Gunshots rang out in the quiet neighborhood where only minutes before, a mother had left her young daughter to play with a friend. Two gunmen fled the scene leaving death and carnage behind. A grandmother and two grandchildren were dead. One boy managed to survive by pretending to be dead as well. He called 911.
The community was shocked and angered when they realized that two of their own had perpetrated the heinous act of violence. One of the gunmen turned on himself, slicing his own throat after being tracked down by authorities. The other was found a week later as he committed other illegal activities.
The school was only a few blocks away. The principal, apprised of the situation, gathered resource personnel to work with the children as they mourned for their friends and classmates who had lost their lives. Teachers and staff members alike also needed intervention as they grieved the loss of those they loved and served.
Those directly affected by tragedy often feel vulnerable, as if they have been stripped, beaten and wounded themselves. It may be that loved ones are gone from their lives, seemingly forever. Perhaps treasured possessions have been destroyed, or privacy violated. In each case, the very essence of life has been trampled upon as if it were meaningless. For a moment, time stands still, and sorrow is all there is.
This story is told more often than we realize. Events that we thought were once confined to countries across the globe are invading our everyday existence. We never know who the next victims will be, or the next perpetrators. Where can one find peace? Who can we trust?
Victims are plagued by fear and anger
Tragedy leaves in its wake intense fear. A fear that the perpetrator will return; fear that another tragedy will take place; fear that personal needs will not be met; or fear that one is not good enough to go on. The victim often personalizes these fears, interpreting what has happened as a punishment for wrong-doing. Soul searching brings up incidents where something could have or should have been done to prevent the tragedy. This leads to self-blame and excessive guilt.
Grief may be manifest in the form of anger at those who perpetrated the act of violence, and anyone associated with them. If the crime was heavily publicized, members of the media may come to haunt the family of those who died in an effort to find out how they are feeling and how they will deal with the trauma. Unfortunately, their vulnerability may be manifest as hostility and lack of forgiveness.
Those who are victims of natural disasters have similar feelings. Their anger may be turned toward God, questioning how bad things could happen to good people. Seeing oneself as a victim in tragic circumstances brings feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness — the opposite of peace. Identity is lost in a sea of confusion, not knowing where to turn for help.
Life’s most pressing questions come to the forefront
As the dust settles and the shock wears off, tragedy often leads to questions about the meaning and purpose of life. Relationships and circumstances have changed to the point that previous ways of seeing ourselves are no longer valid. Questions come to mind such as Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Some even wander around lost for a time, unable to resolve their current feelings of grief and pain.
In the article, Moving on After Tragedy, the author illustrates how the various ways of seeing the self are torn away by tragedy. Rather than identifying ourselves by our relationships, what we do, how we feel or what we look like, it is necessary to find a core identity where all of these things don’t matter. We must find an identity that will withstand any storm or circumstance that comes, and we are still considered to be a worthwhile human being.
As we turn to God in our extremity, we grow in our understanding of the atonement
John F. Westfall, in his book Getting Past What You’ll Never Get Over, speaks of the unfairness of life, and how tragedy leaves us without the ability to trust others. We never know when our heart will be dashed to pieces by the acts of another person, or when we will be let down by some thoughtless act or words that hurt. How can we go on? He notes that the Bible does not tell us to trust other people; rather it tells us to love others and to trust God.
Those who turn to God in their tragedy find that there is someone who understands, who has firsthand knowledge of what they have been through, and is ready and willing to provide comfort. As knowledge and understanding is sought through prayer, pondering and searching the scriptures, companionship is found.
We see our Savior, Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross, suffering beyond anything we can imagine, and suddenly, our pain becomes swallowed up in his pain. We realize that he does know, he does understand, and he does love us. He, who lived a sinless life was taken, beaten, stripped, wounded, spit upon, and crowned with thorns; all because of his love for us.
Life takes on new meaning as we realize that there is purpose in our existence. For some reason, we are still alive, and out of respect and honor for those whose lives were not spared, we become better people. We know that life is fragile, and that at any moment, we may go back to our maker. We feel a greater sense of responsibility for the life around us. We find ways to make ourselves and the world a better place as far as we are able.
Then our minds and hearts begin to feel benevolence for others, in spite of the uncertainty that surrounds us. We hear the words of the Savior found in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” It no longer matters what happens, we feel love as never before in our lives, and at last, we have peace.