I'll preface this by saying this post is birthed out of a small argument I'm having on Reddit, but the topic seems like a worthwhile one. (And I'm not getting much other than downvotes for a counterargument over there!)
The initial question is whether or not the death of someone who is very old (95 years or more) should be considered tragic. Some things to consider:
- The overall health and condition of the person.
- Are they in constant state of suffering?
- The wishes of the person.
- Do they actively wish to be dead? This might not even be out of suffering. Some people, as they get to be quite old, are just bored of their lives or want this stage to be over. Anecdotally, my great-grandmother was this way from the ages of 90 and onward. (She quite famously would greet cashiers with "I want to die.")
- Are they still active?
- Do they still find meaning in what they are doing? For example, David Attenborough is 93 years old and is still a big presence on the world stage. Despite his great age, if he were to die, his work would still be ‘cut short.’
- The circumstances by which they die.
- Was it sudden, or did it take a long time? Was it painful? Was it violent?
This list is not exhaustive. I welcome suggestions for what should be added to it.
There is also how we define tragedy. In general terms, it typically just alludes to an event that causes great suffering and distress. I think this is the definition that we are more concerned with. Alternatively, there is the theatrical definition of tragedy, which is more tied to the leading character suffering some major downfall at the end of the narrative. While we could construe the death of someone in real life this way, it seems to be a bit of a stretch as most of us do not live out our lives in three-act structures with a clear climax and finale. (I’m going to rule out this definition now, if not just for the sake of argument.)
Balancing all of these thoughts, I think the crux of where disagreement lies is in how we feel about death for the deceased versus our own selfish desires. Bringing this back to my anecdote, about twenty years ago, my great-grandmother passed at the age of 94. She spent at least the last 5 years of her life pleading to God to finally take her. Her health was fine. She lived in her house, alone, fully capable of maintaining it (and herself). In fact, in the year prior to her death, she was so physically active that she painted all 200 feet of her white picket fence! By all means, she was not physically suffering. She just simply wanted to go.
Then she did. I think the group consensus was something akin to, “Well, I guess she finally got what she wanted. I’m going to miss her.” It was a feeling of simultaneously being happy for her and grief for ourselves.
To which, does this make for a tragedy?
Some might call it splitting hairs, but what I am arguing is that the death itself was not tragic. What is tragic is our loss of the ability to interact with that person and the feelings of grief that follow. I cannot help but feel these are ultimately separate things that we have such a difficult time reconciling. Part of life is death, and as long as we revere life, we must also revere the last part of it. If we did this better, we might have an easier time accepting things like medical-assistance-in-dying. It is for this reason that I say, death, by default, does not necessitate tragedy.
However while death is not necessarily tragic, I do think there are a multitude of conditions that would make death sufficiently tragic. Looking back at my list above, the death of a young healthy person would be considered tragic. Suppose someone was violently beheaded; this could be considered tragic. Even suppose that the 93-year-old David Attenborough passed away, I would think his death to be tragic as he wanted to offer more to the world.
Anyway, I think I’ve rambled enough. What are your thoughts?