Years ago someone told me about a culture where it was considered more of a tragedy when old people died than when young people died. The belief was that when old people died they took a wealth of knowledge and history that the community needed with them. When young people died, it might be sad for their family, but it did not make much of an impact on the community.
It sounds plausible. It also sounds like one of those things that people say to make it sound like other cultures are better than ours, like children in the Amazon can use a machete and our kids have their grapes cut in half for them.
Last week my great-aunt died. She was 95. Many people mentioned how wonderful it was that she lived such a long life. When people expressed their sympathies to me, I made sure to acknowledge that dying at 95 was sad, but not a tragedy.
I did not want anyone to think I was laying claim to more sympathy than that to which I was entitled. But I did think about that mythic culture that mourned the old more than the young. Is it worse to lose a potentially great person than to lose an actual great person?
A few years ago a friend of mine’s father died. In his prime he had been a New York Times bestselling author. There were movie rights sold to his books, he was well known, and then, he slipped in to obscurity. My friend tried to get an obituary of his father published in the New York Times, but they were not interested. At the time I had a freelance job writing book reviews of “literary fiction.” The authors I reviewed were similar to my friend’s father. I could tell you the titles of some books I was the first to review, and you would know them, but not be able to tell me what had happened to the author since. For months I could not stop thinking of the fate of these authors. It seemed tragic to me, to reach success, and then keep going, never really peaking or flaming out.
Today I received a private message on a Facebook account that I manage for a client.
I don’t know who to reach out to about this, but a very dear person in my life worked for you guys and recently passed away. Her name was S. I don’t know if she had close friends from work but if so, I wanted to leave my contact information for anyone that wants to reach out regarding a Celebration of Life. My name is A, and I can be reached by Facebook, email, or phone. I know X Corp is probably a large place but I hope this information can get to the right people.
I wrote her back and expressed my sympathies. I asked her if she knew for what department her friend had worked, or when. She did not. She knew that she had been interested in one day becoming a programmer and that she had left on medical leave some time this summer.
I wondered about that. Was it more of a tragedy to die leaving behind millions who would feel your loss, or to die leaving behind a few friends unsure of where you worked? Is it more of a tragedy to die at the height of your career, to be Jonathan Larson, dying just before the premiere of Rent, or to be S, dying with the hope of one day becoming a programmer.
Here is the answer: Yes.
There is no hierarchy of grief.
Each loss diminishes us, each death is a tragedy.