of my brother's death hadn't also isolated me from the very people who could have helped me. There was the obvious issue of my family members and the differences in the way we were coping. We couldn't help one another. But, for me, the surprise was how alienated I felt from everyone else. This tragedy hadn't happened to them, and while they showed up in droves with food, and for John's funeral, they didn't get it, and honestly, they didn't want to. Later, as a grief counselor and minister I saw this happen again and again. Those who had experienced a tragedy underwent a kind of quarantine. Everyone else was afraid it might be contagious.
As I said, people did the expected things, but the common humanity we had shared prior to John's death was gone. They were immune and we had proven that we weren't. No one really wanted to be that close to us. We appreciated what they did do for us, but more than that, we envied them because we knew we couldn't go back. We prayed, though...we prayed that they would never become one of us.
As a minister I have visited people in the hospital a lot. Quite often I'll approach the hospital room and find a sign posted, indicating that visitors need to take certain precautions before entering the room, for the patient's sake and their own. The most extreme situation I ever dealt with in that context was that of a woman who had Necrotizing Fasciitis. Infection was causing her skin to be eaten away. Her body was wrapped in gauze that had to be changed every day. She was dying. For me to be able to visit her, I had to be covered from head to toe in special hospital clothing, a hat, mask, gloves, a jumpsuit, and booties. Things were bad enough for her already. She didn't need to contract additional infections. And I was taking a risk by entering her room. We all were. This infection was very contagious, and almost always fatal. I would never have dreamed of entering her room without those precautions in place. And I would never have dreamed of refusing to visit her.
Tragedy is much like that woman's situation. It is a condition or disease that terrifies us, that eats away at those who experience it, that might tempt us to stay away lest we contract it. There is a fair amount of superstition involved here as well. Part of us truly believes that we can tempt fate, or that being too close to someone who is grieving could cause God to decide that we could handle it alright ourselves. So what we tend to do is either stay away, convincing ourselves that we couldn't help anyway, or wear a full suit of armor, so even if we are present, we cannot be touched or affected.
So when our basic instinct is to overprotect ourselves to the point that we can't be of any comfort, or to stay away, how can we override that and be truly present for those whose lives have been torn apart by tragedy? What are the sensible preparations and precautions we should take so we can safely enter their space without causing ourselves, or, God forbid, causing them additional harm?
First, we can accept that tragedy is a part of our human existence and that it does not imply judgement. This may seem obvious, but along with our tendency toward superstition, our culture also hangs on to ancient beliefs that say that people who experience tragedy deserve it somehow. This is the oldest form of distancing. If we believe that tragedy is a punishment, we can simply avoid it by following certain rules and laws, right? If you believe that, read the book of Job sometime, or meditate on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. These beliefs are not only religious, though. They are very deeply rooted in our culture. So, we need to be aware of absurdity of this and dismiss it before we seek to comfort or console.
Second, we need to disavow ourselves of the notion that tragedy can be caught like a disease. Yes, it will be painful for us to provide solace to those who are grieving, but it is not fatal. Know this before you seek to console and have your own emotional support in place.
Third, we can take the snake oil out of our bags and leave it on the side of the road somewhere. You can't cure Necrotizing Fasciitis with snake oil and you can't "cure" overwhelming grief with platitudes, no matter how sensible they might seem. Set them aside and prepare yourself to be comfortable with silence.
The "Cure" for Tragedy
Why does it matter what we believe about tragedy? It matters because we do want to help. We understand on a basic level that the "cure" for the overwhelming grief of tragedy is community. We get that we are not meant to grieve alone, and somewhere down deep, even though tragedy isn't contagious, we know that it will visit most of us sometime in our lives and we won't want to be abandoned when it does. But, even knowing these things, we tend to muddle through without consciously preparing ourselves properly to be of help. We would never enter the room of a patient suffering from a contagious disease or immune issue without taking the proper precautions. It would be incredibly irresponsible to do so. So why do we attempt to help those who have suffered a tragedy without any preparation at all? We may think that just showing up is enough, but maybe it isn't. I felt very alone as I tried to make sense of my brother's death. It was a long time before I was able to see that it was the distance created between "us" and "them" that made it even harder for me and for my family. There was nothing that could have taken away the grief we felt at his untimely death, but going through it with a community that was really present with us would have helped support the process and possibly made it healthier for us. Tragedy is not contagious. We owe it to those in our communities who experience tragedy to stop acting as though it is.